It says something about the French that a word for “rough and tumble” or “tough guy” could sound like the dance number in an American musical, but that shouldn’t put you off Rififi, which is a fine caper flick made 60 years ago, long before Americans had nipples. See, the thing about this film that could maybe ruin it for you is the lavish praise heaped on it. Which is a shame, because it’s good. Really, really good.
But what seems to have attracted the attention of the film critics is its “brutality”, and of course it’s tame by today’s standards, and didn’t strike me as particularly more brutal than the gangster flicks of America ca. 1940, from which it is heavily derived. It’s also got a drug-addicted character and the aforementioned nipples which, granted, is pretty edgy by 1955 standards. Although I can appreciate a film as a historical document, that’s separate from being able to enjoy it with modern eyes. And Rififi is more interesting, at least to me, in the latter sense.
Connecticut born Julius Dassin directed a number of classic American noir films like Night and the City, The Naked City and the lesser known and probably non-existent And The Naked City Night, before being driven out of Hollywood for being a commie. He fled to France and changed his name to Jules, thereafter directing Topkapi, Never on Sunday, and this, perhaps his best film.
The story is classic noir: Tony has just been sprung from prison, where he spent seven hard years because some dame ratted him out, see? And his old pals are all glad to see him, knowing he could’ve turned them in to save his own skin, but they got this one last job, see? Well, Tony don’t want none of that, but then he goes to find the dame what ratted him out, and after extracting his revenge (by delivering a fairly mild beating), decides he’s gotta pay the bills somehow, so yeah, they’ll do the heist.
But they’ll do it his way. Going for the whole enchilada. Going for the whole enchilada, however, means bringing in a new guy—an expert safecracker whose only weakness is…women. See?
You’ve seen it a thousand times before. Dozens of those times in French. I defy you to be surprised at any point by the plot. But that’s okay. It all works. And it works for the obvious reasons: Acting, writing, camerawork and lighting. The acting is good: Our little gallic buddies pull off rififi pretty well. Well, Tony (Jean Servais, The Longest Day, Les Miserables) does, anyway. The other characters have more of an insouciance to them than a real toughness. In fact, the gang’s real trouble comes from crossing paths with a much tougher, more brutal gang of thieves.
But they’re likable characters, even though thieves, thanks to the writing. The plot is tight. Most of it greases the tracks to the heist, the rest sets up their characters, so we can care about their fates. The only really unneeded part of the film is the song/dance number which explains what “Rififi” means. (Apparently, the author of the trashy crime novel the movie was based on had made it up.) I understand the director had the regrets about including it. It’s kind of charming.
The move was successful enough for the song to warrant a non-literal translation to English. You know, instead of just doing a word-for-word translation, they try to capture the spirit of it, while making it rhyme and have good meter in English.
Besides the solid blocking and lighting—though certainly not The Third Man quality, but what is?—there are two sequences that raise this movie from enjoyable caper flick to masterpiece: The heist itself, which lasts for at least twenty minutes, and is done without dialogue or music; a final desperate driving sequence at the end of the movie, also without dialogue. Worth the price of the ticket alone, as they say.
The movie was banned in several countries for being a blueprint on how to commit a heist. Government officials aren’t very bright. But then again, neither are thieves who take their cues from movies.
The Boy was on the fence as to whether he liked this better than The Third Man. (On the one hand, every shot in The Third Man is a masterpiece. On the other: zither music.) When we went to see this, the “film broke” and interrupted us right at the end of the second act. And if you end the movie at the second act, it’s a happy ending! The characters achieved their goals and all lived happily ever after.
We actually came home and watched the third act on the television, which we don’t care for, but we had to see how it ended.. The third act is, as you might expect, dark. Real dark.
Anyway, great caper flick, worth checking out if you’re not allergic to French or dubs. We always do subtitles but I suspect the dub is pretty good, given the classic status of the film.