Rififi: godfather of heist movies with a morality tale of redemption

Jules Dassin, “Rififi” (1955)

A film about a technically perfect crime, only for its participants to be totally undone by one small action by one of their number, “Rififi” is outstanding mainly for its 28-minute heist centrepiece during which there is absolutely no dialogue or music and the only sounds heard are those that are a natural consequence of the criminals’ actions. Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), a jewel thief, has just been released from jail and is contacted by his friends Jo (Carl Mohner) and Mario who are interested in stealing some baubles from a jewellery store in a Paris locality. At first Tony refuses but after looking up his old girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) and discovering that she has moved in with his old enemy Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), owner of “L’Age d”Or” night-club, he changes his mind after beating her and joins his friends on the condition they hire a safe-cracker. Mario suggests his friend César (director Jules Dassin under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) who’s happy to oblige.

Much of the first hour of the film is about the four men making their contacts and preparing for the crime. Tony and his men stare daggers at Grutter and his men at the night-club where singer Viviane (Magali Nol) performs the song that gives the movie its title. The heist, when it comes, is a great piece of film-making: taking place at night with the men trying to balance their use of light so as to avoid detection yet striving to finish the job and collect the jewels before daylight, the crime gives many opportunities for Dassin to play with contrasts of white, black and all shades of grey in-between, literally and figuratively. Cutaways from the thieves’ actions of drilling a hole in the floor to a clock-face or to the night-sky and back help to illustrate the arduous and time-consuming nature of the crime; the thieves drill the hole for two, three hours before they have a hole big enough to put a rope through and climb down to where the safe is kept. They collect all the debris in an umbrella. While Tony plugs up the security alarm with spray, César gets to work opening the safe and he needs another hour or so to do that. Close-ups of the men’s perspiring faces reveal strain and uncertainty. You find yourself hoping that the men can get the jewels, zip out through the hole again, pick up their tools and escape before daylight comes! Suspense and tension, unrelieved by music or dialogue, build and pile up to an almost unbearable level. A patrolling policeman passes by, stopping to examine a piece of litter, then he goes on his way – whew! When the first rays of the sun appear, the men are already scrambling to clear out; César pauses to take a ring for Viviane.

Sure enough, news of the theft is all over the papers the next day and not long after Grutter sees the injured Mado clearing out of his place and spots César giving the ring to Viviane. He now knows that Tony and César pulled off the heist and he puts his men onto them both. César is captured and forced to reveal the names of his co-conspirators. From then on it’s downhill for all the men who were involved in the heist. Suffice to say that pushing daisies, not pulling them, is the only thing all the men including Grutter are able to do when the dust clears for the last time. From this viewers can infer that crime pays only if people are total cold-blooded cerebral machines that can suppress their natural inclinations to rejoice and share their bounty.

A gangster code of loyalty complicates Tony’s life which leads to a second outstanding montage of scenes, also done without dialogue, in which he rescues Jo’s small son Tonio from Grutter’s men and despite being seriously wounded frantically drives the child back to his mother through countryside and Paris streets. Heroically if foolishly Tony battles city traffic, flagging consciousness and an unrestrained child (the last one not really) to race to Jo’s apartment and the camera sympathises with him, showing Paris landmarks and the bare branches of trees flashing by, street scenes zooming in and out of focus as Tony strives to avoid hitting people and cars. Multiple points of view are shown from inside the car, outside and front in a series of quick edits, emphasising the urgency, speed and delirium of Tony’s last quest to redeem himself by saving a life before his own blacks out. Some viewers may find this last sequence ludicrous (why would a gangster even think of saving a child’s life?) but after what we have seen of Tony before – a jaded, cynical man with self-interest as his only goal – the series of image shows Tony as he might have been once and becomes in the last moments of his life: a caring human being who sacrifices himself for others and who perhaps sees in Tonio (note the similarity of the name to Tony) the potential which in himself was wasted. Tony’s rescue and return of Tonio becomes the film’s true climax.

As Tony, Servais who had a history of alcoholism before making “Rififi” is suitably bleary-eyed and wears seen-it-all weariness as a second skin. The acting overall is more efficient than outstanding but it suits the structure of the film and its purpose as a heist flick hiding a moral tale. The women in the film serve to illustrate aspects of the thieves’ lives as caring husbands and family men; only Tony behaves as a stereotypical hard-man, hitting and scratching Mado for being unfaithful to him, and forcing Jo and Mario to change part of their plan to rob the jewellery shop.

The film’s pace can be uneven: it’s slow for much of the first hour with Viviane’s singing and the silhouettes of a man and woman dancing in the background the main items of interest; then it picks up during the heist scene and is very fast in the film’s last 45 minutes. Director Jules Dassin’s structuring and portrayal of the heist and Tonio’s rescue lift “Rififi” from being a run-of-the-mill film-noir movie into the realm of film art so in that respect the movie is worth watching, if for nothing else. The morality aspect can be heavy-handed as bullets fly and the body count piles up; no-one survives to learn any lessons, making the post-heist part of the plot superfluous in a way. What’s the point of the shoot-out if there’s no-one at the end to make sense of it all?

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