Film critics have tagged this as one of the best French crime movies ever made, with some even putting it at the top of the list. We haven’t seen every French gangster film, but our initial reaction is to agree. And, ironically, were it not for the infamous Communist witch hunt that drove dozens of talented actors, directors and writers out of Hollywood in the 1950s, Rififi might have never been.
Rififi was the brainchild of banished American director Jules Dassin, who at first didn’t want to do the film. In fact, he found the novel on which it was based—with its brutal beatings, blatant racism and a dash of necrophilia—both bizarre and repulsive.
But in a fascinating interview that is part of the DVD package, Dassin said he finally agreed to direct because he needed the work.
Before he was driven from Hollywood because of his membership in the Communist Party in the 1930s, Dassin, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, was considered one of the up-and-comers in the then-emerging film noir genre. His works included Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948).
In Rififi, Dassin used the skeleton of Auguste le Breton’s novel and literally made the story his own. Along the way, he took some of the elements of film noir, added a more personalized and internalized characterization of the central figures, and helped launch a new style in filmmaking that became known as the French New Wave.
The word rififi is French slang that in the movie is translated as “rough and tumble.” In actuality, rififi is more an attitude than an adjective. It’s a macho, tough guy, in-your-face approach to life that could be described as gangster existentialism. Things are what they are and if you’re rififi, you deal with them.
The novel was a graphic story of French Algerian gangsters in the Paris underworld, but the producers were worried about a potential backlash. (This was, after all, the time of the French-Algerian conflict. See Mesrine for reference.) So they asked Dassin to make it a story about American gangsters.
He had a better idea. Why not make it about Frenchmen?
Out of that came what is now considered a classic.
The storyline is taut and the acting near perfect.
Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) is an aging gangster who comes home from prison to find that his girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) has taken up with Louis Grutter (Pierre Grasset), the leader of another crime group.
Tony’s not happy with that development nor with the fact that he can barely make ends meet. His young protégé and friend, Jo le Suedois (Carl Mohner) suggests a jewelry store heist to solve Tony’s financial woes.
Jo’s friend Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel), an Italian living in Paris, has cased the high-class Mappin & Webb jewelry store and declares it the perfect target.
At first, Tony balks at the idea. But after an encounter with Mado that ends badly (he beats her with a belt), Tony decides to direct the heist. He says, however, that they have to do it his way. There will be no guns and they will go for the safe, not the jewels under the display cases.
To that end, Mario agrees to recruit his friend, the renowned safecracker Cesar le Milanais (Dassin played that role, using the name Perlo Vita).
The first half of the film revolves around the elaborate and painstaking planning that sets up the dramatic robbery. The way the thieves disarm the jewelry store’s alarm system is ingenious. (The movie was banned in Mexico and several South American countries after thieves began to employ the same methods in real life.)
While dramatic is an overused word, it applies here.
The four-man team breaks into an apartment above the jewelry store, ties up the elderly couple living there and then begins to cut a hole in their living room floor to gain access to the jewelry store below.
That these guys are, as the French say, sympathique, is evident from the beginning of the robbery when Tony tucks a pillow behind the head of the elderly woman to make her more comfortable after she and her husband have been gagged and tied up.
A clock ticking on a mantel provides a time line for the heist, which begins shortly before midnight and doesn’t end until six the next morning. In film time, the robbery takes about 30 minutes.
And during those minutes, not a word—NOT ONE WORD—is spoken. The robbers go about their business efficiently, the tension conveyed by their nods, shrugs and the sweat dripping from their foreheads. The only noises come from the tools used to pull off the job.
Dassin said that both the producer and the musical director were aghast when he first suggested going 30 minutes without any dialogue. The musical director said he would write a lengthy piece that could be played as the backdrop. When he supplied the music, Dassin said he showed him a clip with the music and another without it. The musical director agreed that the lengthy scene was better when presented in silence.
The heist goes off without a hitch, but Tony’s problems are just beginning.
The thieves have made off with gems worth 240 million francs, screams a newspaper headline. Cesar has also grabbed an expensive diamond bracelet on his way out and later gives it to Viviane, the nightclub chanteuse he has been wooing since his arrival in Paris.
She thinks the bracelet is a fake, but when she laughingly shows it to the club owner—the gangster Pierre Grutter—he immediately realizes the piece came from the sensational robbery.
Grutter, Tony and their various associates now begin a game of cat-and-mouse, one trying to hide the loot and the other trying to find it. This leads to murder, kidnapping and a less-than-happy ending for almost everyone involved.
Dassin, on the other hand, used the success of the film to rebuild his career, first in Europe and then back in the United States. He met the Greek actress Melina Mercouri at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955—the year Rififi came out. They eventually married. While Dassin no longer identified himself as a Communist, he remained an advocate of liberal causes and his work and politics continued to make headlines. He and Mercouri left Greece in 1966 and later were suspected of helping finance a failed coup aimed at overthrowing the country’s dictatorship. They returned in 1974 after Greece’s military dictatorship fell.
In films, Dassin went on to direct Mercouri in the classic Never on Sunday (1960). He also received high praise for his work in Topkapi (1964), another heist film.
HIT: Filming in standard black and white, Dassin said he made a point to never shoot in sunlight, much to the consternation of the film’s producer, who became upset with the delays. But the dark, rainy, cloudy atmosphere coupled with the Paris street scenes (is there a better city in the world in which to film a movie?) added just the right touch.
As a reviewer for the New York Times noted (see below), you can almost smell the atmosphere.
MISS: There’s a scene at the nightclub early in the movie in which Viviane does a jazz number entitled “Rififi.” It’s clearly a way to explain the French argot and the meaning of the word, but given the tone and mood of the rest of the movie, it seems somewhat out of place to be singing about this lifestyle.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “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. . . . This beautifully fashioned black-and-white film . . . has a flavor of crooks and kept women and Montmartre ‘boites’ that you can just about smell. . . . 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.”—Bosley Crowther, New York Times
REALITY CHECK: The scene in which Cesar admits that he has betrayed his friend Mario and asks for forgiveness was not in the novel. Dassin, who played Cesar, added that part of the story with the Hollywood witch hunts in mind. He was one of the people who had been betrayed and his message was that there could be no forgiving.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: A classic in the foreign film noir genre, this is a movie worth revisiting from time to time.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Dassin met with Auguste le Breton, the author of the novel on which the script was based, shortly before starting to shoot the movie. He was not happy with Dassin’s adaptation. “I have read your screenplay,” said the author, who showed up for the meeting dressed in gangster-like garb, including a fedora. “I would like to know, where is my book?” Dassin tried to explain that he only took parts of the book and expanded on them. Le Breton again asked the same question, “Where is my book?” Then he pulled out a gun and placed it on the table. Dassin said all he could do was laugh at the ludicrousness of the situation. Luckily, the author joined in and they became friends.
CASTING CALL: Dassin had to operate with a small budget. Servais was a well-known French actor who hadn’t had much recent work, so he came cheap, as did Carl Mohner, who was an unknown. Dassin saved additional money by casting himself as Cesar.
BEST LINE: “There’s not a safe that can resist Cesar and not a woman that Cesar can resist,” says Mario in describing his Milanese friend and his skills. They need him for the heist, but the comment also foreshadows the romantic entanglement that leads to the betrayal.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Low-key, but effective. The shootings were standard for the time. Nothing flashy or outlandish. The beating scene, even though it takes place offscreen, was the most disturbing.
BODY COUNT: Eight.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”