When Mexican authorities pull your heist film from cinemas after bandidos employ some of the character’s techniques at local banks, you know your work has made an impact. Such was the fate of Jules Dassin’s 1955 noir classic Rififi as it unspooled around the world, but fortunately, this landmark film’s influence extended beyond the central American underworld.
Dassin’s film was the work of a man with no roots. The American-born filmmaker was a film noir specialist and found success with Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Thieves’ Highway (1949), but was blacklisted by Hollywood during production on the London-set Night and the City (1950). Dassin hadn’t worked for nearly four years when he decided to relocate to Europe to establish a new career.
He had been in Paris for only a few weeks when he was given the opportunity to adapt Auguste le Breton’s novel Du Rififi chez les homes, a work, in fact, he didn’t much care for. But the story’s shady, desperate and immoral characters gelled with Dassin’s bitter experience of being betrayed by the long-time friends who’d turned against him, and he took the job.
The writer/director adopted the author’s tone but rearranged the novel’s structure. Dassin’s script would tell the story of a recently-paroled con, Tony le Stéphanois (Belgian actor Jean Servais, whose alcoholism rendered him unemployable for many years), who gets in on a backroom poker game (depicted in the film’s wonderfully-staged opening scene). We soon learn Tony’s jail time stemmed from taking the wrap for his buddy Jo (Carl Möhner), an ungrateful man, at best.
Increasingly desperate, Tony seeks out his ex-lover Mado (Marie Sabouret), who’s now the squeeze of a ruthless gangster (Marcel Lupovici). Enraged, Tony beats her mercilessly; the brutal scene takes place off-screen but is no less shocking because of it. Dassin’s film is a remorselessly dark work, one of those films that feels a great deal more violent than it actually is. (Rififi, roughly translated, means ‘rough stuff’.)
Dassin also extended one the novel’s key events: a jewellery store robbery that took up only a few pages of the book, but in Dassin’s hands, would become the second act of his film and, subsequently, one of the most celebrated sequences in film history. For 28 agonisingly suspenseful minutes, Tony and a small gang of equally desperate crooks (including Dassin, credited as Perlo Vita, in the role of César) break through a concrete floor to loot the business below, before the city wakes at dawn. Remarkably, the intricate heist unfolds with almost no dialogue or music. One of the most passionate advocates of the film, Francois Truffaut, said in his review that “For the past week, the only thing being talked about in Paris was the silent holdup, splendidly sound tracked, in which objects, movements and glances create an extraordinary ballet.” The machinations of the sequence were later referenced in dozens of films, from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1965), every Oceans film, old and new, De Palma’s Mission: Impossible (1996), Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), the John Cleese classic A Fish Called Wanda (1998), Bill Murray’s Quick Change (1990) and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), to name a select few. Dassin himself would revisit the genre in the hugely enjoyable romp Topkapi (1964), starring his glamourous wife, Melina Mercouri.
Less celebrated but perhaps more pertinent to the director’s psyche at the time is the scene depicting César’s fate for betraying the gang. The film comments with a jaded heart on the worth of loyalty and friendship above self-preservation; the consequences of César’s actions take on added significance in the context of the director’s own sacrificial exit from Hollywood. Dassin had been named first by friend and colleague Edward Dmytryk (director of The Caine Mutiny) and subsequently listed by playwright Clifford Odets (Waiting for Lefty) and filmmaker Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront). He knew the bitter taste of betrayal and Tony’s payback at snitch César plays out with a cold-blooded forthrightness. “You know the rules,” Tony says, before pulling the trigger. On the Criterion Collection DVD release of the film, Dassin comments, “Each one was a heartbreak because, first of all, these were all friends and we thought principled people, and it was very difficult.”
Desperate for any directing job, Jules Dassin settled on a back-end percentage of the profits to get the Rififi gig. Only days before he would win the Best Director award at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, he was gambling with borrowed money at the seaside town’s casinos to feed his family.
The film would ultimately restore his reputation in the international film community, and as the travesty of McCarthy witch-hunt faded away, Hollywood welcomed him back with Oscar nominations for 1960’s Never on Sunday. He is revered today by film scholars and students who recognise Rififi as a true masterpiece of filmmaking.
French Classics Season
Sunday August 5, 10:45pm
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring:Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, Michel Piccoli
Sunday August 12, 10:45pm
Belle de Jour (1967)
Director: Luis Buñuel
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli
Sunday August 19, 10:30pm
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Henri-Jacques Huet
Sunday August 26, 10:45pm
Director: Jules Dassin
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel