The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, born in 1911, acclaimed American director Jules Dassin (who died in 2008) endured at the hands of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the late-nineteen-forties, an ordeal that must have plunged him into a world every bit as blighted by feelings of betrayal, hopelessness and despair as those usually afflicting the sort of characters who inhabit the tough, postwar crime movies he’d previously been responsible for in Hollywood: titles like “Brute Force” and Naked City” -- which were among those films whose cause was later to be championed by French critics who invented the retrospective term Film Noir to accommodate a host of such gritty, downbeat 1940s Hollywood crime melodramas. Dassin, who was blacklisted after he was accused of being a Communist sympathiser by a former colleague during the McCarthy hearings, was forced to leave the U.S. in search of work in Europe, and after shooting on location in London where he had just finished the now much-admired British film “Night and the City” in 1950, found the persecutory shadow of his tormentors extended even this far across the Atlantic, with stars of his prospective films being threatened with the ruination of their careers and potential producers told to quietly drop him if they ever wanted to see distribution for their films in the U.S. in the future.
“Rififi” was a low budget French language production with a small cast and no big names, based on a sensationalist French crime novel by Auguste le Breton about an audacious jewellery heist, which Dassin hated for its racism and various other unsavoury and un-filmable elements it contained such as, for instance, necrophilia! Nevertheless, the director hadn’t made a film in five years, so reluctantly set to work on a script with the collaboration of René Wheeler, replacing the original’s North African villains with shady French crime lords instead -- but not Americans, as the film’s producer assumed he would. Ironically, the film came out in 1955 -- the same year in which French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton made the first attempt to define the parameters of Film Noir in their 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953. “Rififi” was immediately acclaimed by critics such as François Truffaut, who recognised the American Noir influence in Dassin’s authentic use of real-life street locations and the vivid style of characterisation which seemed so unlike most popular French crime movies at the time. The film still works best seen as a peculiarly French-American hybrid. Critics have subsequently found in it the common French Noir crime movie motif of an ex-con with a dark past struggling to cope with the present as he faces past betrayals – a motif that is generally taken as a metaphor for France’s own bitter struggle as a nation to come to terms with a dark past under German Occupation as it emerged under the harsh light of the postwar settlement. But in the specific case of “Rififi”, Dassin’s own personal past experiences of betrayal and victimisation cannot help but also inform our interpretation of this tale of criminal fraternity and comradeship that ends ultimately in an unnecessary betrayal, all taking place in the closed, partial world of France’s criminal underworld of the ‘50s.
The film is a heist movie, a popular sub-genre at the time in French noir movies whose films tended to follow a well -established structure that “Rififi” does not deviate from in any significant fashion. Rather than the often light-hearted tone of most French heist/caper movies of the period though, Dassin takes the elements of vérité documentary realism he’d made such a prominent feature in several of his American films, most notably “The Naked City” which was shot entirely on location on crowded New York City streets, and brings a similarly tangible sense of place to his excursion into the rough tough world of French gangsters, in a story grounded in the familial structures found within the interrelationships between its outlaw characters. The word ‘Rififi’ is meant to be criminal slang for the particular sort of trouble that occupies those who exist in this underworld, and indicates the closed world and values of the tough guy gangster. Dassin locates these people among down-at-heel bistros, street-front cafes and tenements crouched in shady red light districts on the rain soaked streets of a Paris captured in wintertime, the film locations scouted by Dassin himself as he wandered about the city before production on the film began.
The action starts with the washed-up, down and out ex-jailbird Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais,) recently ejected from prison, old and sickly, his hangdog Bogartian demeanour forever shrouded by a choking smog of tobacco smoke seen hanging around like a wreath during the backroom card game that first introduces the character. Tony took the full five year stretch for his last jewel heist rather than grass up his younger accomplice Jo (Carl Möhner), since he’s also the dotting Godfather to the younger man’s infant son, and is welcomed back into the bosom of Jo’s family with open arms. Career criminal Jo is also about to pull another job with his happy-go-lucky and sharp-suited Italian pal Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel) and the two want the expert eye of their mentor Tony in on the game now that he’s back on the streets. Feeling old and past his prime, Tony is unwilling to be a part of the couple’s somewhat crude plan to steal some expensive rocks from the front store window of an exclusive Parisian Jewellers on the Rue de Rivoli, but changes his mind after discovering his former lover Mado (Marie Sabouret) has been shacking up with violent mob boss Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) while he was away in prison, and finds her now working as a hostess in a classy Parisian cabaret nightspot Grutter owns with his wayward drug-addicted brother Remi (Robert Hossein).
Taking a scorched-earth policy to the past in his attempt to emotionally exorcise the memory of the now expensively-kept Mado and her evident betrayal, not only does Tony agree to take part in Jo and Mario’s robbery, but he upgrades their plot from a simple traffic light smash-and-grab into a meticulously planned and rehearsed heist that has as its aim the intention of stealing the entire contents of the target store’s heavy safe, which comes to a cool 200,000,000 francs! The trio enlist the help of a debonair but brilliant safe-cracker -- an Italian friend of Mario’s called Cesar (Jules Dassin himself, acting under the alias Perlo Vita), and set about planning the perfect crime.
Structurally, the film takes the form of a traditional three act drama. In the first part of the movie the team is seen coming together to plan their caper, the centrepiece then becomes the actual staging of the robbery itself, while in the final act we are made witness to the fraught aftermath of the main event when things inevitably start to go wrong and the true cost of the wages of sin is payed with interest. The concept of Family is at the centre of everything we see here. Jo and Mario are depicted in thriving relationships, Jo with a son and a loving wife Louise (Janine Darcey) and Mario co-habiting with the beautiful Viviane (Magali Noël), who’s responsible for supplying the film with a brief flash of nudity that, while coy, would have been out of the question in U.S. or British cinema at the time. Tony has previously made Jo his protégé and is treated as a member of their family by both husband and wife; even their son calls the elder man ‘uncle’. The most important family in the film, though, derives from the fellowship of the men themselves: newcomer Cesar has to earn his place, not just with a recommendation from Mario as a brilliant safe-cracker, but by slotting into the group dynamic and becoming friends with Tony and Jo. Even the hood Grutter is motivated by the desire to build a family around himself ,dysfunctional though it turns out to be -- ‘stealing’ Tony’s moll and keeping her with expensive luxuries, and tolerating the repeated demands for drugs (or money to buy drugs), made by his no-good addict brother. The fact that Mado’s heart is always with Tony despite the rings and fur coats and expensive clothes Grutter buys her, and despite Tony’s violent revenge (stripping her naked of her ill-got acquisitions and beating her with a belt!) is the ultimate irony, since the ‘rififi’ gangster lifestyle and the ruthless quest for wealth has built and nurtured these relationships, but is of no ultimate importance in their maintenance.
The ‘family’ of men who take on this apparently impossible heist job are shown bonding through the meticulous planning of the details of the task that has brought them all together; they scout the layout of the jewellery store and discover the particular make of the safe, and then, in their backstreet cellar hideout, set about attempting to work out a method of defeating the store’s apparently fool-proof alarm system with a professional thoroughness. The film depicts every stage of this process with unerring accuracy, which led to it being banned in some countries because it offered text book lessons in burglary! The half-hour sequence in which the robbery takes place is the most often cited section of the movie; variations on such sequences have been common features of films in this genre since, but Dassin’s decision to shoot the whole thing in complete silence, with no dialogue and no music – just the natural sounds of the well-drilled men at their work – focuses attention on the complete harmony of their working relationship, emphasising the self-contained nature of their world and the complete understanding each has of their role in the group, again reiterating the self-made family theme. It’s also a suspense sequence of unparalleled beauty and control, shot amongst perfectly rendered noir shadows by cinematographer Philippe Agostini.
The final section of the film is where it veers sharply into the gritty violent territory more usually associated with Dassin’s work and with American Noir thrillers in general. One thoughtless mistake of greed by one member of the gang leads Grutter, still smarting over Mado leaving him after Tony’s unexpected return, to the realisation that Tony and his gang are behind the robbery that is on every newspaper front page, and this in turn leads to betrayal, kidnap, murder and a violence that is all the more devastating for Dassin having built up our empathy with the characters throughout the first half of the movie so assiduously. “Rififi” is a beautiful, clever film, able to riff on the common romantic perception of movie gangsters (a cabaret scene in which a sultry chanteuse sings and acts out a routine in front of a silhouetted gangster brilliantly sums up this clichéd image, while at the same time self-reflexively foreshadowing the outcome of the film itself) but also bringing real human understanding and sociological insight to a way of life that is doomed to end badly from the start. The tension builds to a tragic ironic ending that is no less devastating for its inevitability. In a film that is replete with many amazing moments, perhaps the best is saved till last when a desperate Tony makes one last delirious, giddy car trip through the whirring streets of Paris – a scene shot and choreographed and edited to such a pitch of perfection it’s a lyrical masterpiece of the cinema by itself.
Released as part of Arrow Academy’s new classic world cinema imprint, “Rififi” gets a stunning HD transfer on the Blu-ray disc included as part of this duel-disc edition. The detail and clarity are excellent throughout on the restored print and the Blu-ray also features some exclusive extras in the form of an interview with Jules Dassin in which he talks about the blacklisting and his subsequent struggle to survive in Europe after five years without work, as well as the making of “Rififi”. There is also a touching interview with an elderly Dassin, conducted much later at the BFI Southbank, with questions taken from the audience after a screening of the film. Both Blu-ray and DVD versions include the theatrical trailer and an insightful 30 minute introduction by Ginette Vincendea, professor of film studies at King’s College London. The package comes with a booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by filmmaker David Cairns, as well as material by author Alastair Phillips, Francois Truffaut and John Trevelyan. The presentation packaging includes the choice of three poster designs and a brand new especially commissioned piece of artwork. This is a very warmly recommended release.