Roughly translated as “Rough and Tumble,” Director Jean Dassin’s “Rififi” already stands as a fine example of American film noir via Paris, France. Yet on an even higher, technical level, we would be hard-pressed to be more perfect example of the genre — a sordid tale of greed, dames, and robberies gone bad that deserves to rank alongside other seminal entries (“The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep”) of classic film noir.
Why “Rififi” often fails mention beside these canonical flicks, however, is political. Despite earning Best Director honors at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival for “Rififi,” Jules Dassin was pressured to leave Hollywood (and the U.S.) for anti-communist blacklisting. His films were later tossed away, or resigned into old vaults where forgotten movies go to die. But whatever the case — or calls for pinko revolution — both Dassin and “Rififi” are at last receiving their popular due in America.
As a school itself, film noir operates under a darkened formula of mood and style, with a battery of paper cutout characters (IE: the detective, the thug, the w***e with a heart of gold, etc) set in artificial cities. Clearly, when poorly executed, these are conditions that can lead to audience boredom — a pitfall that even “Rififi” is not immune to. However, Dassin has religiously done his homework to compensate, planting classic hard-boiled elements of film noir into his picture that help to leaven “Rififi’s” moments of fatigue — from tough street lingo and atmospheres, to trenchcoats with lifted collars and slanted fedoras. All of this set against the dim, black & white grain of urban Paris. Dassin perfectly nails these classic genre elements in “Rififi” — making his an original film with unoriginal components.
After a long stint in prison, the now-freed career criminal Tony “the Stephanois” (Jean Servais) returns to see his brother Jo (Carl Mohner) — for whom he took the fall in a busted robbery — and his young family living in Paris. At first, Tony has no interest in a renewed life in grand larceny, passing on a crude “smash and grab” heist that Jo and his hoodlum pal Mario (Robert Manuel) hatch for a local jewelry store.
However, after some introspection, Tony’s interest in one last job returns with a few suggestions for Jo’s crew. Namely, that the group go after larger stakes in the jewelry store’s safe, which is loaded with precious gems. What follows in “Rififi” is pure Bogart attitude with a dash of real intelligence, as the crew works to procure the elements needed to pull of their scheme (including an expert safecracker played by Dassin himself), timing patterns of activity around their target and the step-by-step execution of the job.
When it arrives, the heist is an amazing piece of filmmaking — a 30-minute segment with no dialogue wherein the crew must break into the store, neutralize the alarms, crack the safe, and escape with the goods before 5AM. And yes (small spoiler alert), the boys score their loot with few complications, slipping away and dumping their gear in the River Seine. However, as Tony’s crew and we discover, the real snafus of “Rififi” are to come through a cascading circus of greed, stupidity, bad luck, and — worst of all — a seedy nightclub owner and his drug-addicted brother looking for a piece of the action.
Any way one slices it, the sum spells bad news for all.
Make no mistake, despite borrowing from American cinema, “Rififi” is not an American product. Examples include a scene where Tony forces his disloyal ex-lover (Marie Saburet) to strip before whipping her with a belt (both off-camera), and a brief shot of Mario’s own girlfriend (on camera) in a see-thru top. McCarthyism notwithstanding, both are details that would be unthinkable in stateside movies of the `50s.
But these stark edges give “Rififi” a dangerous screen presence — the essence of film noir itself. And like so many other classic crime stories, a familiar “Crime doesn’t pay” moral pervades Dassin’s climax that hardly glorifies a life of theft and other grifting. Even today, it’s a theme still borrowed by similar Hollywood tales of crime gone bad like “Fargo” and “Reservoir Dogs.”
As Tony, Jean Servais — who resembles a tired Ray Milland — plays his character keenly and to the core. He’s a worn, grizzled hood who can’t surrender the life and who knows, better than anyone, that his life will probably end at the business end of a gun. His surrounding cast is (again) a collection of typical film noir types: the safecracker in Dassin, the producer in Jo, the bagman in Mario, and numerous femme fatales in “Rififi” to spread around. All paper dolls that fit together smoothly and ingeniously against a grimly exotic Parisian backdrop.
At last, Dassin’s film may be best appreciated, although it may sound like sacrilege, by watching it with the sound turned off — a trick that Steven Spielberg recommends for budding filmmakers to understand the way that movies are assembled from the top down. But for those uninterested in this lesson, “Rififi” still offers up an entertaining and skilled example of yet another genre cast aside in today’s market of CGI effects, instant trilogies, and clumsy corporate tie-ins.
And when one thinks about it, this knowledge is actually sad.