‘Rififi’ Remains the Perfect Heist (Movie)
Time is not necessarily kind to the classics. Films that were admired in decadespast do not always hold up to more recent scrutiny. “Rififi” is different. One of the great crime thrillers, the benchmark all succeeding heist films have been measured against, it’s no musty museum piece but a driving, compelling piece of work, redolent of the air of human frailty and fatalistic doom.
Despite winning the best director award at Cannes for expatriate American director Jules Dassin, this influential French-language gem has been difficult to see since its original, and very successful, release in 1955, when then-critic Francois Truffaut called it “the best film noir I have ever seen.”
Now Rialto Pictures, specialists in rescuing endangered treasures like “The Third Man,” “Grand Illusion,” “Nights of Cabiria” and “Peeping Tom,” has struck the first new 35-millimeter print of “Rififi” since that original release and commissioned new subtitles that accurately convey the sense of the slang-heavy French dialogue. The result is playing for one week at the Nuart in West Los Angeles and the Edwards Town Center in Costa Mesa.
“Rififi’s” almost untranslatable title--the closet anyone has come is “rough and tumble” or “pitched battle"--was the invention of writer/tough guy Auguste le Breton, whose original crime novel “Le Rififi chez les Hommes” (“Rififi Between the Men”) was called, again by Truffaut, the worst he’d ever read.
Though he had studio credits like “The Naked City,” “Thieves’ Highway” and “Night and the City,” director Dassin was an unlikely candidate to turn this book into a legendary film. For one thing, moving to Europe because of the blacklist meant he hadn’t directed in five years. For another, his French was no better than weak. And he didn’t have the money to hire a cast with box-office power.
What Dassin did do was employ top people behind the camera, including composer Georges Auric, legendary production designer Alexandre Trauner as well as cinematographer Philippe Agostini. Together they created a wonderfully atmospheric Paris, drenched in romantic black-and-white ambience, where everything--the cars, the cigarettes, even the bank notes--was bigger and more luxe than things are today.
Though his actors were not big names, they perfectly fit the roles of been-around, world-weary hard guys who lived and died by the criminal code. Dassin’s lawbreakers were laconic craftsmen, unapologetic about their profession, who took pride in the things they could do well. The time “Rififi” spends fleshing out these characters pays off in how involved we get in the outcome and aftermath of their crime.
“Rififi’s” central player is the sepulchral Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), just back on the streets with a killer cough and an unwavering stare after five years spent in prison, five years during which he steadfastly refused to rat out his best friend, Joe the Swede (Carl Mohner), a married man with a small son.
Tony, Joe and a carefree Italian named Mario Farrati (Robert Manuel) hatch a plan to break into the most posh jewelry store in Paris, a place with “more alarms than a firehouse.” To actually crack the safe, they need the help of the womanizing Cesar the Milanese (Dassin himself, under the stage name Perlo Vita). “They say,” Mario says, “there’s not a safe that can resist Cesar or a woman Cesar can resist.”
The planning for this job is meticulous, down to experiments on a duplicate of the alarm system and the use of a stopwatch to time the movements of all local tradespeople. But all that is nothing compared to the care taken with the robbery itself.
In a sequence that made “Rififi’s” reputation and is still a model of tension and precision, Dassin spends a full 30 minutes on the actual robbery, a completely wordless half-hour (though it makes good use of sound effects) that racks the nerves and provides a master class in breaking and entering as well as filmmaking.
Playing like a French version of the earlier “Asphalt Jungle” (which Dassin claims he didn’t see till after he shot this), “Rififi” balances touches like the imaginative use of children’s toys with a madonnas-or-whores attitude toward the women who cross its tough guys’ path. 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.
Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles (310) 478-6379, and the Edwards Town Center, 3199 Park Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 751-4184.