Rififi

PhotobucketReservoir Dogs, Mission: Impossible, Ocean’s Eleven. They all owe a huge debt to Rififi. The 1955 French crime caper is considered by many to be THE heist film, the one by which all others must be judged. It’s hard to disagree. It captivates with crackerjack dialogue, a dynamic cast and a level of detail rarely found in the cinema. How detailed? Well, let’s just say the picture was banned in some countries. Not because of sex or violence, but for the burglary featured at the center of the plot. The realistic presentation on how they commit the robbery made people uncomfortable. It’s a fascinating 30 minute highlight notably lacking in dialogue or music. The actor’s faces and cinematography tell the story. It’s one of those exhibitions that while unfolding, you forget you’re even watching a film. It’s simply you and the flickering images on the screen. Time seems to stand still.

In a career of highlights, Rififi remains American director Jules Dassin’ s most celebrated work. His output spanned 4 decades that was beset with hardship in the McCarthy era. He initially made his mark in Hollywood with film noirs like Brute Force and The Naked City in the 1940s. During production of the Richard Widmark movie, Night and the City, he was accused of Communist Party affiliations in his past. After being blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he moved to France. Following a slow start, Rififi was his first effort there. It was a success and he won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. His profession revived, he would later go on to direct Never on Sunday (1960) and another lighthearted thriller inspired by his own Rififi, Topkapi (1964).

Rififi is a masterpiece employing unknown, but engaging actors that bring life to a story that is endlessly entertaining. You gotta love a script that has the audience rooting for the criminal’s victory in breaking the law. What would any crime movie be without colorful characters that form our core crew. Tony le Stéphanois is a gangster recently released from a 5 year prison term. He’s the elder statesman of the group, and the godfather to the son of his close friend Jo. Jo approaches Tony for one last diamond heist. Also joining them are a likeable Italian named Mario. His compatriot, César, offers his safecracking skills. He’s played by none other than the director himself under the pseudonym Perlo Vita. The jewelry theft is the centerpiece of the saga, but it’s not the climax. The heist is only one component of this adventure. There’s a pulse pounding sequence of events that follows that makes this account a satisfying commentary on human weakness. One particularly memorable scene shows the violent consequences of betrayal. There’s honor among thieves.

So what does Rififi mean anyway? It’s adapted from Auguste le Breton’s novel Du rififi chez les hommes. The word is referenced in a song that Viviane, a sexy singer at the L’Age D’Or nightclub, sings. But the title is never said by any other actor. It’s basically Parisian street slang that roughly translates to ‘rough n’ tumble’.

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8 Responses to “Rififi”

  1. Seems like a great addition to my watchlist. Nice review.

  2. Great review of a film I’ve been wanting to see for years. I’ve even considered importing it…

  3. Great review! Had never heard of Rififi before but you’ve gotten me interested.

  4. good review mark. besides the 5 stars, the fact that it influenced Mission Impossible alone makes me want to see this already. now i will just need to search for it.

  5. I had never heard of this movie, so didn’t know what to expect. I was amazed at how awesome it was. That brilliant robbery seemed like it was really happening, the silence, the intensity. I loved it!

  6. I agree completely. “Rififi” is maybe the best film of its type ever.

    There are a couple of points worth making about its background though. Jules Dassin had been working in Hollywood when Robert Siodmak directed two very good crime films, “The Killers” and “Criss Cross”, in both of which a robbery takes place that’s crucial to the plot and takes up a lot of screen time. And a couple of years later John Huston made “The Asphalt Jungle”, which proved to be the prototype for films of this sort. In France Jacques Becker directed “Touchez Pas au Grisbi” in 1954, and Jean Pierre Melville did “Bob le Flambeur” a year or two later, maybe preceding “Rififi” or maybe influenced by it; I’m not sure.

    Whatever contributed to the movie’s being as good as it was though, it does stand out among Jules Dassin’s efforts. Most of the films he made before 1948 were tendentious or unsubtle or both, “Brute Force” being a prime example. By the time he made “The Naked City” and then “Night and the City”, he’d learned the knack of toning down his characters so they’d be more believeable and he’d mastered the kind of on-location shooting he put to such good use in “Rififi”. It was a style that proved to be of more lasting interest to Becker and Melville than to Jules Dassin though. Whatever adjectives you might apply to Dassin’s later films like “Never on Sunday” or “Topkapi”, understated and subtle are not among them. Who knows? Maybe it was Melina Mercouri’s extravagant personality that undid the progress her boyfriend had made toward a simpler, more convincing style. Whatever the case and however it happened, I guess we ought to be glad Jules Dassin did get it right at least once and spectacularly so.

    • Your knowledge of classic films is so thorough. You’ve given me a nice list of titles to check out. The Killers (1946) features Burt Lancaster in his screen debut. Brute Force, his second film, which you found heavy-handed, even has some acclaim as well. As you’ve pointed out, Rififi certainly wasn’t the first crime film with a robbery, but it certainly was a very influential one. Thanks for your well informed comments.

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