by David Cornelius
If you trace the roots of the caper movie family tree, no matter where you start, you’ll always arrive at “Du Rififi chez les hommes” - better known in our neck of the woods simply as “Rififi.” While a few caper films predate it (most notably “The Asphalt Jungle,” the grandpappy of the genre), it’s “Rififi” that set the caper style in stone to be repeated again and again by pictures over the past five decades. The gathering of criminals, the careful planning, the attention to every detail... it all starts here.Odd, then, that the caper sequence in the book on which the film was based was nothing but a blip in the plot. Writer/director Jules Dassin, hired to adapt the novel by Auguste Le Breton, agreed with pretty much everyone else that the book was garbage, and to make a movie out of it, everything had to change - most notably, making the heist the centerpiece of the story. In a recent interview, Dassin recounted how Le Breton read Dassin’s script, then refused to ask Dassin anything other than “where is my book?” Judging from the final results, it looks like the change was a wiser move than anyone had predicted.
So why would a filmmaker agree to adapt such an unlikable novel? The answer is both simple and sad: Dassin needed the work, as he was a victim of the Blacklist. Unable to find work in America after being accused as a Communist, the maker of such films as “Night and the City” and “The Canterville Ghost” moved to Europe, where he found pressure from Hollywood kept him unemployed, even on another continent. Soon the French press saw what was happening and took on his cause, making Dassin a celebrity of sorts in French film circles. But celebrity alone doesn’t pay the bills, and soon Dassin wound up agreeing to make a movie he didn’t want to make. That unwanted project landed Dassin a Best Director prize at Cannes, and although most Hollywood types continued to shun him, the film became a critical and commercial success, putting Dassin on the list of important directors working in Europe at the time.
But enough about the movie’s backstory. Let’s get to the movie itself, shall we? For starters, what the hell does “rififi” mean, anyway? Well, it’s mostly untranslatable - a close-enough phrase for the time would be “rough and tumble” (as heard in the nightclub song that tries to explain the word), although a more modern take would be “badass tough guy livin’.”
In other words, let’s look at our hero, Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais, whose own cragged, worn face suggests a life lived all the wrong ways). He’s fresh out of prison, spending his first day of freedom gambling away all his cash, calling up old chum Jo “the Swede” (Carl Möhner) for extra dough. He then runs into his old flame, Mado (Marie Sabouret), who ran off with another guy after Tony got locked up, and is now the lady friend of rival gangster Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici). As a result of her loyalty switch, Tony orders her to strip so he can whip her with a belt. Remember, folks, this is our hero.
Then again, that’s how things go in the world of film noir, and “Rififi” makes no apologies for its characters’ wicked ways. In fact, it soon forgives them, opting instead to show the lighter side of criminal life. Jo is married and has a young son. Their pal Mario (Robert Manuel) is a happy-go-lucky clown of sorts, always smiling, always laughing, usually with the lovely Ida (Claude Sylvain) by his side. For these hard cases, life is good.
When Mario and Jo approach Tony with a plan for a snatch-and-grab job at Paris’ top jeweler, Tony decides to think bigger - why go for the rocks in the window when they could go for what’s in the safe? And so, with the help of Italian safecracker Cesar (played by Dassin himself, under the phony name Perlo Vita), they devise the perfect break-in plan.
The first act of the film, which begins as a simple portrait of life in the Parisian criminal underground, wraps up with a fantastic bit of puzzle solving. The quartet’s careful planning comes to a head when they meet one day to brainstorm just how to beat the seemingly unbeatable alarm system. We’ve seen this moment played out hundreds of times since, of course, and yet that never diminishes the impact of the scene here; the ultimate a-ha!, when the criminals make the delightful discovery that the system is breakable after all, remains a wonderful moment.
The entire film is a series of small wonderful moments, in fact, including the brief scene that kicks of the film’s second act. In it, lounge singer Viviane (Magali Noël) begins humming the movie’s theme song, while behind her, the nightclub gets prepared for another night of business. Slowly, one by one, the other band members lightly pick up the tune as well. By the end of the scene, the band is all in on the song. It’s a small moment, but it’s perfect in its set-up of the action to follow.
That action is the film’s signature scene: a thirty-minute break-in sequence in which not a single word of dialogue is uttered. As we don’t know the plan until we see it unfold, the sequence becomes a great chunk of suspense. With silence as the key to their success, will the crooks be undone by a piano, or an electric drill, or even a cough? Will a passing cop discover an important clue? Will our boys manage to beat the clock and escape in time? And just how will the whole thing play out?
To call the heist sequence in “Rififi” exceptional would be an understatement. This is pure genius filmmaking, no question. Words are not required here, nor is music. For an entire half hour (the conceit of Dassin to stretch the silent action that long!), the filmmakers have us on edge, like the best of Hitchcock crammed into one mute thirty minutes.
Strange, then, how Dassin’s film doesn’t end with the caper. No, we still have a third act to go, a full forty-five minutes in which the heist is over and the aftermath is about to set in. It’s here we return to the sinister criminal element; things get rougher, nastier, increasingly violent. Characters are killed in cold blood, others are tortured. Junkies come out of the woodwork to fill up the plot. And human nature becomes a major downfall.
If “On the Waterfront” was Elia Kazan’s response to the Blacklist, then “Rififi” can be called Dassin’s. The film contains one character who’s reduced to a sniveling wreck after he rats out his friends, and that character is promptly shot. Let Kazan have his apologies and his explanations. Dassin’s film shows us how naming names caused so much trouble for so many people. And I’m sure he wouldn’t, at the time, have been against the prompt shooting of some of those who named names.
This cold-blooded killing of a friend is the only link the film has to the Blacklist, or any serious subject matter at all. If you want to view this scene as Dassin’s response to HUAC, then fine. If not, then fine, too. It makes for a gritty, kick-ass gangster flick just fine on his own, no deeper meaning required.
The film wraps up in near-operatic territory, with an explosion of visuals that breaks the movie out of its noir roots and plants it firmly in the world of European artsiness. Yet it still works. As strangely showy the movie suddenly becomes, if only for a minute or two, it works because it fits with the flow of the story and the mood of the characters. Everything about the tale is so low-key that when things spin madly out of control for those involved, it’s only fair that the filmmaking style spin out with it.There’s much more I’d love to discuss about “Rififi,” but that’d be ruining the fun of discovering for yourself. This is a crime picture with magnificent dips, turns, and sideswipes, a picture of sudden meanness and much-welcome fun, a picture that never gets old no matter how many imitations we see. Heck, even Dassin himself ripped off his own heist sequence when he made the lighter crime flick “Topkapi” (which, in turn, got ripped off in the first “Mission: Impossible” movie). “Rififi” is an influential masterpiece that never intended to be either. And yet it’s both - one of the most important movies of the 20th century, and one of the very best.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11783&reviewer=392
originally posted: 04/05/05 05:49:27