“None of these. It’s too risky. Get caught with a rod, and it’s the slammer for life.”
Director Jules Dassin showed immense promise in the late 1940s with films such as Brute Force (1947, Universal), The Naked City (1948, Universal), and Thieves’ Highway (1949, Fox). Soon after, however, the power of the blacklist effectively removed him from the directing landscape for five years.
Dassin was an American, but it was in Europe where he finally was able to return to directing after a couple of abortive attempts there. The year was 1954 when he was offered the opportunity to make Du Rififi Chez les Hommes, also known as Rififi. The film was to be based on a novel by Auguste Le Breton, a book that Dassin was unable to understand due to the rather colloquialized French in which it was written. Relying on his agent to translate it for him, Dassin was not particularly thrilled with the content, but economic necessity won out over pride and he agreed to take the job. The result was one of the hits of French cinema in 1955, doing very well on its opening in Paris and garnering Dassin a Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival later that year.
Rififi had been unavailable to home video for years and never appeared on laserdisc. Recently, however, Criterion was able to acquire rights for a DVD release and has just now made the film available, in a stunning-looking transfer, as #115 in the Criterion Collection.
Tony le Stéphanois has just been released from prison after serving five years for jewel robbery. After initial reservations, he agrees to participate in another jewel heist along with two past compatriots Jo le Suedois and Mario Farrati. The three also enlist a reliable safecracker Cesar le Milanais. Tony, however, is thinking big and rather than the somewhat minor job his friends had contemplated, insists that they go for the big heist — cracking a Paris jewelry store’s safe. The four men plan the job meticulously — timing, equipment, testing how to neutralize the alarm, etc — and then proceed to carry out the job one night. They are successful and manage to get away with 250 million francs worth of jewelry.
Unfortunately for Tony and his friends, however, the Grutter brothers who run a popular Paris nightspot, L’Age d’Or, become aware that Tony and his gang were responsible for the heist. With the Grutters determined to take the heist proceeds for themselves using whatever means necessary, Tony and his gang’s whole plan to fence the goods and live the good life afterwards begins to unravel.
Rififi is one of those films that you remember for a glorious sequence that once seen, stays with you forever. You know what I mean: the crop-dusting scenes in North By Northwest, the climactic sword-fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood, the bus/train crash in The Fugitive, or the Odessa Steps massacre in Battleship Potemkin. In Rififi, it’s an extraordinary half-hour heist sequence in which Tony and his gang methodically break into the jewelry store, open the safe, and make their getaway. Not a word is spoken throughout and the only sounds are the breathing of the four and the muffled noises of their tools. Dassin later noted that Georges Auric who was doing the film score promised some great music for the extended sequence in order to protect Dassin, but once Auric saw the sequence without music, he agreed that none was necessary. It was the detailed nature of this sequence that also led to criticism of the film from police and government agencies. It was too educational in showing how to actually go about a heist!
The detailed story of a big heist is old hat now, of course, but in 1955 it was fresh and even 46 years later it’s easy to see why Rififi was such a hit. In addition to the heist sequence, it featured a highly competent cast that somehow manages to make Tony and his gang an almost likeable, if ultimately tragic, group. Tony le Stéphanois is wonderfully played by Jean Servais, a Belgian-born actor who was formerly a star but had fallen on hard times apparently due to a drinking problem. His Tony is a sad-faced, world-weary, consumptive character with little to live for or care about seemingly other than his godson. When asked what plans he has for his share of the heist, he has no answer. Beyond Servais, the rest of the cast had little film-acting experience, including Dassin himself who was pressed into service to play Cesar when a contract mix-up arose with the actor originally cast. All acquit themselves admirably and their freshness seems to bring energy to the whole length of the film. (Not that there was much choice in selecting a cast. The total budget for the film was only $200,000, so any high-profile actors were out of the question. Even Dassin got paid only as a percentage of the film’s eventual profit.)
Aside from the cast, though, the other star of the film is Paris itself. Dassin apparently took great care in selecting locations for filming, and the results are impressive — from busy thoroughfares, narrow alleys, and metro stations to sidewalk cafes and stores in Montmartre to familiar landmarks of the city such as the Arc de Triomphe and the River Seine. Interestingly, Dassin avoids Paris in the sun, and prefers to show us the city under cloud and rain. This apparently exasperated the film’s producer, but contributes immeasurably to creating an atmosphere of doom about the whole enterprise that Tony and his gang are involved in. Paris in the gloom also provides a nice counterpoint to the interior sets, particularly that of the night club L’Age d’Or.
Criterion has done an outstanding job on its DVD of Rififi. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 utilizing 24 scene selections. The new digital transfer was created from a 35mm composite fine-grain negative. A cleaning process called the Mathematical Technologies Digital Restoration System was utilized to remove 23,235 instances of dirt, scratches and debris. The result is a clear, stunning-looking black and white transfer with deep blacks, luminous whites and excellent shadow detail throughout. I consider Criterion’s DVD of The Third Man to be a benchmark for a black and white transfer. Rififi isn’t far from matching it. The mono sound has also been cleaned up and delivers dialogue reasonably clearly and distortion-free with virtually no age-related hiss. Some of the French is a little hard to make out, but this appears to be a function of how it was originally spoken rather than a problem with the soundtrack itself. One has the option to listen to the original French sound track with or without English sub-titles, or to a dubbed English sound track. Listening to the French is much to be preferred.
A nice package of supplements has been assembled. Most interesting is a 29-minute video interview with Jules Dassin done in New York City in summer 2000. The interview can be watched straight through or piecemeal using the four chapter stops provided. Dassin is a pleasant speaker to listen to and what he has to say is very interesting. The piece focuses mainly on the blacklist time and details concerning the production of Rififi. Aside from the interview, there is also a fairly detailed set of production notes on Rififi which concludes with a filmography of Dassin. A separate section provides an extensive collection of production stills plus set design drawings. Finally, there is a theatrical trailer for the American release of the film.
If I have to write something here, about the only thing I regret about the DVD is that the Dassin interview wasn’t longer. In fact, I got the impression that the interview was more lengthy, possibly dealing with things that didn’t have anything to do directly with Rififi. Even if that’s really the case, I still think it would have been a great idea to include more of it, if only to provide further insight into Dassin himself.
Rififi is one of those films that you love to return to regularly to see what great film-making is all about. Criterion has done us all a tremendous favour with their new DVD release of the title. They’ve made Rififi look like a brand new film and provided sufficient supporting material to enhance the viewing experience. This is a must-have! Highly recommended.