Caper films is always a particular sub genre that i like. So, for the June BLINDSPOT series, i was thinking why not go way, way back and see (one of the) origin that inspired those that came after.
It’s the lingo of the streetwise. The battle cry of real tough guys. Alors “rififi”!
What is rififi? Well according to the tagline, ‘rififi’ means trouble. The 1955 flick from Jules Dassin is an adaptation of Auguste le Breton’s novel called Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes. A story revolved around Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais), who were released early after serving 5-years prison time for a jewel heist. He was approached by Jo le Suédois (Carl Möhner) and Mario Farrati (Robert Manuel) are planning a hit and run burglary of the exclusive jewelry store on Rue de Rivoli, with the help of the safecracker César le Milanais (Dassin). But what they failed to consider was one simple human flaw that could deconstruct the foolproof plan for the robbery.
You can almost split Rififi into three equal part: the premeditation, the heist, and the aftermath. The film is known for the middle, heist part, which consists of 30-tension-filled-minutes of almost silence, while the cast performs their well-planned robbery. Very little dialogue and no musical score, the actors were limited to their gestures. We can only hear their breaths, the constant tap of hammers against the concretes, the swishing sounds of plasters falling into an upside down umbrella, and much later a shrill sounds of drills penetrating the vault. Despite the out of date tools and effort (no bombs nor laser cutters were used here) i felt the laser focus concentration of these four robbers as they stick to their measured plans and schedules and i find my self wiping off those metaphorical cold sweats that’s forming on my forehead. These are the testament of the directorial choice Dassin made. Building up suspense and tightly wound our tension through these sequence, as a viewer i found myself as if i was the fifth robber in that room.
These four men, are definitely not a good man. They were criminals and they each took part in the heist for monetary gain, despite their respective reasons. Tony, for example, initially reluctant to join the robbery, was driven by vengeance after he discovered that his former lover was getting involved with a Parisian gangster and owner of L’Âge d’Or nightclub. His anger towards the ex were shown in a violent off-screen sequence, yet we can see the tenderness of him through his paternal attention towards Jo and his family. These glimpses of humanity witnessed in the first act would be explored further in the third act. Which become another reason why Rififi stood apart to its successor. Rather than making the heist as the culmination point of the story, instead it explored humanity of these characters.
Later on the third part of the film, we saw how the plan that seemed foolproof went amok after one tiny, human slip. Cesar who were deeply in lust with a singer at L’Âge d’Or tried to impress the girl by giving her a ring from the heist. Without realising this little blinded-by-lust action he took snowballed and putting his fellow criminals at risks, Cesar graciously accept the punishment handed out by Tony. In the mean time, the gangster driven by greed attempt to obtain the stolen jewelries by kidnapping Jo’s son. Which in turn drive Jo into a panic frenzy and enraged Tony even more. This is why the last act of the film became my favorite part. Unlike in modern heist films where the heist itself took center stage, Rififi offers an insight of the characters involved within it. There were a sense of classic cautionary tale that i found very moving that built in layers upon layers of each characters personal journey. It seems like a simple movie, and yet it is not.
Rififi has set the bar for caper films. It is no surprise the film inspired modern films such as Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and became one of the the landmark for its genre. Just like gambling, in a heist sometimes you win big, sometimes you lost everything. In Rififi you learn that sometimes plan does work but that does not mean you get to walkaway unscathed. Just like gambling, in a heist sometimes you win big, sometimes you lost everything. But as a viewers you might just had a royal flush experience from watching this film.
Rififi available in The Criterion Collection spine #115 in Blu-Ray/DVD dual format.
RIFIFI / DU RIFIFI CHEZ LES HOMMES (1955)
GENRE Crime, Drama
DIRECTOR Jules Dassin | PRODUCER Henri Bérard, Pierre Cabaud, René Bézard | WRITER Auguste le Breton, Jules Dassin, Réne Bézard | MUSIC Georges Auric | CINEMATOGRAPHER Philippe Agostini | EDITOR Roger Dwyre | DISTRIBUTOR Pathé | BUDGET $ 200,000 | COUNTRY France | RUNNING TIME 115 minutes | RELEASE April 13, 1955
STARRING Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin, Robert Manuel, Janine Darcey, Magali Noël
DID YOU KNOW? Dassin made Rafifi when he was blacklisted by Hollywood, but the film still received generally positive response and earned him an award for Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. Upon Rififi original release, film critic and future director François Truffaut praised the film, “Out of the worst crime novels I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen”.