In the simplest terms, Rififi is Jules Dassin’s 1955 film about a heist for some jewels and the complications that arise. But much more so (and the thing that separates it from the average output of its genre) is that it examines the honor among thieves and the robbery as a method of sexual gratification that is devastated by natural human elements. We meet our protagonist Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais) in a smoked-out poker hall, looking miserable, eager for a loan and coughing painfully after every pull on his cigarette. Tony has just spent five years in prison, and when his two old friends Jo (Carl Möhner) and Mario (Carl Möhner) come proposing a plan for robbing famous jewels from an illustrious French bank, he has no ambition or fire to take the risk involved.
But then Tony runs into his old girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) who is now dating a rival gangster named Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici). Tony, holding a scary influence over here, invites her to come back to his apartment. We expect him to beg for her to come back or swoon her into sex, but instead he forces her to take off all her jewels in forgiveness (as the camera sits watching her take them off slowly) before we hear her brutally whipped by Tony off screen, where she is shortly thereafter thrown out, not even fully clothed. This is when Tony decides that he does not want the jewels in the store front window, but the ones in the safe. At one angle we can see his new dedication fueled by a certain jealousy that Pierre’s glamour and nightclub have over Mado, but also that he wants to make the other man lower and thus rise above him in Mado’s eyes. When the fellow crooks as Tony what he’d do with the money, he does not have an answer because his entire process was fueled only by humiliating Mado for leaving him and upstaging the proposed decadence of Pierre. Tony, to an extreme, is exercising the performance of his male gender, hungry for power by any means.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Rififi would have to be the subsequent bank robbery that follows, a literal 32-minute ballet of intensity that is simply not seen in cinema anymore. Their robbery last this entire time but there is no dialogue or music, just heavy breathing, sweat, facial gesturing and nodding that helps execute the complex plan. It is such a refreshing scene to see in the way that in the modern sense this plan might have been represented via snappy or stylish montage, not fully revealing the intricacies and quick thinking needed for everything to go perfectly. Dassin will leave the camera on for minutes at a time, making every advancement and mistake exhilarating in equal measure; when Jo accidentally sits on a piano, the noise that jumps out not only freezes the characters, it freezes you. Their methods are also incredibly intriguing, almost making you feel like you’re getting tips on committing your own robbery; holding open umbrellas through holes in the ground to catch debris as they dig or prior scenes that show the criminals thought process in disabling new technologies even more keen on stopping the score before it can even come close to occurring.
In one scene prior to the bank robbery, Tony and his fellow robbers are examining a new alarm box and how it has ways of catching you just about no matter what way you go about attempting to disable it. The camera stays stationed on the criminals as they run into another road block in figuring out the alarm and their minds begin to wander, some of them singing or looking along nonchalant, as if tired of thinking and working. However in the background, wandering in and out of the frame is Tony, who is looking around the room for something, anything to help bring this alarm to its knees. He eventually figures it out, reemerging into the foreground of the frame where he shows off his idea to the stunned attentiveness of his mates. In this one scene we learn Tony’s perseverance, but we also learn why these men have such respect for him, despite the fact that he’s been caught and gone down for a crime before.
The first time they actually see their score is also silent and poetic, their plunging downward for a better look as the camera tracks inward. The diamonds have an allure to all of them, especially to Tony, who we sense has an almost insatiable lust to the glowing diamonds; why else would his main point to Mado be making her remove them? This seems almost cynical by Dassin in his portrayal of “love”, the fact that Mado and Tony might have been held together by the pleasure of both snatching and then handing down of the diamonds for decoration around neck and wrist.
The film is also provocative in its subject matter, in one sense the infinite capacity for evil that Pierre shows in controlling lesser gangster (and brother) Remit Grutter (Robert Hossein) through his addiction to drugs. In another sense there is a scene all about “rififi,” or what this woman keeps coming back to her men for. Even on the subtitles, “rififi” is marked in quotes, but by her moaning as she rubs her face against her curtain and her references to taking her “beating,” we can infer what she means. But we also look at the faces of those watching the song and dance by the woman and sense their differences and similarities: Tony comes after the woman has done her song, but we sense his stone face would not have changed for the song is about a typical, vapid relationship anchored by a physical connection where his is propelled by punishment and vanity. Mario and Italian safe cracker extraordinaire Cesar (Jules Dassin himself) are drawn to this woman as well, but more in a “lust at first sight” sense, Cesar kissing her hand. It’s a tremendous parallel that the robbery stemmed from broken love and that everything after it is also drawn out in some sense by love, fatherhood or companionship about the criminals.
Dassin’s writing is snappy enough to the point that the banter between the characters walks along the line comfortably between humorous and stern but the film operates at its most seamless and nail biting in total silence. At points it does function like a silent film, but it does so in a fashion that it’s a film noir mingled with the French New Wave, a combination that never lets us retain balance. The dark grays, overwhelming shadow and silence of the streets as they make their way through the back and onto the prize seems oddly hopeless to how well they seem to be doing. But the thing about Rififi and truly its timeless appeal is that their trials and tribulations do not stem from technological mishap, an act of God or unrealistic chance…this is a tale of pure, irrevocable human error and desire.