The word rififi, in the film of the same name, refers to toughness, style and cred on the streets, and Jules Dassin’s 1955 movie has plenty of it.
“Rififi” is a stylish, sultry, sexy and shadowy noir that laid the groundwork for the modern heist film. It tells the story of the washed up crook Tony “The Stephanois,” (Jean Servais) who is just out of prison, isn’t needed anymore, isn’t trusted by his poker buddies and is ultimately a lonely, tragic film noir figure.
He joins a group of three other hoods with a goal to rob the biggest bank in Montmartre. Their initial plans are simple: smash the windows and grab the jewels in the display for a handsome haul. But Tony proposes to go for the big bucks. The thing is, he has no reason to truly do this job. He’s got no ambitions for what to do with the money, whereas his three companions all have admirable home lives. He’s cruel to his former lover Mado (Marie Sabouret), and with no cares in his life except for his godson, he can do nothing but be vicious to himself and those in his life. “A man’s gotta live,” Tony says, but his job is near suicide.
The story is textbook noir, but “Rififi” is all about style and attitude. The film’s entire mid-section consists of a carefully staged heist done in complete silence. Dassin allows no dialogue, opting instead for every sound and every gesture to be the difference between life and death for these characters. He makes an art out of their clever scheme, showing the four men stealthily knocking out two attendants and then pulling back the camera to purvey the glistening shadows as they take an elevator to the penthouse above the bank. The entire segment is so methodical that even the slightest of movements creates gripping suspense, such as the plink of a piano, the banging of a mallet, the scraping of a drill and the slow passage of time on a clock.
This scene would be a template for modern heist films to come, but what sets “Rififi” apart are the glances behind the scenes. There is genuine fear in these crooks’ eyes, and their error through human emotion is made all the more powerful by Dassin’s hauntingly desolate imagery. Dassin’s shots of a lone balloon floating into the stratosphere as a little boy is kidnapped, or his mother running after him in the background of a car window and under an endless string of arches is style and visceral images at work. Sometime earlier we see the crook Cesar (Dassin himself), get hurled into a surreal prop room from a jittery and claustrophobic POV perspective. It’s a harsh, violent view hardly seen at this time, and it makes “Rififi” all the more intimate.
“They’re the tough guys. Not you,” says a wife to her husband involved in the crime. Dassin made an angry, rugged film in “Rififi,” but it has tragedy and heart that the tough, grizzled heist movies of today lack.