Reservoir 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’.