“I liked you, Macaroni,” the gangster tells a comrade who’s made a fatal slip-up in Rififi, “but you know the rules.” Indeed, every moviegoer in the world understands the rules in Jules Dassin’s 1955 crime classic. But Rififi (the word can be roughly translated as “fracas”) is more than the story of a jewelry heist gone awry. It represents Dassin’s triumph over his exile from his homeland (he was blacklisted during the Red Scare) and the rock-bottom budget he was forced to work with. It splices together separate film traditions from America and France into a movie that gives us a walking tour of the streets and bars and apartments of Paris. It’s a movie famous for the sound design of its central sequence, while (less famously) it embraced elliptical editing rhythms a couple of years before the nouvelle vague made them fashionable.
Rififi is about a man who’s trying to reestablish his place in the world through the commission of a crime. The aging, ailing gangster Tony the Stephanois (Jean Servais) has just done a stretch in the pen, and he returns to Paris a nobody. His lover has jilted him for an oily nightclub owner, and his former colleagues treat him like a second-class citizen. Only his young admirer Jo the Swede (Carl Mohner) doesn’t treat him like a has-been. Jo and his friend Mario (Robert Manuel) are planning a smash-and-grab robbery of a swank jewelry store’s shop window, but when they invite Tony in on the scheme, he insists on going for broke: he wants to break into the store proper and plunder the precious gems from its safe. The burglars bring in a professional safecracker, a dapper, womanizing Milano named Cesar (Dassin himself, acting under the name Perlo Vita), and the four men set about gathering the information and tools they need to accomplish the job.
Rififi‘s centerpiece is the actual burglary, and it’s the scene that made the movie’s reputation. The heist was treated negligibly in Auguste le Breton’s novel of the same name, but Dassin fleshed the crime out until it took up a full quarter of his movie. An entire night’s activities are crammed into that 30 minutes, and the plainest of objects—a fire extinguisher, an umbrella—become tools in the hands of the resourceful thieves as they disable the jewelry’s security system and crack open the safe. The heist has attained legendary status in film lore because the thieves don’t speak a word among themselves throughout the scene, and Dassin even declined to use the music that Georges Auric composed for it. Instead, the soundtrack consists of the thump of a muffled maul hitting a chisel, the soft rattle of debris raining down from a ceiling, the plonk of a piano key that one of the thieves inadvertently leans on. This parade of muted sound effects continues until the thieves are safe at home and taking their first look at the pile of stones that they’ve risked their lives for—at which point, they break into song.
Rififi follows the pattern set by John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and that Stanley Kubrick would follow in The Killing a year later. A seemingly innocent action brought on by human frailty leads to a sundering of the gang’s loyalties and the discovery of their crime, and the story of the heist is followed by a kidnapping as some rival gangsters try to wrest the jewels away from Tony and his gang. In these scenes Dassin fuses the tenets of film noir with the poetic realism of ’30s-era French cinema, deepening the fatalistic cloud hanging over Tony as he grows increasingly violent in his efforts to hold on to the loot. The staccato editing of the closing sequence—a beautifully rendered drive through the streets of Paris—reflects both the urgency and the destruction of his plans for happiness.
Dassin scouted locations for the picture by taking long walks with his secretary, and as a result Rififi joins Boudu Saved from Drowning, Les Bonnes Femmes, and Breathless as one of the great street-level views of Parisian life. And Dassin’s glancing sense of irony makes his film pulse with a stronger sense of life than we’re used to seeing in crime pictures. As Tony uses his belt to whip his ex-lover for jilting him, the camera discreetly pans away from the violence—to a photograph of the couple in happier times. When the rival thugs push Jo’s little boy into their car, he’s forced to abandon his balloon to the Paris sky, and an oblivious father who’s standing nearby sententiously warns his young son that he better hang on to his balloon.
For years Rififi has been available only in a truly abysmal video transfer, but Rialto Pictures has struck a new 35-millimeter print with fresh subtitles, and in doing so they’ve performed a real service. With its low-rent but effective cast and its vivid sense of atmosphere, Rififi is a movie that sticks to your ribs.
– Tom Block