"Rififi," (Du rififi chez les homes), (1955) is a riveting thriller, the granddaddy of all heist/caper movies, and another triumph of French cinema. But the black and white crime drama, French language film was scripted and helmed by an American, Jules Dassin, rather than a Frenchman, and thereby, of course, hangs the tale. For Dassin, a victim of America's 1950s McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist that McCarthyism spawned, went on to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for this cerebral noir caper, and, eventually, to be able to return as a welcome hero to Hollywood.
In a brisk, no second wasted, exciting 118 minutes, we follow Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) as, after his recent release from five years in prison, he plans one last perfect heist: to hit the internationally famous then and now jewelry store Mappin & Webb. To do so, he gathers criminals Jo le Swedois (the Swede-- Carl Möhner), Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel) and Cesar le Milanese - (the Milanese, Jules Dassin himself, who grew a moustache and took a screen name to play the part: contract difficulties had cost the director the actor originally expected to play it). Tony finds his former lover Mado les Grands Bras (Marie Sabouret) who has become the lover of the gangster Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), owner of the night club L'Age D'Or, where she works. Unfortunately, human error does them in in this dark, understated tale: Cesar foolishly gives a priceless ring from the loot to another girl Viviane (Magali Noel, a great French/Italian favorite at the time) who works at Mado's club. The three Grutter brothers quickly figure out the story and demand some of the loot. Tony refuses. The competing gangsters retaliate by kidnapping Jo's five-year old son.
Somehow, Dassin put all this together on a miserly budget, even then, of $200,000. To do so, he had to skimp on his cast. Servais, once a big French star, had not worked for several years because of his severe alcoholism; luckily, the toll his alcoholism had taken on his face could easily be seen as the toll of five years of prison life. Several of the other actors, and of the behind-the camera personnel, had also not worked for several years for various reasons; some of them were green beginners. (Of course, Dassin himself had not worked for a while, due to the Blacklist.) Dassin filmed on the actual streets of Paris -- he couldn't afford back lot sets, and he and his camera traveled all over that beautiful city. He did, however, have to build a false café in the middle of the road, so that Stephanois and his gang could sit "across the street" from Mappin and Webb to plan the job. (M. Webb apparently did really live over his store at that time; he agreed to let them make the film there, although Dassin says he thought the shop owner never would. But there's nothing so priceless as free worldwide publicity.) The director insisted on filming only on damp, overcast days, to establish his mood; that nearly drove his centime-counting producer crazy, Dassin says. The streets, the vehicles, the clothes and the interiors, are all, of course, perfect for the era, and I loved the pinstriped suits and hats the gangsters all wore: well, of course, that was "de rigueur" for gangster pictures at the time.
The movie is most famous, of course, for its extraordinary, silent 30-minute burglary scene, now many times imitated but still the greatest. Dassin explained it by saying the burglars were professionals: they didn't need to talk. This silent scene is 1/3 the film's running time. There isn't even music: Georges Auric, the greatly talented French composer who did the score thought perhaps there should be, and wrote the music. But after Dassin showed him the picture with and without, Auric agreed with the director that the scene should be silent. This scene, to me, graphically showed how physically difficult the burglary was: the men carried suitcases of tools in and worked at the burglary for several very sweaty hours. On the other hand, you also could say the scene was a primer in how to burglarize a store, and, according to the director, the film's scene was imitated in actual burglaries several times - so much so, that Mexico insisted the picture be withdrawn there after playing for eleven weeks. Look closely at the men's footwear during this crucial scene. Several of the men are wearing sneakers, surely footwear they never would have been seen in on the street, and Cesar is actually wearing ballet shoes.
The level of detail throughout the picture is remarkable: at the beginning, we see Jo the Swede get up from a couch where he's been playing with his son. Jo's leg has fallen asleep, and he briefly limps. Many of the son's toys are shown in all their cuteness. Viviane was given a specially-written song at the night club - then anyway, a scene also "de rigueur" in gangster films--so that she could tell the audience what "rififi," a word from Parisian argot--slang--meant. Rough and tumble, apparently: roughhousing, rough trade. No character in the movie ever utters the word. The movie was ostensibly based on a novel of the same name, written in deepest Parisian argot, so that few people--not Dassin either--could understand it. But Dassin hardly used the novel, which he characterized as nasty - including necrophiliac scenes; and racist, with the villains Arab North Africans (the director changed them to French, with Germanic names). The ending of the film is as memorable as they come. I've always wondered whether the child's obstreperous behavior there, as he wears a cowboy costume and shoots his fake six-shooter, was intended by Dassin as a comment on recent American behavior. The director had not worked for five years in Hollywood, due to his blacklisting, and hostile forces, including Clare Booth Luce, then the ambassador to Italy, well-known playwright, and wife of Henry Luce of Time magazine, took away a proposed Italian movie from him. The great French communist director Jacques Becker is said to have helped Dassin to get RIFIFI. Becker was soon to make his own gangland masterpiece Touchez Pas Au Grisbi  [DVD], which resembles Dassin's film in several ways; not least that Becker was able to afford that great French star Jean Gabin, because his career had been in decline for several years. On his return to Hollywood, Dassin made the popular, full-color caper film Topkapi [DVD]. Believe me; it doesn't hold a candle to RIFIFI. And this is one film that should never be remade.
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