Twice Appellate Judge Tom Becker had to hire some French guys to do a job—he hated paying their re-fee-fee.
Director Jules Dassin was a rising star in Hollywood, turning out taut, classic films noir like Thieves' Highway and The Naked City when, after a flirtation with the U.S. Communist Party more than a decade earlier, the Blacklist came a'callin'. Dassin completed one more "Hollywood" film, though in London—Night and the City—before basically dropping out of sight. The Blacklist, for all practical purposes, extended to Europe, since American distributors would not touch a film Dassin directed.
The heist caper Rififi was made on a miniscule budget, but it became an international sensation. Tense and cynical, it combined the best of American noir with a decidedly dark—and far more adult—European sensibility.
The film was released to acclaim in Europe, with Dassin winning the Director's Award at Cannes. He was offered a U.S. release if he'd renounce his past activities that had gotten him blacklisted; after refusing, the film was released anyway, through a front company set up by United Artists. Thus, Dassin effectively "broke" the Blacklist, though he remained in Europe.
A few years later, Dassin was able to return to the U.S. The Communist witch hunts were losing steam; plus, Dassin brought with him the one-two charm punch of his new film, Never on Sunday, and its star (and his companion) Melina Mercouri. That film saw Dassin earn Oscar nominations for writing and directing (plus, Mercouri's for her lead role).
Even for a heist film, the plot of Rififi is nothing to write home about; in fact, François Truffaut reportedly said of the film and its literary source, "Out of the worst crime novels I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I've ever seen." Dassin kept the essential elements of Auguste Le Breton's book and made the heist scene the centerpiece.
He also brought to the film an intelligence and sensitivity that the novel lacked; no longer was the "crime film" simply a thriller with single-minded characters doing single-minded things. The people in Rififi are complex, sentient, and recognizable beings; its location shooting, in Paris, echoed back to the Italian Neo-realist films (even though the choice to shoot on location rather than in a studio was made for economic, rather than artistic, purposes).
The rudiments of the plot focus on some small-time crooks who plan a small-time heist; however, one of them, Tony (Jean Servais), who has just finished a five-year prison stretch, decides the small-time heist isn't worth it and suggests something bigger and bolder.
From this, Dassin has assembled a piece of classic cinema. The much-lauded heist sequence is jaw-dropping, over 30 minutes of screen time with no dialogue or music, just the thieves going about their work; and, it sustains suspense over that 30-plus minute time.
One of the shames of technology is how it's drained all the fun out of a good heist. Sure, films like the Soderbergh/Clooney "Ocean" trilogy offer a great time, but there's something astonishing about a high-stakes caper that employs an umbrella and a fire extinguisher as essential tools. It's the kind of resourcefulness that seems lost.
But everything about Rififi centers on resource, and that's a big part of what makes the film so great. Dassin focuses on mood, on character, bringing an almost intense level of intelligence to the proceedings. He also keeps the film moving at an intense pace—and he includes some scenes that are "intense" by today's standards and must have been harrowing when the film premiered nearly 60 years ago. This is must-see filmmaking.
Criterion offers a two-disc set—Blu-ray and DVD—for this classic. I watched the Blu-ray, and can say that, as you'd expect from a Criterion disc, the tech was terrific: the image features sharp contrast, deep blacks, and a fine film grain, while the main audio track, LPCM mono in French, is clean and clear, sounding far stronger than you might expect for an almost-60-year-old film. The supplements are disappointing. All (except J. Hoberman's essay, in a surprisingly slim, non-illustrated booklet) are ported from the 2001 DVD, and a supplement from 2001 has gone missing on this edition. What we get is an interview with Dassin from 2000 (the director passed in 2008), a stills gallery, set design drawings, and a trailer. Missing from this edition: production notes, which, from what I've read, was the second-best extra on the older disc (right after the Dassin interview). Since Criterion's original DVD releases are heavy with meaningful supplements, their Blu-rays often seem a bit stingy, with few-to-none new extras; but dropping an extra from an earlier release just doesn't seem right.
A great heist film, a great film period, and one of the most influential of all time, Rififi is a must-see. While the skimpy supplements are disappointing, they're not a deal-breaker; plus, Criterion's the only game in town here, with no other Region A (or Region 1) releases available. Recommended.
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