It is fitting that diamonds and their theft motivate the action in Rififi. The film is a gem, and like the stones in the film which are to be recut by a London fence, Rififi has gone on to influence many other films (and supposedly even crimes). Although it originally came out in 1955, it’s still as fresh when it won the best-director award at Cannes that year.
Rififi tells the tale of a gang of four lead by Tony le Stéphanois, (or Tony from Saint-Étienne, played by Jean Servais a man with melancholy, crumpled face rarely seen in films these days) a world-weary crook just got out of jail. Tony hires an Italian, César le Milanais, safe-cracker extraordinaire played by Perlo Vita. The charming Italian with a pencil moustache has a soft spot for nightclub singer Viviane, who sings the films title song. This is possibly some sort of a joke, as Vita is actually a pseudonym for the director Jules Dassin. Another Italian, Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel) and young family man, Jo le Suédois or Joe the Swede (Carl Möhner) complete the gang.
From the very beginning the film hurls us into a fiendishly complex plot as the men plan to rob a jewellers on the exclusive Rue de Rivoli in Paris. The half-hour long robbery itself is a lesson in cinematic technique – a dense cloud of tension is created using purely visual cues. The aftermath of the heist then takes the film in all sorts of unexpected directions.
Jules Dassin, who directed Rififi, was brought up in the poverty-stricken Harlem of the 1910s and 20s. The disparities between his own district and the wealthy Manhattanites living close by on 5th Avenue drew him to the Communist Party, (although he left when the Soviet Union signed the non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939). This affiliation was enough to get him blacklisted during the Anti-Communist witch hunts of the late forties and early fifties.
Forced out of Hollywood, Dassin relocated to France in 1953. Rififi was his first film in France, made in 1954 using a low budget and unknown actors. Like more recent movies, like Clerks and Paranormal Activity among others, Dassin made a virtue out of his low budget. His actors may not be well known, but they twinkle with warm humanity. Paris forms a moody, slightly down-at-heel back drop for the criminal activities.
Although probably the earliest heist movie was John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle in 1950, Rififi brought a new European, artistic sensibility to the young genre. The three part structure of the film – planning, the job, aftermath – has had an impact on just about every heist film since. Even Reservoir Dogs, where all the action takes place after the crime, can be seen as a reaction to the tried and tested model laid down by Dassin.
From the masterful creation of tension to the intricate unpredictability of the plot and the flawed characters Rififi is a masterpiece. No wonder that Francois Truffaut held the film to be “the best Film Noir I have ever seen”.
Arrow Academy’s The Blu Ray | DVD Dual Format edition contains several special features, including an introduction by French cinema critic and scholar Ginette Vincendeau, an interview with Jules Dassin and Q&A with Jules Dassin at the BFI Southbank, London (Blu-ray only). The booklet features brand new writing on the film by writer and filmmaker David Cairns, author Alastair Phillips (Rififi: French Film Guide), Francois Truffaut and John Trevelyan. Artwork presentation packaging includes three original posters and a newly commissioned artwork cover.