The grandpere of all jewel-heist movies, Jules Dassin's Rififi hasn't lost a thing since its initial release in 1955. Seeing it anew in revival, anyone who knows and loves this cinematic gem will be reminded that its descendants -- which include everything from the old Mission Impossible TV series to Ocean's Eleven to Reservoir Dogs -- not only paid homage to the original but, in the true spirit of the moment, committed grand larceny against it.
Just for a start, consider Rififi's famous set piece -- an impeccably edited, completely wordless 25-minute sequence in which the film's four thieves, puffing on their Gauloises, chisel through the parquet floor of a second-floor Paris apartment, shimmy down a knotted rope into the jewelry shop below, crack a safe and relieve the management of a treasure trove in gold and diamonds. The tense progress of Dassin's images has been imitated so many times by so many directors in the ensuing half-century that it's become an essential of film language -- no less influential than D.W. Griffith's first close-up of Lillian Gish or Mrs. Bates's landmark visit to cabin number one. Absent the grammar lessons of Rififi, The Dirty Dozen might have lacked the necessary stealth in their assault on the Nazi castle, those lovable losers up in Boston could have blown The Brinks Job and wily Clint Eastwood would likely still be rotting in Alcatraz. Dassin was even induced to steal from himself: His Topkapi, released in 1964, features what may be the second-best silent jewel-theft sequence in movie history.
Forty-five years later, Rififi still has other stories to tell. For one, it dramatizes again the roles that greed and deceit play in careers devoted to robbery. Originally the creations of a street-hardened French crime novelist named Auguste le Breton, the conspirators in Dassin's film -- world-weary Tony the Stephanois (Jean Servais), beefy Jo the Swede (Carl Mohner), Mario Farrato (Robert Manuel) and cunning Cesar the Milanais (Dassin himself, billed fictitiously as "Perlo Vita") -- have a lot more to fear from each other than from the cops. The very word "rififi," probably coined by Breton in the 1940s, is Paris underworld slang for a free-for-all, or open hostility among individual hoods or rival gangs. To be sure, it's "rififi" run rampant that eventually litters the screen with bodies. As in many a movie since, the nothing-left-to-chance brilliance of the crime (one thief even wears ballet slippers to better accomplish the task) is undone by the selfish vanity of the criminals. We, if not they, are the wiser for it.
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"A man's gotta live!" tough Tony tells us between bouts of consumptive coughing. Well, maybe. But "live and let live" is in no one's vocabulary here. The self-destruction of Rififi's vivid and violent quartet is as preordained as the deaths in a Greek tragedy. The thieves carry a plaid suitcase full of old-fashioned burglary tools and alarm-disabling gizmos which, in the fifth decade of the James Bond epoch, look touchingly low-tech. Imagine: Before descending into the jewelry store, the boys catch dust and plaster falling from the ceiling in an inverted umbrella! Of course, their emotional baggage is even more telling. It includes paranoia, distrust and desperation enough to fuel the entire crew that took down the Lufthansa score in Goodfellas, or the assorted greed-mongers in the fiction of Elmore Leonard. In the end they, too, are the children of Rififi.
Shot in glorious black and white on a budget of just $200,000, and using second-rank actors, this film noir classic features the beautiful, dead-of-night cinematography of Philippe Agostini and a haunting score by the great film composer Georges Auric. It also captures the fatigue and despair -- the ineffable tristesse -- of postwar France. These tough-talking hoods, who have tragedy etched on their faces, slap their women around, then joylessly take a belt of red Burgundy. They trudge through the streets like weary soldiers, wondering when the next battle will be joined. Tony's final, mad dash against the clock -- two of his friends have had their throats slashed, and Jo the Swede's son has been kidnapped by rival hoods -- takes him through the kind of dour Paris neighborhoods that you never see in picture postcards, and the doomed anti-hero walks among rain-drenched piles of rubble bespeaking a society that can't regain its feet. At last, we behold the kidnapped boy, standing on the seat of Tony's Oldsmobile convertible, waving his plastic six-shooter around as if in ironic mockery of the real-life violence we have just witnessed.
Dassin never misses a trick, because for this American in Paris, no detail is insignificant. With the jewel thieves still in the shop, a distracted gendarme walks his beat on the dark street outside, stooping to the pavement to inspect a discarded cigarette pack for the possibility of a smoke. It's a strangely intimate moment, suggesting guilt and grime and evil intent. A little later Tony's moll, Mado (Marie Sabouret), saunters through a dimly lit nightclub like a cat on the hunt: In a savage world, no morsel escapes her notice. When Cesar the Milanais makes the film's first fatal error, giving a ring taken in the heist to his girlfriend, Agostini's camera moves in like a thief on the crucial object. The die has been cast.
For Jules Dassin, Rififi proved to be the film of a lifetime and his most enduring contribution to the art. But for a series of fortuitous circumstances, it wouldn't have been made. Often assumed to be European, Dassin was actually born in Middletown, Connecticut, grew up in Harlem and went to high school in the Bronx. His early films, made in the late 1940s, included a pair of memorable, tough-minded films noirs, The Naked City and Thieves' Highway, shot on location in New York and San Francisco, respectively. But when Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunts heated up, Dassin was snared in the madness, informally blacklisted and forced to take refuge abroad. In England, he directed another crime thriller full of gritty low-lifes, 1950's Night and the City, with Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney. But Hollywood continued to exert anti-Dassin pressure from afar, and he didn't work again until 1954, when French producer Henri Berard defied the Americans and offered Dassin the chance to direct the movie version of Breton's bestseller Du Rififi chez les hommes. At first reading, the director says, he loathed the novel. But he needed work badly and, hoping against hope to make a comeback, he took the job. The length of Rififi's famous heist sequence, Dassin later said, was less the result of artistic intention than of his desire to minimize plot and dialogue he didn't much care for. So much the better. Let's hear it for evasion. Because from the moment he dropped a rope through a hole in a ceiling, Jules Dassin made film history.