in Criterion Month

Rififi (1955)

I can’t imagine writing a heist movie. Really, any sort of movie that is more plot-driven than character-based sounds hard to do, but the heist might be the hardest in this style. Because with a heist, you know the stakes: Clive Owen is going to rob that bank, George Clooney and Brad Pitt are going to rob that casino, Vin Diesl and Paul Walker are going to rob that Brazilian crime lord. Therefore it’s entirely how they do it that keeps you invested in the picture. That requires genuine cleverness, because if our characters are too good or their solutions too far-fetched, it drains all suspense away and you end up with… I don’t know, Armored?

Which is why I’m so happy to say the best part of Rififi is its half hour jewelry store burglary, a sequence which plays without a score or any dialogue. It’s just professional criminals doing their job as efficiently as they can. Let me tell you, this is thoroughly, breathtakingly suspenseful and thrilling. You might scoff, since it’s easy to assume that this heist is quaint compared to what we’ve seen in the 60 years since Rififi was released, but trust me, it’s awesome. There’s very good reason why this movie serves as the blueprint for its genre.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Rififi tells the story of Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais), a career criminal who was just released from a five-year prison stint. He reconnects with his younger friend, Jo (Carl Möhner) who is planning a smash-and-grab at a jewelry store. Tony’s in, but on the condition that they actually break in a rob the safe – no little league bullshit here: go big or go home. So they team of with Mario (Robert Manuel), Jo’s friend who originally picked the place, and a safecracker called César (played by the film’s director, Jules Dassin, under the pseudonym of Perlo Vita) and get to work.

Almost as fun as the actual heist is the planning sequence, in which the four learn the street, the schedule, the layout of the store, and every other detail necessary to get in and get away with the gems. In another long scene, they figure out all the security the store will have, and test different ways to diffuse or bypass it. It’s nice to get this sort of scene from a time before computers, when the only “hacking in” is literally chipping away at the floor to break into the building. This was a time when you could defeat a mechanical alarms with fire extinguisher foam, if you could get close enough. Again I must stress that even though everything is low tech, that only serves to heighten the tension, as there’s no room for error or high tech deus ex machina if someone screws up.

And this movie has plenty of screwing up. While the heist dominates the second act, the whole story is one about how criminals are bad people. Right from the first scene, we see Tony is absolutely wrecked physically, with a nasty cough as he emerges into daylight after staying all night in a gambling den playing cards. Mentally, he’s not too great either, as he goes and finds his old girlfriend just to beat her up. Real peace of work, this Tony. Also, it’s worth noting that the four have no reason to rob the jewelry store – no big debts to pay off, no evil owner they want revenge against – rather, they’re just doing it because that’s what these people do.

That bleak outlook probably resonated with director Jules Dassin, who made the film in France after being blacklisted in Hollywood. This is a story of men who care less about right and wrong and more about some bullshit code, and that gets a lot of people hurt and killed. Even by contemporary standards, the last act of Rififi seemed brutal. The unusual production situation also meant Dassin was working with a tiny budget and mostly unknowns, save for Jean Servais, who hadn’t had a starring role in a while due to his, fittingly enough, alcoholism.

Nonetheless, vision overcame everything else and regardless of how it happened, a lasting masterpiece was made. This movie was good enough that apparently real wannabe jewel thieves used it as a template for their own attempted crimes. Sure, that may sound idiotic, especially given how the rest of the movie goes, but it’s proof that Rififi is engrossing, compelling cinema. What a great start to this marathon I had.