It’s interesting to chart Jules Dassin’s Rififi in the context of his other films noir, as this adaptation of Auguste Le Breton’s novel of the same name really does play into the trail set ablaze by 1947’s Brute Force. This 1955 movie is French and it finds the director taking the helm for his first outing in five years.
Dassin wrote the screenplay along with René Wheeler, but he rejected several elements of the novel and used the heist sequence as a focal point. The wordless scene amounts to about a half an hour and sits taunting convention in the middle of the picture. The rest of Rififi works in the noir world and runs around the painstaking robbery.
Jean Servais stars as “the Stéphanois,” a grizzled career criminal recently released from a stint in the pen. He is approached by his friend Jo (Carl Möhner) with the idea of a break-in. The Italian gangster Mario (Robert Manuel) is also in on the gig, but the Stéphanois has a more ambitious idea and the heist expands to target the safe of a jewellery store.
The threesome becomes a foursome when César (Dassin) gets involved as a safecracker. The men plan the robbery. They meticulously case the joint and plan for every contingency. When the big day comes, they get the job done. But the fallout is unforeseen and various entanglements put the friends and lovers of the thieves in some serious jeopardy.
As with Dassin’s other films noir, destiny plays a critical role. Considering a character like Fabian from 1950’s Night and the City sets the men of Rififi on a different wavelength. They are controlled and precise, whereas Fabian is careless. But fate still has other things in store, which suggests that all the care in the world has little to do with the impact of life’s sinister consequences.
The characters are compelling, starting with the Stéphanois. Also known as Tony, he’s a callous man who whips his former lover Mado (Marie Sabouret) when he discovers she’s dating gangster and nemesis Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici). Tony has a code of honour, but he’s not above murder to get the job done.
Jo is a family man. His wife (Janine Darcey) and son Tonio (Dominique Maurin) play perilous roles in the latter portion of the film as the Grutters focus their ire on snaking the jewels. Jo and Tony are long-time friends and there is a certain shred of envy, like the Stéphanois wants the domestic bliss Jo and his family have achieved.
Mario is with the unabashed Ida (Claude Sylvain). She has no problem appearing nearly nude in front of the lads. When we meet her, she’s giving Mario a bath. And César has issues with love, as he falls for the stunning nightclub singer Viviane (Magali Noel) and takes an ill-fated risk to show his affection. Viviane is also involved with the Grutters.
The heist is presented methodically and the build to the big moment comes with plenty of practice and plenty of trial and error. The thieves test the sensitivity of the alarm in a captivating sequence that has them attempting different methods of shutting the thing up. A plan is determined to immobilize it, but Dassin’s meticulousness sets the stage for what’s to come.
When the robbery comes into play, there is nothing but hammering and tapping and breathing to accompany the tough work. The silence underlines the suspense and sets the mood. When a character accidentally presses a key on the piano, it’s hard not to jump. The drills shriek to open the safe and the men watch and sweat and watch and sweat.
The cinematography of Philippe Agostini captures the heist with remarkable detail, with Dassin’s world always hedged in a form of miserable grey. The sky never breaks and the sun never shines, but the darkness seldom seems unconditional. There’s always the hint of a storm, of a whirlwind over the cover of Montmartre that threatens to sweep the criminals inside.
And true to noir form, they are swept inside. Despite the relative purity of the heist, very little goes well in the aftermath. The puzzle pieces undo themselves and the picture slides apart into kidnapping and violence. People are killed and the Stéphanois, perhaps in Rififi’s final act of insolence, careens through the streets with salvation dripping from his veins.