Rififi, a French film originally released in 1955 as Du rififi chez les hommes, is a film noir. Which means, of course, we're going to get the heist.
Sad-eyed Jean Servais plays Tony le Stephanois, fresh from a stint in the slammer. Free for the first time in five years, Tony wants to stay on the straight and narrow, but can't maintain his cool when he discovers that his girl has taken up with another man during his imprisonment. A man of few words, Tony orders her to strip, whips her and kicks her out of his apartment before meeting up with his old associates Jo (Carl Möhner) and Mario (Robert Manuel, from whom Billy Zane was apparently cloned). Jo and Mario have a high-risk crime in mind, breaking into a ritzy but well-protected jewelry store and its basement safe, and Tony agrees to mastermind the job. Cesar le Milanais, an Italian safecracker played to dapper, womanizing perfection by director Jules Dassin, is recruited to round out the gang.
The heart of the film is the subsequent robbery sequence, which stretches for 30 minutes without dialogue. Cool, tense, and suspenseful, the scenes of the heist play out like a primer for would-be jewel thieves, which led to the film being banned in several countries after its original release in 1955. (That it was allowed in the United States was an indication that the Production Code Administration had lost much of its authority by the mid 1950s; the Code stated that "theft, robbery, safe-cracking... etc., should not be detailed in method.")
The heist goes off perfectly, giving us valuable lessons in how to break through a concrete ceiling without a sound and how to silence an alarm. The film anticipates every audience question -- How do you hammer through concrete without waking the neighbors? How do you crack a safe without explosives? -- and answers them with surprising technical accuracy. That the break-in is accomplished with nothing more than rope, a suitcase of simple tools, and an umbrella makes it vastly more impressive than anything in current films, where burglars rely on latex face masks, magic voice-changing throat stickers and plastic surgery to get their business done. No, back in the smoky, jazz-filled Paris of the 1950s, men were men, and they used hard steel implements to do the job.
The crime nets the gang jewels worth a staggering 240 million francs. But despite an agreement to lay low for a while, suave safecracker Cesar can't help giving an enormous diamond ring to a nightclub chanteuse, setting a final chain of violence in motion. The singer promptly shows it to her boss, club owner Pierre Grutter, who makes an immediate connection between the ring, Cesar, and the recent heist. And decides he should have the stash himself.
From here events spiral rapidly southward. Grutter beats a confession out of Cesar, Tony pops Cesar for talking, and Grutter kidnaps Jo's young son and demands the jewels as ransom. There's an accelerating rush to a violent and hallucinatory ending.
Yet despite the inevitable bloodshed, the underworld romance of Rififi's Paris has an undeniable and timeless appeal. As captured in moody black-and-white, it makes you want to lounge in a jazz-joint, chain smoke and knock back whiskey, and bitch-slap any two-bit punk who dares look at your girl. Sure, there's a price to pay in the end, but that's the life of the professional criminal. And the code of film noir, even in France.
Aka Du rififi chez les hommes.
Run time: 122 mins
In Theaters: Tuesday 5th June 1956
Distributed by: Rialto
Production compaines: Société Nationale Pathé Cinéma, Prima Films
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Fresh: 41 Rotten: 3
IMDB: 8.2 / 10
Director: Jules Dassin
Producer: René Gaston Vuattoux
Starring: Jean Servais as Tony le Stéphanois, Carl Möhner as Jo le Suedois, Robert Manuel as Mario Ferrati, Janine Darcey as Louise, Magali Noël as Viviane, Marie Sabouret as Mado, Robert Hossein as Rémi Grutter, Claude Sylvain as Ida Ferrati, Jules Dassin as Cesar le Milanais
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