American director Jules Dassin has crafted one of the greatest French heist thrillers of all time with Rififi, creating a noir gangster story constructed around a 33 minute safe cracking sequence, which was duplicated and copied several times after and yet never surpassed. The story of veteran criminals that gather a group of specialists together to carry out a big score was taken from John Huston's earlier noir classic The Asphalt Jungle. Jules Dassin was an American director in exile in Paris because his American career had been ruthlessly destroyed by the House of Un-American Activities committee who named him a communist during the McCarthy witch-hunt. When in Europe he tried to direct for several French and Italian companies, but was stopped when Hollywood would tell foreign producers that they forbid any film that bore Dassin's name to be distributed in the United States. By 1955, Dassin was penniless and desperate and when a French agency approached him to direct the film Rififi; he accepted even though admitting to hating the script. And yet Rififi is now considered Dassin's greatest film and one of the first films that pioneered the French noir gangster films of the 50's next to Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur. It's nighttime shots in Rififi are stunning and Dassin filmed using everyday locations which include construction sites, back alleys, train stations, diners, smokey gambling houses and dance clubs. The dance club and it's interior with beautiful exotic dancers singing and dancing is entrancing, and there is an unrehearsed naturalness to its characters who seem less as supermen and more human and prone to making mistakes. And yet it is the iconic 33 minute safe cracking sequence in the center of the story, that makes the film as memorable and legendary as it is. The whole scene is so suspenseful, authentic and done in such precise detail that every time I witness this criminal team at work I am in complete awe; and my tension level is so high that any little sound makes my heart skip a beat. Throughout the whole 33 minutes you hear nothing but the men's breathing, muffled coughing, light taps and bangs, plaster being chipped away and lightly falling into an umbrella to catch it, and when inside the building; the light screech of a power drill that is used to cut inside the back of the safe. So meticulous and specific was the construction and detail of the heist scene that the film was banned in some countries because of a series of burglaries mimicking its scene; and because many feared the heist scene was an instructional guide to successfully commit crimes.
Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) an ex-con who has served a five-year prison term for a jewel heist, is now out on the street and down on his luck. The opening shot of the film shows a smokey backroom poker game. The camera pans up as one of the men playing is Tony le Stephanois as he just looses all the money he has. A man named Jo who is a also a father and husband gets a phone call from Tony who is a close friend. Tony took a 5 year rap for Jo for not squealing and so when Tony asks if Jo can arrive with more cash, Jo happily helps out.
While waiting for his friends arrival; the other men at the table won't let Tony play telling him, "no cards if no cash." When Jo arrives he is shocked that the men at the table didn't trust Tony because he's Tony the Stephanois; a famous and respectable gangster. One of the men at the table says, "Tony or no Tony, only one thing counts...Hard cash." "Forget these lugs" says Jo as he angers one of the men. "Your not polite" the man says to Jo about to pull out his pistol but is quickly stopped by Tony. "Relax, he's still green," Tony tells the man.
Tony and Jo leave the building and walk onto the street. Tony starts coughing as Jo says, "Poker all night in a smoke-filled room! Just what you need!" They take off and drive to see Jo's friend named Mario. When they meet up with Mario they all three sit down and talk of taking a huge score. Jo and Mario approach Tony on the idea about a jewel heist in which they would stealthily cut the glass on a Parisian jeweler's front window and grab some gems. Tony believes it's too tough saying, "the place has more alarms than a firehouse." Mario insists that the rocks in the window is worth the hit and still Tony turns the offer down saying, "sorry, guys. I don't run so fast anymore."
Tony is later at Jo's home playing with Jo's son Tonio when Jo gets a call from Mario informing him that Mado, Tony's ex girlfriend is back and has aligned herself with mob boss Pierre Grutter while working at L'Age d'Or in Montmartre. Tony decides to leave and head to the L'Age d'Or ignoring Jo's warnings on Pierre's connections. When arriving at L'Age d'Or and confronting Mado at a table with another man Tony tells the man, "beat it chump." Mado is surprised to see Tony believing he was still locked up, not knowing he got out for good behavior. Tony orders her to leave with him and he takes her to his rundown flat. When arriving Tony tells her, "Nothing like our old place. You fixed it up nice. How much did you unload it for while I was inside? You never had a head for figures. I got busted in May. In June you were on the Riviera with a gigolo. You didn't lose any time. And now it's the likes of Pierre Grutter."
Tony admires all her new glittery jewelry and he angrily orders her to remove the jewelry and put her fur coat on the table. He then orders her to strip while she says to him, "believe me Tony, I never forgot you." He then takes a belt and violently beats her with the beating shown off-screen as the camera zooms in on a photo of the two of them hanging on a wall during their early happier days. Tony then orders her to get dressed and throws Mado out of his apartment. After getting his adrenaline pumping Tony then picks up the phone and calls Jo saying, "meet me at Mario's right away...The job interests me after all. A man's gotta live."
Tony and Jo arrive at Mario's place as Mario's wife Ada answers the door. Jo lets Mario know that Tony changed his mind and wants to take the job: on one condition in that they hit the jeweler's safe, not the window. All three discuss the job in the other room as Tony tells Mario that he has connections but doesn't want to use a gun saying, "get caught with a rod, and it's the slammer for life. For me, the rocks in the window are chicken feed. We gotta go for the real thing. The jackpot. The safe! Sure: it's gonna need careful preparation. Knocking out their alarms, and most of all, getting a safecracker."
Mario, an Italian suggests Cesar the Milanese who is considered one of the best safecracker's around.That evening Tony tells Jo he is going back to the L'Age d'Or to see Grutter because he wasn't in the other night and Jo decides to go with him. Grutter is a mob boss who has a heroin addict for a brother who always begs Grutter for more drugs. When Joe arrives with Tony to the L'Age d'Or they ironically run into Mario with the safecracker Caesar Stephanois as they all four sit and watch a singing performance on stage. When Grutter walks out Tony confronts him asking Grutter if he recognizes who he is. Grutter says that he does and bluntly tells Tony that Mado is now his and that he will lay off Tony as along as Tony lays off him. After Grutter walks away Joe tells Tony that he is surprised that Mado didn't tell Grutter about the beating that Tony gave her the other evening and Tony says, "She didn't have to. It's stamped across her back."
Days later the four team up and plan a way to work around the ingenious alarm system guarding the jewelry shop. Casing the store, the group plans to drill through the ceiling from an upstairs flat which will be vacant on a Sunday night extending into Monday morning before the jeweler returns. Tony travels to go see a man named Teddy Levantine in London who will assure him of cashing in the diamonds for him if Tony's robbery is successful. In preparation for the security of the building, Cesar walks into the jewelry store posing as a customer to take a look at what kind of model the safe is the jewerly store is. He later then makes a call to get a version of that same model for the four of them to stage a rehearsal and learn how to crack it.
The safe is called the 'sure alarm' and is the latest model in security and the four of them realize they got a major challenge when Mario finds out that the building is wired to a system where any vibration or sound will automatically trigger the alarm. Tony comes up with an ingenious solution of using foam from a fire extinguisher to immobilize the sound of the alarm. In one of the great film sequences of the film comes the robbery which is a 33 minute sequence in which Dassin removes all dialog and hushing the soundtrack as you only hear the mere sounds of these men's breath (or the sudden sound of a piano key) as you witness these men break the floor, silence the alarms, crack safes, check watches, and signal each other for anything suspicious.
When first arriving at the jewelry store they knock on the door of the concierge and his wife who live on the floor above the jewelry store; and when the two answer they quickly and quietly get tied up as the four men make their way into the home. The four criminals then use the main lobby to cut a hole through the floor as they roll away the carpeting and start slowly ripping the floor boards out by picking at the cement with a chisel. They then take an umbrella and stick it down the small hole opening and reopening it so when chipping away the dirt and debris it will fall and get collected into the umbrella. When the hole is large enough, Tony takes the fire extinguisher and uses a robe to climb down into the jewelry store. When inside Tony quickly uses the fire extinguisher foam to immobilize the sound of the alarm. The other three then climb down into the store after Tony has successfully taken care of the alarm and they all then carefully turn over the heavy safe and drill a hole in the back of it by using a power drill.
When eventually cutting a large enough hole into the safe they remove all the diamonds; store up their tools and make their escape out of the building. It is now the early morning and the morning officer patrolling the area see their car parked on the side of the building and is about to write a parking ticket out when Tony knocks him out from behind and the three of them quickly get in the vehicle and drive off. The four of them quickly change vehicles and dump all their supplies in the river. They later meet up at Mario's home and when displaying all the diamonds and jewels that they've stolen; their faces and eyes light up with delight and excitement. They all discuss what they are going to buy for their wives and children as Mario and Cesar celebrate by dancing and singing. Tony says to Jo, "never in my whole crummy life...200 million, at least. Even with the Levantine's take...it was worth the risk."
The suspenseful break-in completed, the criminals seem to have triumphed. The next morning the robbery is in the French paper as it says that 240 million was stolen which was the biggest take since the Sabine women! Without the others' knowledge, Cesar has pocketed a diamond ring as a gift for his mistress Viviane, a chanteuse at L'Age d'Or. The four men arrange to fence the loot with a London contact Teddy Levantine, but are just waiting for Tony's contact with him.
Meanwhile, Grutter is curious on who is behind the jewel theft especially when a police inspector comes by the L'Age d'Or and offers Grutter 10 million for any lead on the jewelry job. When Mado returns from a trip, Grutter finally sees her injuries; and Mado breaks off their relationship. From this, Grutter infers that Tony is at the root of Mado's decision and so he then gives drugs to his heroin-addicted brother and tells him to murder Tony. And when Grutter sees the diamond Cesar had given to his dancer Viviane, he finally realizes that Cesar and Tony were responsible for the jewel theft. Seeing revenge and the money they have stolen Grutter goes to find Cesar. When his men ask what he is going to do, he tells them, "practice my Italian." Grutter forces Cesar to confess on who worked with him and when Cesar names Mario as one of their accomplices in the robbery, Grutter's gang threatens Mario and his wife Ida.
Trying to set up a trap for Tony they force them to call Tony up and invite him over to their home; but when they both don't go through with it and with Ida instead warning Tony of Grutter's plans over the phone; Grutter and his men brutally murder Mario and Ida. After finding Mario and Ida's bodies, Tony now is now furious. He decides to go looking for Grutter at his L'Age d'Or during closing hours and he finds the captive Cesar down in the basement. When Cesar asks about Mario, Tony tells him, "he's dead. It was you. You ratted on him." Cesar tells Tony that he is sorry and that he said names because he was afraid. Tony says, "I really like you Macaroni, but you know the rules." Tony pulls out his gun and shoots Cesar dead. Tony makes an anonymous phone call to the police on the death of Marion and Ida and Tony retrieves Mario's share of the jewels and pays for a splendid funeral for him.
Meanwhile, Grutter's brother Remi follows his brother's orders and kidnaps Jo's five-year-old son Tonio, demanding that Jo and Tony give over the loot or young Tonio will be killed. The London fence sent by Teddy Levantine finally arrives with the cash for the jewerly, which now seems pointless to Jo, who along with his wife, is tormented with worry for their son. Tony goes looking for the boy and orders that Jo does not give into Grutter's ransom; just yet. Tony tells Jo, "the only chance of getting the boy back...is this," as he pulls out a pistol. After Tony leaves, Jo's wife looks at her husband with contempt and when Jo accuses her of blaming him for their sons predicament she says, "I'm not blaming you. There's something I always wanted to tell you. There are kids...millions of kids who've grown up poor. Like you. How did it happen...What difference was there between them and you...that you became a hood, a tough guy, and not them? Know what I think, Jo? They're the tough guys...not you."
In the heart pounding climax, Tony is out on the streets seeking Jo's son Tonio. Tony tracks him down with help from Mado; who disgusted when heard of the kidnapping, gives Tony information on a drug dealer who always drives out to a mysterious house in the country to deliver Grutter's brother Remi heroin. It's a race against time as Tony quickly drives up to Grutter's country house and kills Grutter's brothers Remi and Louis to save Tonio. Yet as he is on his way back to Paris with Tonio, Tony is told that Jo has cracked under the pressure of Grutter and has taken all the money to the country house for Grutter in exchange for his son.
When Grutter arrives at the country house and finds his brothers dead, he kills Jo when he arrives with the money. When Tony turns around and heads back to the country house he then kills Grutter but not before being mortally wounded by a gunshot.
In a thrilling and tragic climax Tony is bleeding profusely, while driving maniacally back to Paris delivering Tonio home safely right before bleeding to death in his car; as police and bystanders close in on him and his remaining loot.
In 1955, Jules Dassin, an American director in exile in Paris, made this flat-out perfect piece of cinema. The film came as a redemption for Dassin: a one-time promising young director cranking out B-movies under an MGM contract ("They were awful. It was just plain unhappiness and embarrassment," he later said of his work of those years), his career had been ruthlessly strangled by the obsessive hand of the paranoiac House of Un-American Activities Committee. Named a communist, he fled to Europe, where he tried to direct for various French and Italian companies, only to be foiled when Hollywood made it clear to the foreign producers that it would forbid any film that bore Dassin’s name to be distributed in the U.S. By 1955, the situation was unbearable. Deprived of work, penniless, heartbroken, he was despairing of ever working again when a French agency approached him to direct Rififi. Despite grave concerns over the nature of the script—which he hated—he accepted.
The film that Dassin made became unquestionably his most loved work. Telling the story of Tony le Stephanois, a newly sprung bank robber who engineers the perfect caper, the film is a delirious fantasia of gangster ethics and underworld locales, artfully framed in a baroque, twisting plot and hung lovingly against the gorgeous backdrop of Parisian streets. Dazzling, ornate, and artfully crafted, Rififi is, arguably, a work of perfection.
Part of the key to Rififi’s genius is that no single element outshines another. Like a diamond, each facet of the film gleams as brightly: The performances, especially Jean Servais’ minimalist take on the dog-eared protagonist Tony and Dassin’s own lighthearted portrayal of the safecracker Cesar le Milanais (under the pseudonym Perlo Vita), are quite excellent. The cinematography is stunning, particularly the nighttime shots, where we see the sharp of Tony’s hat laid against the smears of neon that pulse in the city streets behind him. The music, by famed composer Georges Auric, is dead on, restrained and somber, occasionally breaking into dance. The plot is an economic wonder: three succinct acts that unfold with the dedication of an opera, building to a glorious, melodramatic finish. And the sets, by the great designer Alexandre Trauner (who had worked on Children of Paradise), manage to hold their own against Dassin’s obsessively and lovingly researched street locations. The interior of the obligatory gangland nightclub (named "L’Age d’Or" in homage to the Buñuel film Trauner also previously designed) is especially handsome, its definitive architecture piling the requisite layers upon layers—like the ballroom leading upstairs to the gangster’s office, which, of course, has a back door that takes us to the dreamland of backstage. Only the gorgeous Parisian locations—the train station and assorted back alleys—threaten to outshine Trauner’s lovely sets.
And yet, even in a film of such generous superlatives, something does stand out, towering over it all. For Rififi is that most hallowed of films, a film that contains a monument within. Like the Grand Hall ball in The Magnificent Ambersons or the pickpocketing sequence in Pickpocket or the crop-duster chase in North by Northwest, the virtually silent, gleefully long heist scene at the center of Rififi is a tingling, ecstatic, sustained act of brilliance—a sacrament of the cinema. For an astounding 33 minutes, Dassin removes all dialogue, hushing the soundtrack to the mere sounds of breath—the accidental note from a piano is enough to stop your heart—as we observe the criminal team at work, breaking through the floor, silencing alarms, cracking safes, checking watches, and signaling each other. It is a scene you’ve seen before (shameless imitators have been cannibalizing it for decades), but you will never see it so purely, respectfully done as here. The fetishistic shots of the safecracker’s tools, the rope that comes out of the suitcase already knotted and ready for climbing down, the team’s proprietary language of hand-gesture, the justly famous (and I won’t give it away) conceit of the umbrella—all of these elements are so lovingly described, it makes you want to cry out.
But it is the simple image of the men working together that binds it all. The film may be about crime, but at its heart, Rififi reveals itself to actually be a paean to work—not the drudgery of labor, but the poetic "Love Made Visible" that Khalil Gibran once described. In these 33 glorious minutes, we see our heroes as they were meant to be: working together.
I spoke with the 88-year-old Dassin by phone this year, just after seeing his film. I asked him if he knew how fine a work he was making during its construction. I could almost see his craggy smile on the other end. "I didn’t know what it would become when I was making it. I really didn’t know," he said. "I was just so concentrated on working—having work to do, getting up in the morning and going to work, enjoying the company of the crew—that’s all that was on my mind, actually. . . ." To which, one can only say, Amen.
Rififi was originally to be directed by the great director Jean-Pierre Melville, a later luminary of the heist film genre. Melville gave his blessing to American director Jules Dassin when the latter asked for his permission to take the job. It was Dassin's first film in five years; because he had been blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities after fellow director Edward Dmytryk named him a communist in April 1951. Subsequently, Dassin attempted to rebuild his career in Europe after several such film projects were stopped through long-distance efforts by the US government. Dassin received an offer from an agent in Paris, France where he met producer Henri Bérard who had acquired the rights to Auguste le Breton's popular crime novel Du Rififi chez les hommes. Bérard chose Dassin due to the major success in France of Dassin's previous film: The Naked City.
Using his native English, Dassin wrote the screenplay to Rififi in six days with the help of screenwriter René Wheeler, who subsequently took the material and translated it to French. Dassin hated the novel; he was repelled by the story's racist theme in which the rival gangsters were dark Arabs and North Africans pitted against light-skinned Europeans. As well, the book portrayed disquieting events such as necrophilia which were scenes that Dassin did not know how to bring to the big screen. For the rival gang, the producer suggested making them Americans, assuming Dassin would approve. Dassin was against this idea as he didn't want to be accused of taking oblique revenge on-screen. Dassin downplayed the rival gangsters' characters in his screenplay and made their ethnicity vague, with the name Grutter sounding possibly German, Polish, or Centro-European.
The greatest change from the book was the heist scene which spanned ten pages of the 250-page novel. Dassin focused the screenplay around this event to get past the other events that he did not know what to do with. In the film, the scene takes a quarter of the film's running time and is accomplished without spoken words or music which was unheard of in film. Working with a low-budget of $200,000, Dassin could not afford top stars for the film. To carry the lead role, Dassin selected Jean Servais, an actor whose career had slumped due to alcoholism. Rififi was filmed during the wintertime in Paris and used real locations rather than studio sets. Due to the low-budget, the locations were scouted by Dassin himself refusing to shoot the film when there was sunlight claiming that he just wanted grey; and also that there were to be no fist fights in the film.
Rififi's heist scene was based on an actual burglary that took place in 1899 along Marseille's cours St-Louis. A gang broke into the first floor offices of a travel agency, cutting a hole in the floor and using an umbrella to catch the debris in order to make off with the contents of the jeweler's shop below. The scene where Tony regretfully chooses to kill Cesar for his betrayal of the thieves' code of silence was filmed as an allusion to how Dassin and others felt after finding their contemporaries willing to name names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and this act was not in the original novel.
Georges Auric was hired as the composer for the film and Dassin and Auric originally could not agree about scoring the half hour caper scene. After Dassin told Auric he did not want music, Auric claimed he said to him, "I'm going to write the music for the scene anyways, because you need to be protected". After filming was finished, Dassin showed the film to Auric once with music and once without. Afterward, Auric agreed to remove the music. Rififi debuted in France on April 13, 1955. The film was banned in some countries due to its heist scene, referred to by the Los Angeles Times reviewer as a "master class in breaking and entering as well as filmmaking". The Mexican interior ministry banned the film because of a series of burglaries mimicking its heist scene and Rififi was banned in Finland in the late 1950s. In answer to critics who saw the film as an educational process that taught people how to commit burglary, Dassin claimed the film showed how difficult it was to actually carry out a crime.
After becoming a huge success in France the film was offered distribution in the United States on the condition that Dassin renounce his past, declaring that he was duped into subversive associations. Otherwise, his name would be removed from the film as the writer and director. Dassin refused and the film was released by United Artists who set up a dummy corporation as the distributing company. The film was distributed successfully in America with Dassin listed in the credits; in this way he was the first to break the Hollywood blacklist. The film caused controversy on its release from The Roman Catholic Legion of Decency as the film endured three brief cuts in it and opened with a title card quoting the Book of Proverbs stating "When the wicked are multiplied, crime shall be multiplied: but the just shall see their downfall". After this change, the film passed with a B rating.
Upon its original release, film critic and future director François Truffaut praised the film, stating that "Out of the worst crime novels I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I've ever seen" and "Everything in Le Rififi is intelligent: screenplay, dialogue, sets, music, choice of actors. Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, and Jules Dassin are perfect." Legendary French critic André Bazin said that Rififi brought the genre a "sincerity and humanity that break with the conventions of a crime film, and manage to touch our hearts". In the February 1956 issue of the French film magazine Cahiers du cinéma, the film was listed as number thirteen in the top twenty films of 1955.
The American release of the film also received acclaim. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times referred to the film as "perhaps the keenest crime film that ever came from France, including Pepe le Moko and some of the best of Louis Jouvet and Jean Gabin." When rereleased for a limited run within America on July 21, 2000 in a new 35 mm print containing new, more explicit subtitles, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote the film was the "benchmark all succeeding heist films have been measured against... It's a film whose influence is hard to overstate, one that proves for not the last time that it's easier to break into a safe than fathom the mysteries of the human heart." In 2002, critic Roger Ebert added the film to his list of 'Great Movies' stating "echoes of Rififi can be found from Kubrick's The Killing to Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs." Rififi placed at number 90 on Empire's list of The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema.
Rififi's violence in the film is very realistic which is unheard of for most films in the 50's besides Fritz Lang's noir masterpiece The Big Heat. It has a unrehearsed naturalness to it and the characters in the film seem less as supermen and more human and prone to mistakes. Much of the violence takes place just off-screen; most famously the belt beating scene that Tony does to his ex girlfriend Mado; which might be because of the production code but it makes the gritty violence much more effective. On of the best scenes of the film is when Tony has to sadly execute Cesar (who was played by Dassin) after Cesar rats out his accomplices because of his stupidity and carelessness. "You know the rules," Tony says and you can see in his eyes that he does not want to do it but he has to out of the code of the streets; and Cesar understands as well. Dassin was known for being a director who loved to shoot on real life city locations, like his other films Naked City which is famous for its semi-documentary footage of New York. Then there's Nights and the City, which tells the story of a slimy small time grifter, played by Richard Widmark who becomes a fugitive from the mob after a fixed boxing promotion goes horribly wrong; and the filmmaking shots of wet streets and dark alleys makes it one of the best noir films of the 50's; for which it's style is often compared to The Third Man. In Rififi, it's nighttime shots are stunning and Dassin filmed using everyday locations which include construction sites, back alleys, train stations, diners, smokey gambling houses and dance clubs. The dance club (which is called L'Age d'Or in homage to the Luis Bunuel surrealist film) and it's interior with beautiful exotic dancers singing and dancing is entrancing. Rififi is one of the most perfectly crafted gangster thrillers of all time and it's gangster ethics, mixed with great dialog, characters, acting, the gorgeous underworld locales, and a heart-pounding climax; make Rififi timeless.