by NIR SHALEV
Always referred to as “the Stéphanois,” Tony (Jean Servais) is released from a five-year stint in prison as Rififi begins. He took the rap for a younger friend of his, Jo “the Swede” (Carl Möhner), and once out is already playing cards with fellow underworld gangsters and acquaintances. His eyes are tired and his movements lack panache, but he’s not too old to keep his reflexes sharp. He calls Jo and asks him to front him some cash for a poker game and soon after they are meeting with a third party, having coffee in a cafe, and he’s being told of a new jewelry heist that would take place across the street.
The heist was to be a simple smash and grab but Tony wants the whole shebang: he wants the safe. So the crew calls up a fourth person, an Italian named Cesar (played by director Jules Dassin himself) and together they plan the heist in meticulous detail. They find out how the safe operates and that there are many ways to activate its alarm, so they devise a way to bypass setting it off. Also, every window and door frame in the jewelry store has a vibration detector that would also set off the alarm, so they find a brilliant way around that too.
The fame of Rififi comes from the fact that the heist sequence is 33 minutes long, it does not contain any music, and no sound is made by the characters for fear of setting off the alarms; and of course, raising tension for the audience. The crew communicates with hand gestures, head shakes, and various glances.
During the heist, Tony checks his watch every-so-often to make sure that what goes on inside coincides according to schedule with what goes on outside; a cop patrolling his route, a bus zooming by. The tension grows as the crew silently cuts through the ceiling of the store, crack the safe, and walk quietly around in sneakers and slippers, never clattering objects. The heist is breathtakingly staged and the actors are in top form.
George Auric was hired to orchestrate the soundtrack for the film and for the long heist sequence, he and Dassin could not come up with a direction for the music to take. Dassin told him that music was not needed and he told Dassin that he would write music for the heist anyway, just to “protect” him and the film. After Auric watched the film without music being inserted into the heist sequence he thanked Dassin for being stubborn because it worked better than anyone had expected.
Jean Servais is an excellent choice for playing Tony because he pulls off the tired eyes and “older gangster” approach without having to lift a finger. Wearing a fedora like a gangster and ordering the crew around, snapping fingers, he seems like he’d been doing it all his life. And great credit should be given to Jules Dassin for portraying Cesar like an Italian who loves life and wears a thin “lady killer” mustache. He speaks with his hands and with great pomp and he portrays the stereotype without seeming condescending. Dassin plays Cesar because the actor hired to play him originally wasn’t actually signed on to do so and Dassin stepped in at the last moment. But it works wonderfully this way.
The black and white photography complements the “film noir” aspect of the picture. The streets are always wet and the clubs are always smoky. Rififi showcases the barebones of the underworld gangsters, thieves, and crooks’ lifestyles through dark streets and flashy nightclubs. The club where Tony’s former lover works, L’Age d’Or, employs call girls and drugs are dealt in the upstairs section, behind closed doors.
Five years prior to Rififi, Jules Dassin was blacklisted in Hollywood and exiled to France from the U.S. because he had, apparently, enlisted in the Communist Party in 1930. He did not testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about his supposed affiliation, but a few other American film directors took the stand against him and their recollection of his membership was enough to condemn and exile him. He was unable to shoot films for big producers in Europe and in the U.S. he was entirely unemployable; Jean-Pierre Melville was originally slated to direct Rififi, too. But opportunity knocked on Dassin’s door when the book Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes was presented to him by the eventual producer. Dassin was given the book to read because the producer believed that only Dassin can make that story filmable.
In an interview on the Criterion DVD release, Dassin claims to have been disgusted by the book originally. Apparently it was pointing towards criminals performing necrophilia and the antagonists in it were North Africans. He claimed that the book was unfilmable but he was eventually persuaded to write up a screenplay. He sat down and wrote for two whole days, removed the necrophilia entirely and replaced the Africans with Frenchmen.
Rififi is a great film about four men who work together and support one another as a team; side by side and all for one. It entertains though the energy of the dramatic performances of the actors and the breakneck speed of the third act that define this film as a hard-boiled classic noir. The characters drive the story to its climax, not the action, and the film maintains the aspect of a character study picture rather than an action film filled with humor and glamor.
In Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Danny Ocean (played by George Clooney) wants to rob three Vegas casinos in order to “stick it” to the man who stole his girlfriend, and that man happens to own those three Vegas casinos. There’s not a lot of character depth developing in the story and his crew/friends are all simple caricatures. What happens throughout the three acts is that we see the job to be tackled and the plan that is to be put to work, the execution of the job, and then a snappy “see you next time, fellas.” But in Rififi, Tony is a hard boiled ex-criminal who is probably capable of committing murder, and is seeking redemption during what’s left of his life. And his friends are no pushovers either. They are seeking to rob from others because it is their nature to remain criminals. They live in a grounded reality and the only thing that could possibly ruin their futures is those that are closest to them, and not the job that they are all so darn good at performing.