Rififi, Jules Dassin’s 1955 masterpiece, has been called the greatest example of the heist genre and one of the finest French noirs. It’s perfect, the kind of movie that makes people love film – wonderfully written, edited and acted. A diamond, Peter Bradshaw calls it, and he’s right.
Dassin was a successful director of noir thrillers, most famously Naked City, in the 1940s. In 1950, he fell victim, along with many others, to McCarthyism. Unable to work in the USA or abroad – American companies would refuse to distribute his films – he finally managed to get hired to make Rififi – a project he was singularly uninterested in – in France, after five years of unemployed frustration. Whether his recent history influenced the making or tone of the film, and given what he had been through it’s probably best to assume that it did, he ended up producing a film which is as violent and dark as any of the great noirs (Truffaut himself called this the greatest noir he had ever seen.)
The film revolves around Tony le Stéphanois, a bank robber freshly out of prison. A young friend, Jo, offers him the chance to do one last job, at a jeweller’s store, and after initially refusing he is soon involved. Tony is a classic noir anti-hero – a character blended of equal parts light and dark (and lit the same way.) He risks his life to save Jo’s son, but also brutally beats an ex-girlfriend. He is absolutely faithful to his friends, but will kill those he thinks have betrayed the criminal code. The character, of course, reflect the film’s world; once again, we’re in familiar crime scene territory, wherein morality is relative and there are no reliable definitions of good and bad to cling to.
As ever in crime drama, the film is in large part a study of male relationships. Most obviously, this is done through the characters of Tony, Jo and Jo’s son (and Tony’s godson) Tonio. We see how Jo dotes on his boy, and how, for him, crime is a way to provide for his son. Tony too is devoted to the boy and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the two of them see in the boy some innocence which they have lost. But we see Tonio’s love of toy guns and fast cars, his desire to always be with his father and godfather; it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see that the boy may well continue in their footsteps one day. The darker side of these relationships are also shown; when one of the men crosses the line and gives away information, there is only one possible ending for him. ‘You know the rules,’ Tony tells him, immediately before regretfully executing him. Those rules, the mechanics of male relationships, are the real theme of crime drama and of this film. As such, it’s largely a film about and for men; the women in the film are wives and girlfriends or prostitutes and victims.
The film, then, is largely about relationships. But it’s also about crime, and ‘the job’ itself is shown in the famous central segment; 30 minute of almost complete silence, during which Tony and his three accomplices drill through the roof to the store, disable the alarm, crack the safe and escape. It’s a superb sequence, almost unbearably tense, and clearly the model for every complex, nerve-wracking heist scene since. We are firmly on the side of the criminals; we have seen their lives, met their families and grown to like them (especially the romantic Italian safecracker, César le Milanais, played under an assumed name by Dassin himself.) We want them to succeed. But the heist is in the middle of the film, not at the end, and we realise that this is not to be an Ocean’s Eleven deal where the men walk away rich and happy; the film is too honest, to real to give them that sort of easy ending.
There is too much to say about this film; the cinematography is beautiful (Paris in the wintertime looks moody and beautiful) and the editing is excellent (particularly in the last race against time in Tony’s car. Jumpy, disorientating, this reminds me strongly of later New Wave scenes, such as the opening of Breathless.) Suffice it to say that it does what all the best noir and crime drama does; it makes us care about and feel sorry for men who are not immediately or easily sympathetic, and it makes us think a little more about what it means to be heroic. As such, it began a tradition which found perhaps its best expression in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Go and watch it. (I know, I know, I always say that. But you HAVE to watch this one!)