Rififi (1955) *****
Directed by Jules Dassin
I can’t imagine that a better heist film has ever been made, and it will take a real feat of filmmaking to top it in the future. Rififi doesn’t just contain an extremely satisfying heist, but it also works extremely well as an edge of the seat thriller! The Lavender Hill Mob surprised me because it was a heist film with a grand sense of humor. Rififi completely floored me because it is a heist film that isn’t simply trying to entertain. I’d be hard-pressed to call Rififi a good time at the movies. For sure, it’s not a light movie. Instead, Rififi is a pitch black psychological thriller that forces the viewer to root for characters on screen mainly because the thought of what would happen if they do not succeed is enough to curdle your blood.
This disturbing French masterpiece directed by the great Jules Dassin spends its first hour establishing characters and executing the crime itself. We meet Tony le Stephanois, portrayed by Jean Servais, a thug who was just released from jail after serving five years. Tony is obviously quite sick, though we never learn his illness. Confused about what exactly he will do for the rest of his life, he visits his brother Jo, his sister-in-law Louise and their five year old son. The only time we see Tony’s humanity occurs when he’s interacting with his young nephew.
Jo and his friend Mario try to convince Tony to help them pull a heist to steal a few pieces of jewelry out of a window display. At first, Tony isn’t interested—that is until he revisits his old stomping ground, a nightclub called L ’Age d ’Or. It’s here that he hears a nightclub singer sing a song called “Rififi” about a man that’s no good when he comes back into the life of the woman he once loved. This entices Tony to visit his ex-girlfriend Mado, who is now dating the nightclub owner, a thug named Louis Grutter.
Mado is far from happy to see Tony, probably because she’s scared to death of him and for good reason. He steals her jewels and forces her to strip nude before beating her a handful of times with a belt. Any hope Tony has of turning a new leaf is now shattered. In his mind, he will be a monster until the day he dies.
Tony accepts Jo and Mario’s offer, and with the help of Mario’s Italian friend Cesar, played by Jules Dassin himself, they concoct a plan to steal from the safe rather than the window display of the jewelry store. Quite a bit of planning must go into the heist since the store is rigged with alarms and the police constantly canvas that area at night. For about thirty minutes while they execute their crime successfully, there is no dialogue at all, though quite a bit of communication occurs through gestures and even pantomime. When I became aware of the lack of speaking, I tried to guess exactly when they would begin talking again. I predicted that the moment they had the jewels safely away from the store, someone would start talking, and you know what? I was right on the money!
While in The Lavender Hill Mob, the cops pursue the criminals, in Rififi, Grutter and his two brothers (one of whom is a heavy drug addict) decide to pursue Tony and his gang after Cesar stupidly gives an item of stolen jewelry to the nightclub singer mentioned earlier which he has developed quite an attraction to. This one dumb mistake results in murder, and worse off, kidnapping.
The final half hour of the film utilizes one of my pet peeves—a child in danger. Here, though, the heightened emotional response we offer the film because it’s a kid and not an adult is used not to manipulate, but instead to make us care for Tony, which otherwise isn’t easy to do. We’ve seen Tony abuse a woman, refuse to trade money for the boy, and even kill one of his friends. Had he not tried to search for the boy, I probably wouldn’t care if Tony lived or died. The child humanizes the character temporarily, and when we see a dangerous car ride at the end of the movie, we root for the boy to be brought home safely. I won’t give away the ending, but once the boy is removed from Tony’s responsibility, I went right back to not caring whether he lives or dies. It’s absolutely brilliant how this movie used a second character in order to make me care temporarily for the first character.
Dassin’s direction is stellar, giving us camera edits and angles which not only add to the tension, but also bring a crisp, gorgeous aesthetic to the black and white photography. The patience of the heist itself makes for an absolutely fascinating sequence, and the film’s disturbing final act doesn’t shy away from being almost uncomfortably brutal in tone. Even in the “Rififi” song number, Dassin puts forward much effort to maintain the film’s high visual quality.
So far in the Filmspotting Classic Heist Marathon, I have yet to see a standard heist movie. The Lavender Hill Mob is heist-comedy while Rififi is heist-dark thriller. Rififi disturbed me while also presenting top notch acting, writing and directing. The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) states that a remake bearing the same name is set to open in 2009. Rififi was grim enough that I’m not sure I want to subject myself to seeing an R-rated ultra-violent version of the film I just saw. I hope the remake is as good as the original, but I’m betting that the original will be much better. Why be so pessimistic? Well, maybe because Rififi is better than ninety-five percent of movies that I’ve seen. Dassin’s 1955 version has the odds on its side.