cast: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Perlo Vita (alias: Jules Dassin), and Marie Sabouret
director: Jules Dassin
118 minutes (12) 1955
Arrow DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by Debbie Moon
Tony le Stephanois is an aging small-time crook just out of prison; his girl Mado has taken up with a shady nightclub boss, Grutter, and his friends are hungry for one last big score. They’re planning a smash and grab from the window of the biggest, best-protected jewellers in Paris, but Tony has a better idea. Why not the safe? There are millions of francs in there for the taking – if they can get past the state of the art alarm system during the few hours a week there’s no one around.
Soon all Paris is talking of the daring robbery, but Tony’s inability to leave Mado alone attracts Grutter’s attention, and soon there’s a full-out underworld war going on. With an innocent child held hostage, and Tony’s idealistic young protégé Jo walking into danger to ransom him, Tony must race against time to save their lives…
This 1955 crime classic practically defines the film noir heist: a grey and gritty urban setting (Dassin famously refused to shoot on sunny days), an underworld of extreme violence and fatal passions, governed by testosterone, greed, and a code of honour that sets the ‘good’ bad guys apart from the ‘bad’ bad guys.
The film is perhaps best loved for the heist itself – almost half an hour of dialogue-free, meticulously constructed action, an idea as daring as it is effective – but there’s a lot more to Rififi (aka: Du Rififi chez les Hommes) than the robbery. The atmospheric background of tiny Parisian cafes and smoke-filled poker game; the wordless camaraderie of men who risk death every day, and the quiet helplessness of their wives, shut out of that part of their lives; the bitter, disturbing relationship between Tony and Mado, an emotional scab that neither can resist picking at.
Jean Servais, as Tony, provides a still centre for the drama; as weather-beaten and immovable as a slab of granite, yet grappling with deep emotions that rarely reach the surface, he turns Tony into the kind of iconic hard man that Bogart or Eastwood would be proud of. Apart from the slightly overplayed junkie younger brother, the film has aged well; the treatment of women is hardly PC, but it’s all the more realistic for that. Time has simply given the film the glamour of old-fashioned crime, when men were men, women were treacherous, and kidnapping a child to settle a score was a moral outrage that would shock even hardened criminals.
The DVD extras package treats this classic with the appropriate respect. It’s not as extensive as most modern films – brief private interviews and a NFT interview with Dassin, production stills, and trailer – but it’s interesting material. Dassin is a man with a dramatic past; hounded out of America by anti-communist paranoia, he made films across Europe in several languages, many of them regarded as classics. As carefully crafted and beautiful as the gems our heroes steal, Rififi is an essential buy for any fan of crime drama.