To say that the 1950s were a strange time in Hollywood would be putting it mildly. With the United States in the thick of an ideological rivalry with the Soviet Union, domestic politics and protectionism against communism infiltrated the movie business. As Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s call to arms and wild claims about communism seeping into home soil gained momentum, Hollywood itself put in force its infamous blacklist, by which certain artists were refused employment on the basis of alleged ties to the Soviet political belief system. Among those targeted by the House of Un-American Activities Committee was Jules Dassin, at one time an actual member of the Communist Part USA. With nowhere to work, Dassin transplanted to Europe, but didn’t make any films for a few years. Not until 1955, that is, when an adaptation of Auguste Le Breton’s crime novel Du rififi chez les hommes presented itself as a viable and invigorating project. The rest, as they say, is history.
One of the most iconic heist films ever conceived, it features both some of the genre tropes fans of come to love over the decades whilst carving new ground with enviable style and creativity. While very much an ensemble cast, the one character that earns more of the story’s focus is Tony “le Stéphanois” (Jean Servais) a gangster recently released from prison. Tony has been around the block, both as a criminal and in life. His face alone reads like the story of man that has lived a lot in life, with special emphasis on dour episodes: ragged, tired, yet clearly the product of much experience. It isn’t long after he breaths the air of a free man that his long time friend Jo “le Suédois” (Carl Möhner) calls a meeting with to concoct a heist to end all heists. Their target is a British Jewel store in the heart of downtown Paris, to be broken in in the wee hours of the night. Together with two stereotypically lively Italian crooks, Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel), and safecracker César “le Milanais” (director Dassin), the quartet goes about the preparation and execution of a theft that will land them funds to live off handsomely for many years to come, provided all the elements function like clockwork…which of course they never do in such films.
One feeling that creeps in while taking in Jules Dassin’s seminal heist film is its palpable tension. There is something about its tone, the acting, the pacing the setting, that produce an unnerving feeling that something bad will happen, irrespective of how much preparation the newly formed group of thieves invests into the project. Rififi is one of the most fatalistic heist films to grace the screen. The story is set in Paris, popularly regarded as one of if not the most romantic city in the world, yet looks and feels dreary, with only a few moments of sexuality interspersed throughout, primarily whenever the delightful Viviane (Magali Noel) graces the stage of the L’Âge D’Or nightclub with her memorable rendition of a song that speaks directly to the film’s title and its plot. Originally known as Du rififi chez les hommes in France, Viviane’s song, and thus the film as a whole, is the insatiable danger and violence that erupts within men. Men that come across as being really cool on first glance often end up being no less violent and aggressive than typical thugs. This dark truth that lies at the heart of men, made clear in Viviane’s song, extends far beyond the night club sequences, bleeding into much of the picture.
Tony, more than anyone, embodies these violent tendencies. Of the quartet’s members, he is by far the one that has lived through the most trials and tribulations. It was he, rather than Jo, that ultimately spent half a decade in the slammer for a crime they were both involved in. Luckily the turn of events has not handicapped their friendship (Tony is in fact godfather to Jo’s son, named Tonio), yet there’s no denying the air that Tony sports. He could not look more beaten up, figuratively speaking. He has the perfect look for a noir antagonist, much like his American counterpart Robert Mitchum did. It’s an experienced but half-defeated look in their eyes that speaks volumes, telling the audience everything they need to know about their characters.
It also becomes obvious that Tony is, at least in part, the maker of his own ills. Upon learning that his former flame Mado (Marie Sabouret) is hanging around the Âge d’Or club despite it being owned by his direct rival, Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), Tony’s instinct is to pay the establishment a visit that same evening despite Jo’s protests. What follows is definitely the film’s most discomforting scene in which Tony brings a sceptical Mado back to his flat, orders her to strip, beats her, and finally throws her out. Whatever misfortune Tony might have suffered in his recent or distant pasts, the man is troubled and incapable of controlling his rage at the thought of having lost his main squeeze to an opposite.
For that matter, it feels as though the only time that things go well for the protagonists is during the picture’s mesmerizing heist sequence. Much has been written and said about the segment’s cinematography, editing, and precision, so much so that it’s difficult to add anything new to the subject. Lasting almost half and hour, Dassin smartly keeps the mission’s execution completely wordless and without a musical score for the most part. Tony, Jo, Mario, and César infiltrate the building’s second floor, tying and gagging its occupants in their apartment before making their way through the floor and into the jewellery store below. The soundtrack only comes alive at the sound of furniture being moved around, the crackling of the picks and hammers piercing through the material that makes up the flat’s floor and store’s ceiling, the piercing of the store’s safe, etc. Save for a couple of moments when the film flashes forward for the sake of brevity, almost the entire sequence and its intricate procedures are given their moments in the spotlight. After all the preparations the teams has gone through, there is an exhilaration to witnessing them pull off the coup with such dedication and aplomb.
But then again, that very fact says a lot about the sort of people they are. When it comes to scheming and executing the sort of labour required to succeed a maddeningly complex mission of this nature, they operate like clockwork. However, with respect that actually living in society, making intelligent decisions, they are less adept. Just as Tony is incapable of withholding the anger within, César, who has taken a liking to Viviane (who wouldn’t), cannot help but grace his gal with one of the diamonds retrieved from their coup. When word gets that a major jewel store has been hit the previous evening, the conniving Pierre Grutter starts getting ideas when he notices the magnificent rock on Viviane’s finger. Pierre, not one to mince words and a man of action, quickly tightens the figurative noose around the protagonists neck by going after their loved ones…just as Tony did to him by mistreating Mado. And eye for an eye, it would seem.
Rififi pits his central figures in a maelstrom of trouble that is both of their own doing and a product of forces outside of their control. The temptation was too much to resist, even for Tony, who at first was less open to partaking in the escapade. With Tony finally accepting after learning of Mado’s apparent betrayal, César the safecracker acquiesces as a result (Mario even claims that César would love working with Tony), the very person who would commit the first error resulting in their downfall. As the saying goes, the devil is in the details. In this case, the devil proved to be in said details but also within the protagonists, who demonstrate weaknesses in different ways. While other factors also played parts in their undoing, they set the pieces in motion for karma to haunt them in the end.
One wonders if Rififi was a cathartic experience for its director. His previous film, Night and the City, was made five years prior, at a time when allegations towards his communist ties had begun to mount. During such an era, a five-year period between projects seems like an eternity. What’s more, the reasons for his exile after being blacklisted creep into the story in the latter stages, when Tony finds a frightened César tied and gagged at the Âge D’Or. The reasons for the latter’s curious state are obvious and go beyond the fact that Grutter and his gang have tortured him: he informed them on Tony’s team, just as certain personalities in Hollywood had pointed fingers at Dassin a few years prior. Whether Rififi represented a chance to unleash some frustrations, an opportunity to finally be creative again, or a little of both, there is little doubt concerning the movie’s influence on heist pictures that followed. It is the work of a filmmaker at the height of their game.