Before I saw Rififi for the first time earlier this week, I had already learned enough about it to feel genuine excitement in anticipation of what I'd discover. I admired the work of Jules Dassin, based on his earlier films already reviewed here, and I'd read about how this film helped revive Dassin's career from the blacklisted limbo he'd been thrust into when he left the USA in 1950. I knew that Rififi's place in the pantheon of great cinema was assured because of its famous half-hour wordless heist sequence, which went on to become the archetype for future caper films that depict in prolonged detail the elaborate plans of enterprising criminals. And I understood Rififi's place in extending the French film noir gangster genre beyond its seminal beginnings in films like Pepe le Moko and its immediate stylistic predecessor Touchez pas au grisbi. So I was pretty well prepared to thoroughly enjoy this film simply as gritty, urbane entertainment, and I certainly did.
What I wasn't expecting was the degree of emotional depth it would generate and the affection I felt for the characters at the heart of Rififi, a grand, perhaps overlooked classic from Criterion's semi-early days. The film quote I chose to lead off this essay is spoken in regard to the film's tubercular, gaunt and cynical protagonist, but it might as well be said of Jules Dassin, five years after the release of Night and the City, his last film before Rififi, which could have been his final film had friendly powers not intervened. Especially watching it in the context of realizing it represented Dassin's last desperate bid to salvage his reputation and put his undeniable talents back to work. Through circumstances outside of his control (at least if he had any desire to retain a sense of personal honor), Jules Dassin was cornered, out of options, without much choice but to either scratch and claw his way out of the jam, or just give up and surrender quietly. Pretty much the equivalent of the crooked dilemma that his foursome of rogues get themselves into when they gear up for the Big Score - that proverbial overreach that if pulled off successfully will set them up for a life of ease, but with odds so stacked against them that they can't possibly prevail, despite their best planning and flawless execution.
The story, in case you need a fill in, involves Tony le Stephanois, aging and infamous jewel thief, just sprung from a five-year stretch in prison. Inevitably returning to his old haunts, he's invited by a couple of younger crooks (Jo the Swede and Mario, an impulsively stereotypical Italian) into a conspiracy to grab some rocks out of the display window of Mappin & Webb, a prominent Parisian marchand de bijoux. At first he wants nothing to do with it; why risk the freedom he's just regained for such a petty payoff? But a brief and brutal reunion with Mado, his former lover who abandoned him for a Riviera gigolo just weeks after he was incarcerated, confronts Tony with just how much he's lost and how little he has left to lose. The film opens with him going bust in a game of poker. He now realizes that as far as his life is concerned, its time to put all his chips in the pot and play out the ultimate hand. So he ups the ante, telling his accomplices that going through the window is pointless - the real prize awaiting them involves getting into Mappin & Webb's safe.
Tony has conditions though - no guns, since that brings an automatic life sentence should something go wrong and lead to their arrest. They need a safecracker, someone who knows how to get through the toughest of barriers. Mario draws on his shady connections to bring in Cesare, of whom it's said "no safe can resist Cesare, and no woman can Cesare resist." The entrance of this character, seemingly minor and functionary in the overall scheme of Rififi, is actually quite crucial to both the narrative's outcome and the overall impact of the film itself.
For you see, the role of Cesare is performed by none other than Jules Dassin, under the pseudonym "Perlo Vita." Dassin reveals in a supplemental interview on the DVD that he'd cast a talented Italian actor for the role but "the name escaped him," leading me to wonder if that was truly the case. I think it's a brilliant casting decision, whether deliberate or accidental it makes no difference really, to have Jules Dassin, the persecuted and banned pariah, the very director of Rififi, play the part of the crafty but critically vulnerable master-thief, upon whom both the plot's success and ultimate failure fully rests. Though I suspect many Rififi fans from its original audience (and even today) don't fully grasp the significance of Dassin's plight, seeing him on the screen in that particular role just took the film to a whole new level. I'm usually pretty sensitive to the socio-political ramifications of a film; in fact, I enjoy that aspect so much more than the surface reading of a film - and Rififi is full of contextual ironies. After watching the elder Dassin (in the supplemental interview) describe what he went through as a result of being blacklisted by Hollywood, his experiences of from being kicked off European productions simply due to the pressures those studios felt from distributors and film industry execs in the USA, I felt like I was in touch with the anger and determination that Dassin must have felt when he finally got this job and was able to once again take his place in the director's chair. France was and is still a friendly environment for artists who politically align with the Left, and when Dassin's persecution became public knowledge, it won him the crucial sympathy of a producer willing to defy the system and put the guy to work. Dassin used his opportunity to show a bunch of other guys going about their work, and he didn't waste his chance, creating an iconic, lasting masterpiece in the process.
So you may be wondering, what does Rififi even mean? Well, there's a song in the film that tries to explain it. The word comes from a local vernacular, a kind of gangster slang similar to the "grisbi" (loot) referred to in Touchez pas au grisbi. Written especially for the film, this (practically obligatory in a noir film) nightclub number indicates (if I could offer the subtitles) that "rififi" translates to something like "rough 'n tumble." You'll hear Viviane (Magali Noel) say it a few times, but watch the choreography - that communicates more efficiently than the words themselves:
That's Dassin (as Cesare) removing his hat at the very beginning of the clip, by the way. Mario sits with Cesare, Jo is with the pretty woman by himself (under the alias of Maximilian) and finally Tony makes his entrance right at the end of the song.
As for the epic break-in to the jewelers, it's an impressive scene, though it's fair to say that it's been surpassed in many ways over the subsequent five decades in terms of the technical obstacles facing the intruders. The naive simplicity and relative ease of breaching 1950s security system stands out to a contemporary viewer. I marveled at how such a precious stash of commodities could be entrusted to one easily-thwarted alarm system, for example. But don't let such nitpicks stand in the way of your enjoyment. That segment is really about the relationships within the group and the role that each played in getting the job done. And watch for a seemingly incidental extra goodie that Cesare helps himself to just before making his escape, because its crucial to what happens the rest of the way.
I was also fascinated to learn that the extended heist sequence was really just a ploy on Dassin's part to take up extra screen time so that he didn't have to include elements of the source novel that he found objectionable (particularly the author's racist views toward inhabitants of the French colonies in North Africa) or meaningless fistfights that the producer expected him to insert for commercial appeal. By chewing up one-quarter of Rififi's running time with an inversion of the procedural road map he created in The Naked City (this time, showing how the crooks plied their trade), Dassin drew the audience in via a fascination with secretive techniques, to get at the heart of a flawed but endearing set of relationships that exist even in the seamiest of worldly vocations.
Dassin showed, as he did in his brilliant handling of New York, California and London locations, amazing insight into how to use urban settings to create memorable drama and intriguing tension. This has to be one of the most impressive visual catalogs of Paris, of the many great films shot there over the years. He includes famous landmarks and scuzzy back-alleys, and the whole thing was created on a shoestring budget. Matching the characters he portrays in terms of desperation and last ditch efforts, Dassin was fortunately more successful than they were in making his return to a craft and discipline that he had every right to practice. I say this only in hindsight of course; for those making Rififi, there was no guarantee of future rewards or even public acceptance. The dice were rolling along with the cameras, and they had no real sense of what the bag would hold when Rififi was pulled out of the safe. The very real risk of failure, rejection, further censorship or worse must have hung over the production, but like the conspirators who refuse to discuss the possible consequences should their plans go awry, Dassin and his crew just plunged ahead, fueled by a mistrust of the authorities and confident that somehow or other they would finally prevail.
That dark aspect of desperate cameraderie and loyalty based on a lack of any plausibly survivable alternative, also gives Rififi its admittedly warped but still substantial moral reservoir. Tony and his gang are up to no good, clearly, and when things get complicated, their only way through the mess is to double down on the double crossings, bringing guns back into the equation as the stakes continue to rise. It's probably not necessary for me to say that it just doesn't end well for our protagonists. That was pretty much a prerequisite to getting a film like Rififi released back in the day, even though it still generated all kinds of objections for its frank and provocative portrayal of 50s style sex & drugs, with plenty of (implied, mostly off-screen) violence as a film of that era could handle. And let's face it, that was a big part of Rififi's appeal, as this trailer will attest:
The last half-hour of Rififi consists of a treatise in the gangster code of honor as low-life slime try to horn in on the gang's justly-earned bounty. There are those who give themselves up rather than betray their friend. There are those who pay the price for cracking under the pressure. And finally, there's Tony who cashes it all in as he comes to grips with the truth that even a flawlessly executed crime of the century cannot restore purpose, satisfaction or victory to the life he has lived. All that's left for him to do is settle old scores, rescue the innocent from harm and salvage a last scrap of respectability for his name before the last drop of blood spills from his veins.
Setting aside all that he's ever done, for the good or the bad, when it all comes down, Tony le Stephanois gets the job done. So did Jules Dassin, back when it really counted. Rififi gave them both one critical chance for redemption.
Next: Richard III