My last blog entry of the year (barring great inspiration/boredom during the summer anyways) is about a film called Du rififi chez les hommes, or simply Rififi. Before you even ask, “rififi” means “trouble”. Or so the movie’s poster says. Works for me.
This is a French film, directed by Jules Dassin and released in 1955. Dassin was actually an American, but he left the U.S. in the early fifties after being blacklisted, like dozens of others, for once having been a member of the Communist party. This was the first and arguably most successful of several films Dassin released while in Europe; it won him a best director award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The film centres around the efforts of four crooks to rob a jewelery store. First is Tony, played by Jean Servais. He’s a career crook who’s been to jail before and is, like so many jewel thieves of the silver screen, looking for that one last big score before he disappears. Assuming that smoking and drinking too much don’t kill him first. It’s obvious from Servais’s portrayal that Tony has seen better days.
Then there’s Jo, played by Carl Möhner. Jo is a fresh-faced criminal who is Tony’s polar opposite. Where Tony is gruff, brutish, melancholy, and alone, Jo is soft-spoken, cheerful, and a family man. The two make an odd couple, particularly considering that the reason for Tony’s time in prison was his decision to take the fall for a crime committed by Jo.
Rounding out the gang are Mario, played by Robert Manuel, and Cesar, played by none other than director Jules Dassin (billed as Perlo Vita in the credits). Mario is a rather flamboyant sort of person, but he has connections. As for Cesar, he’s the safecracker. He’s not given much dialogue (due to Dassin’s mediocre French) but much of the story revolves around him.
One of my favourite scenes in Rififi is a conversation between the thieves about how they plan to spend their ill-gotten gains. Each man’s answer tells you everything you need to know about them in just a few words. I almost wish the scene had taken place much earlier, but it works as is.
The movie’s centrepiece is the heist sequence. After plenty of build-up that follows the gang’s meticulous preparations, it’s just great film making. It lasts about 25 minutes, and contains no dialogue, or music. In fact, there’s virtually no sound at all, except for the occasional scraping of metal on metal. This heist paved the way for similar sequences in movies like Mission: Impossible and Ocean’s Eleven.
Well-respected film critic Kenneth Turan has called Rififi “the benchmark all succeeding heist films have been measured against.” Well, The Asphalt Jungle, another great heist movie, came earlier (as did others, I’m sure), but it’s hard to argue against the overall meaning of Turan’s claim – that being that this movie is damn good.
One of my favourite things about Rififi is the way events proceed after the heist. The end is about what you probably expect, but the manner in which it is arrived at is almost certainly not. In virtually all heist movies I’ve seen, the chief threat to the thieves comes from the police. Not this time.