Rififi [Du rififi chez les hommes]

Jules Dassin
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Screening Date:
  • 29 Nov 2022
  • Categories:
    Crime, Drama, Thriller

    Known as the “father of modern heist movies” this has a famous 28 minute safe-cracking sequence. Four men plan a technically perfect crime, but the human element intervenes.

    Film Notes

    DO you want to see a tough gangster picture? Do you want to see a crime film that makes the characters of Mickey Spillane seem like sissies and, at the same time, gives you the thrill of being an inside participant in a terrific Parisian robbery? Then go to see "Rififi," which opened at the Fine Arts last night. This is perhaps the keenest crime film that ever came from France, including "Pepe le Moko" and some of the best of Louis Jouvet and Jean Gabin. Jules Dassin, former Hollywood director, adapted and directed this job about the planning and execution of the nighttime robbery of a swanky English jewellery shop in the Rue de Rivoli. Mr. Dassin, under the name of Perlo Vita, also plays one of the leading roles. But there is more than just a run-down on a robbery in this beautifully fashioned black-and-white film. It has a flavor of crooks and kept women and Montmartre "boites" that you can just about smell. And after the robbery there follows a second crisis when another gang tries to get the swag by kidnapping the small son of one of the jewel thieves and holding him until the robbers kick in. The robbery itself is terrific—a good solid half-hour in which the four thieves who have planned it with precision get into the apartment above the jewellery store and then, with the skill and calculation of expert engineers, cut their way down into the office and into the formidable safe. Mr. Dassin has staged it like a ballet. Not a word is spoken by the thieves in that half-hour, which represents the better part of a night—from midnight until 6 A. M. in elapsed time. But he has paced it and checked it against a wristwatch until you in the audience almost scream when somebody accidentally touches a piano key or a little thing goes wrong. What makes it particularly vital is that Mr. Dassin has already introduced his thieves in a way that puts you very much on their side. There is the brains of the gang, a tough "square-shooter," played tautly and grimly by Jean Servais. Then there is his younger disciple, a handsome and muscular family man and father of the boy later kidnaped. Carl Mohner plays him attractively. Next there is an amiable Italian who has a carefree, voluptuous doll. He is Robert Manuel. And, finally, there is the fellow who is the expert at cracking safes. He is a little rascal whose weakness is women. That is Mr. Dassin. Once the robbery is completed, you are still frankly rooting for them—and that's what makes the intrusion of the rivals so outrageous and menacing. The terror is intensified by the climate of brutality that surrounds the leader of the rival gang, a night-club owner, played by Marcel Lupovici, a cold, dark thug. Vice hangs like smoke in his clip-joint. There is prostitution, dope. (Boy, what would they have done to this picture if it had been put up to Hollywood's Production Code!) But there is also a poetry about it—and a poetic justice, too. Mr. Dassin has got the tender beauty of Paris at dawn, when there is no one stirring but milkmen, street cleaners, gendarmes—and thieves. And he has ended his film with a feeling for the pathos of the comédie humaine that would do justice to a story with a more exalting theme."Rififi" compares more than favorably with the memorable Hollywood film "The Asphalt Jungle." It has spawned a new genre of films in France. The dialogue is well translated in English subtitles which say everything but the dirty words.

    Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, June 6th, 1956.

    The modern heist movie was invented in Paris in 1954 by Jules Dassin, with "Rififi," and Jean-Pierre Melville, with "Bob le Flambeur." Dassin built his film around a 28-minute safe-cracking sequence that is the father of all later movies in which thieves carry out complicated robberies. Working across Paris at the same time, Melville's film, which translates as "Bob the High Roller," perfected the plot in which a veteran criminal gathers a group of specialists to make a big score. The Melville picture was remade twice as "Ocean's Eleven," and echoes of the Dassin can be found from Kubrick's "The Killing" to Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs." They both owe something to John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle" (1950), which has the general idea but not the attention to detail.

    "Rififi" was called by Francois Truffaut the best film noir he'd ever seen (it was based, he added, on the worst noir novel he'd ever read). Dassin's inspiration was to expand the safe-cracking job, which is negligible in the book, into a breathless sequence that occupies a fourth of the running time and is played entirely without words or music. So meticulous is the construction and so specific the detail of this scene that it's said the Paris police briefly banned the movie because they feared it was an instructional guide.

    There is something else unique about the heist scene: It is the centerpiece of the film, not the climax. In a modern heist film, like "The Score" (2001), the execution of the robbery fills most of the third act. "Rififi" is more interested in the human element, and plays as a parabola, with the heist at the top before the characters descend to collect their wages of sin. After the heist there is still a kidnapping to go.

    The film was shot on a modest $200,000 budget on Paris locations that Dassin scouted while wandering unemployed around the town; he was on the Hollywood blacklist and hadn't worked in four years. Streets are usually wet in movies because they photograph better that way, but Paris is especially damp in "Rififi," shot in wintertime and showing a criminal milieu where the only warmth comes in a flat where one of the crooks lives with his wife and little boy.

    The film centers on Tony (Jean Servais, a Belgian actor who had gone through hard times because of alcoholism). Always referred to as "the Stephanois," he's a sad-eyed, tubercular ex-con who dotes on the little boy, his godson. Tony reveals a nasty streak of cruelty against a former mistress, and is quite capable of cold-blooded murder, but by the end he seems purified by loss. His character believes in honor among thieves, and his lonely vengeance against the kidnappers provides the film with its soul.

    The boy's father is Jo the Swede (Carl Moehner). Jo and his friend Mario (Robert Manuel) have their eyes on diamonds in a store window, and want to smash and grab just before the light turns green for their getaway car. Tony nixes the plan and advises them to go for the big score--the store's safe. They enlist a safecracker named Cesar, who is played by Dassin himself (as "Perlo Vita").

    Casing the store is done with a bold brilliance. Tony ostentatiously leaves his bulging wallet neglected on a counter, to show his indifference to money. Determining the type of the safe and the kind of alarm, they stage a rehearsal, test the alarm's sensitivity (it responds to vibrations) and discover they can immobilize it with foam from a fire extinguisher.

    "No rods," Tony advises. "Get caught with a rod, it's the slammer for life." But the thieves are as ruthless as necessary, tying up the couple who live over the diamond store before gingerly hammering their way through the ceiling with a cushioned hammer. The composer, Georges Auric, originally wrote music for this sequence, but agreed with Dassin it was unnecessary, and for 28 minutes we hear nothing but taps, breathing, some plaster falling into an umbrella used to catch it, some muffled coughs, and then, after the alarm is disabled, the screech of the drills used to cut into safe. There is, of course, no reason why the men cannot talk softly, and so the silence is Dassin's inspired directorial choice, underlining the suspense. When I saw the film in a 2002 revival in London, the 28-minute sequence played as it always does, to a theater that was conspicuously hushed in sympathy.

    The movie opens with a backroom poker game, and after the heist Dassin mirrors that scene with another shot of men around a table. Nice, how he uses closeups of their eyes before showing the diamonds. They have committed a perfect crime, but Cesar gives a ring to a girlfriend, and when it's spotted by Pierre (Marcel Lupovici), the boss of a Montmartre nightclub, he guesses the identity of the thieves and sends his men after them for the jewels.

    The last third of the film centers around the kidnapping of Jo's son, who will allegedly be returned if the jewels are handed over. Tony knows better: The boy is a witness. He searches for the boy, questioning bartenders, hookers, tough guys and old pals to get a lead. In these scenes Montmartre seems to cower beneath the damp skies of dawn.

    The film's violence has a crude awkwardness that makes it seem more real. Finding a cop beside the stolen getaway car, Tony leaps from a shadow and cudgels him, not with the smooth grace and sensational sound effects of a modern crime picture, but with the clumsiness of a man not accustomed to hitting policemen. Much of the violence takes place just off screen; that may be because of the production codes of the day, but it's effective because the focus falls on the face of the person committing the violence, and not on the violence itself.

    There is one scene nobody ever forgets. Cesar the safecracker, whose stupidity lead to the betrayal of the perfect crime, is found by Tony tied to a pillar in the deserted nightclub. He tries to apologize for his mistake. He's sincere, and Tony knows he's sincere. "I liked you, Macaroni," Tony tells Cesar. "But you know the rules." Cesar (played by Dassin) does, and nods sadly.

    Dassin was a particular master of shooting on city locations. "The Naked City" (1948) is famous for its semi-documentary use of New York. His great London noir "Night and the City" (1950), with Richard Widmark as a desperate fugitive hunted by mobsters, makes such good use of darkness and the rubble of bomb sites that it deserves comparison with "The Third Man." In "Rififi," Dassin finds everyday locales: Nightclubs, bistros, a construction site, investing them with a grey reality. Just before the heist begins, there is a scene all the more lovely because it is unnecessary, in which nightclub musicians warm up and gradually slide into collaboration. There's a real sense of Montmartre in the 1950s.

    Dassin, born in 1911, still giving interviews in 2002, was named as a onetime communist during the McCarthy witchhunt. He wasn't crazy about the "Rififi" project but needed work. Its worldwide success was a blow against the blacklist, which fell after the listed writer Dalton Trumbo was openly hired by Kubrick for "Spartacus" and Otto Preminger for "Exodus," both in 1960. By then Dassin had settled in Europe; he was married to the fiery Greek actress Melina Mercouri from 1966 until her death in 1994. His last great success, "Topkapi" (1964) was a return to the heist genre, and is credited by "Mission Impossible." Although Dassin returned to the U.S. occasionally, as for the successful black militant drama "Up Tight" (1968), he was basically lost to American moviemaking, and lives in Athens on a street named for Mercouri. The restoration of "Rififi," long available only on a shabby videotape, rescues a milestone in movie history.

    Roger Ebert, September 01, 2002

    What you thought about Rififi [Du rififi chez les hommes]

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    15 (52%) 14 (48%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 29
    Film Score (0-5): 4.52

    Collated Response Comments

    83 members and guests attended this screening of Rififi. 29 of you gave a comment resulting in a 35% response rate. This has delivered a film score of 4.52.

    All of your collated comments are shown below.

    “None of your steely eyed knights in trench coats here, this is noir of the most hard-boiled variety. Tony is doomed from the outset after an act of casual and humiliating brutality that remains profoundly shocking. Whether it is more so now than when the film was released, I would be interested to know. In the end he achieves a reprieve of sorts dying to save (the fantastically irritating) Tonio. Pretty much everyone else is also dead, so very noir indeed. The heist itself must have been something of a revelation at the time and has thus been copied ad infinitum. The mean streets are chillingly crisp, the gang are nicely and amusingly drawn, the hoods convincing. The brutal end of Mario and Ida is so much more effectively shot than most onscreen violence we see now. In the end it is dispiriting but stylish and highly entertaining”.

    “Tense, gripping. For me, the female roles were one-dimensional - and at times cringe-worthy, which dates it a bit (or does it?)”.

    “Remember being about 16 when I saw Rififi and was amazed at its 'street' jargon (gosse for kid, mec - guy, ta gueule – shut up), the wet streets, pavements shining with neon lights, haunting black & white smoke ridden backrooms and shabby apartments. Thought then – and do now – that Stephanois was striking with his tight-lipped, doomed glamour, agreeing to the robbery being part of the fatalism of the film. The gang, including Dassin himself, plan and execute a robbery that's pretty much the template for later film heists with a precision of commando-raid timing. That half hour is memorable in its exactness, hard labour both mental and physical wins the prize. So, in best noir fashion, along comes the rival L'Age d'Or gang finds out about the heist. The subplots come to a boil as the plot snakes through Dassin's fondness for expressionistic touches and the gang get tripped up later by each member's greed and envy and other human frailties. The inevitable payoff reflects Rififi's apparent meaning of a brutal show of force, trouble among the men. Tight, well-paced narrative, technical brilliance, precise acting and striking photography in a splendid movie”.

    “Well constructed engaging, even moralistic. I.e. all the gangsters got killed - the four with Tony and the three with Grutter. The innocent -Jo's wife, Mado and the boy all survived. So crime brings no future for the criminals? At least this film was 'about something' unlike some others”.

    “A fascinating period piece, Paris as it should be!”

    “Interesting, full of suspense and lovely views of Paris. But dated - so I couldn't rate it as excellent because of the violence and especially the violence against the women characters which most modern audiences find unacceptable”.

    “My dad introduced me to this gangster film many, many years ago. All I could remember was the long tense silent sequence and my delight that they succeeded. What I did not remember is more telling. I was shocked to see the violent beating that the "hero" inflicts on his former girlfriend. I also did not remember the put down that the wife delivers to the young accomplice - the real "tough guys" are the ones who resist the temptation to resort to crime. I take some of the blame but the film played it's part by glorifying crime even whilst leaving all the gangsters violently dead”.

    “The silent heist, the adult card game echoed by a glimpse of kids playing cards, the kid with his cowboy gun pointed at his godfathers head....all good stuff. Tension was great! Attitudes to, & treatment of, women... very much of the time/ context...but still awful!”

    “What a great film, undiminished in spite of it's age! Twisting plot and great action. Clever ending twists”.

    “Very exhausting but great fun”. “Great ending”.

    “I saw it in London when it first came out – it is still just as powerful and the action is still amazing. There are few films like that now!”

    “Gripping. On the edge of my seat. So, crime doesn’t pay!! Thoroughly enjoyed it”.

    “Crime doesn’t pay! Gripping. I loved the pace, the atmosphere, the silences, EVERYTHING”.

    “Action, fashion, violence, brilliant plot, Well done!!!”

    “Really enjoyed the film. The cast, the scenery, the plot – excellent”

    “Wow! Gripping! I was on the edge of my seat all the way through”.

    “Great film – Brilliant final scene & wonderful child star”.

    “Loved all the acting and the period cars and clothing. Very good camera work and shots. Time piece”.

    “Brilliant heist – very well made movie that had you on the edge of your seat”.

    “A film ahead of its time. Enjoyable and with a tense ending”.

    “And they would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for that pesky Italian”.

    “I was 10 in 1955. Wow. What a brilliant film – slow but so of its time”.

    “Typical overdramatic French. I dislike violence…..”

    “Well crime certainly doesn’t pay! Very loud incidental music. Bit overacted as all films were then. Enjoyable”.


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