Director: Jules Dassin
Jules Dassin, René Wheeler, & Auguste le Breton (based on the novel by
Auguste le Breton)
|Stars: Jean Servais (Tony le Stephanois), Carl Möhner (Joe Le Suedois), Robert Manuel
(Mario), Jules Dassin (Cesar), Magali Nsel (Viviane), Marie Sabouret (Mado), Janine
|Year of Release: 1955
Whenever anyone writes or talks about Jules Dassin's Rififi (Du rififi chez
les hommes), the discussion inevitable centers on the heist sequence. And why not?
Sustained for a stunning half-hour in almost total silence (no dialogue, no extradiegetic
musical score), it is a self-contained, near-perfect gem of filmmaking at its finest, an
engrossing visual ode to the power of men working together, even if the common cause here
is a criminal one. There's nothing flashy about the sequence. Rather, it works because of the
efficiency and precision of Dassin's steady camera, which captivates us with the long hours
of meticulous work involved--breaking through an apartment ceiling into the jewelry store
below, disarming the burglar-alarm system, carefully drilling into the safe and then using an
elaborate device that is much like a giant can opener to slowly saw through the metal and
retrieve the millions of dollars worth of diamonds inside. Dassin makes the time fly by,
although we are, at the same time, acutely aware of the enormous amount of time this heist
requires, which shows in the tired, but fulfilled eyes and sweaty faces of the men once it is
over. Copied numerous times but never quite equaled, this sequence will always remain in
the pantheon of great movie moments.
Of course, if this were all that Rififi had to offer, it would not be the great movie
that it is. There are too many movies out there that have one great sequence surrounded on
either side by less-than-stellar material. What makes Rififi memorable beyond this
one heist sequence is the drama and human truth that surrounds it on both sides. The first
half of the movie develops the characters and their various plights, detailing the preparation
for the heist and making clear the vast stakes that are involved. The second half of the movie
following the heist turns from triumph to tragedy, as human weakness starts the ball of
destruction rolling, sending the main characters down an existential path of doom.
In this way, Rififi has a larger, grander sense of tragedy than many crime films of
its type. When it comes to the film's final sequence, a delirious car ride through Paris in a
literal race against death that I would argue is just as brilliant as the heist sequence, we are so
deeply involved with the characters that the melodramatic overture of the material achieves
the harsh sting of reality.
The characters in Rififi are not the caricatures that often populate gangster films,
but rather flawed people for whom we develop intense attachments. Played mostly by
then-unknowns, the men and women of Rififi are ordinary criminals--not
larger-than-life Bogart types or the charismatic psychopaths played by James Cagney, but
rather recognizable human beings who happen to have chosen, for various reasons, a life of
crime. Fundamentally decent at heart, they are still capable of shocking cruelty, although
they don't relish it as some do.
The central character is Tony le Stephanois, an aging ex-con just out of prison played with
ragged dignity by Jean Servais, a once-well-known actor whose own career was on the
rocks when the film was made. His protégé, Joe (Carl Möhner), is a family man who owes
Tony for having gone to jail to protect him. The other two members of the gang are more
conventionally movie-like: the rambunctious Italian Mario (Robert Manuel) and his friend, a
fellow Italian expert safe cracker named Cesar (director Jules Dessin, acting under the
pseudonym Perlo Vita). All four characters are vastly different, yet there is a recognizable
and realistic rhythm to their interactions, which finds its fullest embodiment in the heist
scene, where we see each man doing his particular part in a silent symphony of
workmanship. This scene would not have played nearly as well had director Jules Dessin not
taken his time during the opening scene to establish the characters and their relationships.
This connection among the men and their recognizably human faults only adds to the tragic
resonance of the narrative because we can't shake off their fates so easily. We grow to feel
for and even admire these persistent criminals who reach for one last bid for glory, only to
be undermined by those who are more ruthless and less disciplined.
This is something director Jules Dessin must have identified with immensely. A rising
director of hard-hitting film noir in the late 1940s (including 1947's Brute Force
and 1949's The Naked City), he was named a communist and blacklisted during
the McCarthy hearings of the early 1950s, forcing him to flee to Europe, where his attempts
to continue his filmmaking career were constantly undermined from abroad by pressure
from the U.S. When he was offered the chance to direct Rififi, it was literally his
last shot at maintaining a career, and he was richly rewarded with an international hit and a
director's award at Cannes.
Rififi was recently given a theatrical re-released in American art houses, which is
fitting tribute to a movie that greatly influenced the path of cinema today, especially the crime
and gangster genres. That it was made by a gifted, but desperate man as his last bid for glory
makes the connection between the artist and his art that much more complete.
Criterion Collection DVD|
Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
Video interview with director Jules Dassin|
Production stills and set design drawings
Original U.S. theatrical trailer
Collection / Home Vision|
| The new digital transfer of Rififi in its original
1.33:1 aspect ratio, taken from a 35-mm composite fine-grain master, looks excellent. The
glorious black and white of Philippe Agostini's cinematography truly shines, with strong
whites, solid blacks, and fine shadings of gray that bring out the textures and details of the
Parisian locations against which the story takes place. With a few minor exceptions, the
image is very sharp and well-detailed. The picture is also extraordinarily clean, with nary a
speck or scratch to be found (according to the liner notes, 23,235 instances of dirt,
scratches, and debris were removed using the Mathematical Technologies Digital Restoration
System, which has been used on several other notable Criterion releases).
| The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack has proved
somewhat problematic for some. There have been complaints about sound synch problems
on the French-language track, especially during the heist sequence, although I was unable to
detect any such problems. The soundtrack sounds generally clean and distortion-free,
although some of the higher pitches of the musical score sound a bit too brassy and there is
some audible hiss from time to time (although nothing unheard-of for a 46-year-old film).
The optional English-language track, which is definitely a step below the French track,
displays a different problem in the form of sound drop-out. Nearly a half-dozen times
through the film, the soundtrack simply goes blank for up to 10 seconds, sometimes cutting
out dialogue. I don't know if this was a mastering error or a result of damage to the original
soundtrack elements, but it is noticeable and quite distracting. Lesson learned: Stick with the
| This disc includes an intriguing half-hour interview with
director Jules Dessin videotaped in New York in 2000. Dassin, who is now 88 years old but
still fit and sharp, talks at length about the blacklist years and the difficult time he had getting
work in Europe, as well as an extended discussion of the making of Rififi and
how much he detested its source novel. Dassin is obviously a man who loves to tell stories,
and he spins a genuinely touching one about Gene Kelly being the only American brave
enough to be seen with him at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, when others were literally
hiding under tables not to be associated with a "blacklisted communist." He finishes that
story by describing that terrible part of American history with two simple words: "stupid and
Also included is a nice collection of several dozen black-and-white production stills and five
color set design sketches by famed production designer Alexandre Trauner. There is also a
solid set of production notes, most of which repeats information from the Dassin interview.
Lastly, the disc includes a somewhat fuzzy theatrical trailer from the film's initial U.S.
release, which alternately plays the film up as a taboo-busting sex melodrama and an
art-house masterpiece beloved by important critics like Bosley Crowther.
Overall Rating: (4)