Thursday, October 07, 2010


Rififi

(France, 1955, 115 min.)

Starring Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin (as Perlo Vita), Marie Sabouret, Marcel Lupovici, Pierre Grasset, Claude Sylvain, Magali Noel, Janine Darcey, Robert Hossein, Dominique Maurin.

Written by Jules Dassin and Rene Wheeler, from the novel by Auguste LeBreton.

Directed by Jules Dassin.

In a small café in Paris, a card game is going on, but it’s not going well for Tony (Servais). Once a celebrated criminal known as Le Stephanois, Tony, since getting out of prison, can’t even muster the respect to be fronted money in the game he’s losing. Past his prime and not very healthy, Tony thankfully still has friends, including Jo (Möhner), who remains indebted to Tony for taking the fall for the job that landed him in stir. The gratitude is deeper than just criminal code loyalty, however, as witnessed by the fact that Jo’s young son is named Tonio.

Jo and Tony go to visit Mario (Manuel), another friend, and find him getting a sponge bath from his voluptuous wife Ida (Sylvain). Mario has an idea to snatch some precious stones from the window of a local jewelry store, but Tony begs off, being tired of the whole scene. Jo subsequently informs him that he’s seen Tony’s ex, a woman named Mado (Sabouret), at a club called L’age d’or. She’s taken up with the proprietor, a surly man named Grutter (Lupovici), and apparently did so right after Tony went away. Grutter is no stranger to the Paris criminal world himself, nor are his brothers Remi (Hossein) and the opiate-lovin’ Louis (Grasset). Tony goes to the club and confronts Mado. She agrees to go back to his flat, but Tony can’t hide his disgust for long and he soon humiliates her and throws her out. Confronted with his own powerlessness, he meets with Jo and Mario again and agrees to do the job, only a petty smash and grab isn’t going to do the trick. If they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it big and go for the safe. A master plan is concocted and carried out, but the inevitable slip brings everything crashing down.

A lot of this probably sounds familiar, but that would be a case of inverse recognition, since every film that uses these tropes got them from this one. That writer-director-actor Dassin managed to work at all at this point in his career was feat enough as it was (there’s plenty of fascinating backstory there: he was a victim of the HUAC blacklist, the poisonous tentacles of which stretched as far as Europe, making it difficult even there to find people who would hire him). That this lucky break would result in his making the quintessential modern heist picture was a happy byproduct that Dassin could probably never have guessed.

No matter how repugnant the reason for Dassin’s having lost out on so many other projects, we can be thankful that he finally landed this one, loosely based on a LeBreton novel that the director had serious reservations about. (He found the depiction of the nightclub gang repugnantly racist.) The talent he displayed for depicting the darker side of Gotham in 1948’s The Naked City gets nicely translated into French, but that’s just one layer in the gateau. At turns playful, somber, sexy, funny and touching (with even a sly, ironic reference to Dassin’s political problems thrown in), the entire mix swirls around a centerpiece break-in sequence in which not a word is spoken by anyone for somewhere in the vicinity of thirty minutes. The producer and soundtrack composer both wanted musical accompaniment but after Dassin showed them his preferred cut, the composer himself did a complete 180 and insisted it be left unadorned. The result is a breathless visual narrative of a crime made all the more suspenseful and sinister by the silence.

But every cake needs a binding agent (we hereby abandon the culinary references) and, appropriate to the incidental way the film came together, this too was driven by circumstance. The budget was too low to hire big name actors, so they got Servais for the lead. Once a prominent actor himself, his career took a downturn owing to his fondness for the ferment. They were subsequently able to get him cheap, but his rough and tumble appearance (‘rough and tumble,’ by the way, being the approximate meaning of the title, as displayed in a night club song sung by Noel that Dassin later felt clashed with the rest of the movie) adds to a performance that is simply spot on. His character’s demons have driven him to a now familiar decision – to go for that one last big score – only it’s never explicitly stated as such, which automatically makes it more understated than its many imitators. Correspondingly, Tony’s acumen, ruthlessness and sadness are all powerfully conveyed by Servais often with little more than his eyes and the lines in his face.


It’s nice to think of the cowards, sycophants and fanatics who wouldn’t give Dassin a break seeing this picture and realizing the opportunities they blew, but it’s probably better – and more in keeping with the filmmaker’s wishes – just to enjoy the picture for what it is. The blueprint for the perfect crime (movie).

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