WORLD CINEMA CLASSICS: Rififi / Blu-ray Review

Director Jules Dassin, who picked up the award for best director for Rififi (also known as Du rififi chez les hommes) at Cannes, was an American in exile from Hollywood when he made the film. Prior to his success with Rififi, Connecticut born Dassin had made a number of highly acclaimed noir films during the 1940s but then by the end of the decade found himself on the Hollywood blacklist of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), set up by McCarthy to weed out communist propagandists and their sympathisers in the entertainment industry. Dassin struggled to find projects even in exile, with pressure from HUAC via the American Embassy often directed upon the non-European actors he cast, forcing them not to work with him on films he tried to set up in France and in Italy.

Rififi (1955) represented his first film for five years, the last being Fox's Night and the City made in the UK in 1950 before he moved to France, and the project was realised on the back of the French success of his film The Naked City, a classic noir thriller shot in New York and released in 1948. He was approached to direct by producer Henri Bérard who had secured the rights to the crime novel Du Rififi chez les hommes by Auguste le Breton. Having written the script for the adaptation in about six days, Dassin restructured much of the plot and characters as he felt the original novel contained some disagreeable racist elements where the rival gangsters in conflict with the European criminals in the story were depicted as Arab or North African stereotypes.

... highly representative of the heist film
Instead, he set out to provide a different contrast between Tony le Stéphanois's gang and its rival, led by Pierre Grutter, rather than using the novel's crude racism to delineate their differences. Tony's associates are shown as respectful of each other, working closely together with a bond of trust whereas Grutter and his associates are shown as violent murderers and drug taking informers. The other difference between the gangs is marked out geographically in the film where Tony and his group inhabit the urban landscape of Paris, are embedded within its streets. Grutter and his brothers only exist within the framework of the nightclub and then outside of the Parisian sprawl in which the conclusion of the film takes place in a dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts.

The celebrated heist scene for which the film will always be remembered was barely ten pages of the original novel. Dassin decided to make this scene the entire focus of the screenplay. It's based on a real robbery that took place in Marseilles in 1899 and Dassin's sequence has not only influenced many similar heist movies but also many copy-cat crimes, such as the one that took place in Newbury in 1979 that Graeme Hayes mentions in his essay on Rififi in The Cinema of France.

Even the Detective Constable in charge of the case claimed that they referred to the thieves as the 'Rififi gang' after they stole £30,000 worth of jewellery by following the film's method of cutting through the ceiling of the shop, using an umbrella to catch all the debris, preventing alarms going off and then lowering themselves through the hole on a rope-ladder.

As an indication of how far the budget of $200,000 stretched, he cast Jean Servais as the lead character Tony le Stéphanois, the ex-con recently out of prison after a previous jewel heist. Servais's career was on the decline because of his alcoholism and Dassin selected him and many of the other members of the cast as he was simply unable to afford major European or Hollywood actors for the film. He even resorted to casting himself (in the credits he takes the screen name of Perlo Vita) as the Italian safecracker César the Milanese as his chosen Italian actor never received the contract for the film and he had to step in and take the role himself.

Shooting took place entirely on location in Paris and Dassin's documentarist approach to the locations is clearly an echo of the techniques he developed for the four noir films he made in the 1940s, including the likes of The Naked City and, allegedly, Dassin scouted these locations in Paris while he was unemployed. The daytime locations are subdued and grayscale in contrast to some of the brightly lit interiors and the heavy contrast of the night sequences. Much of the film is expressive of the mix of the noir he perfected in his American films and the realistic verite style of the European cinema that was now becoming so prominent.

As Ginette Vincendeau points out in her excellent 23 minute introduction to the film, the structure of the narrative is seen as highly representative of the heist film. In three acts, Rififi opens with the release of Tony le Stéphanois from prison, his gradual acclimatisation to life in Paris and his reunion with friends Jo le Suedois (Carl Möhner) and Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel) and sets up the conflict with gang leader Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) when Tony discovers that his former lover Mado now belongs to Grutter. The second act is primarily concerned with Tony and his friends deciding to rob the Mappin & Webb store and how they plan and execute the robbery. The closing act shows the aftermath and how an act of greed on the part of Tony's associate César alerts Grutter to their crime, sending him on a violent journey to blackmail Jo for the heist money after kidnapping Jo's son Tonio.
... criminality is aligned with the desire for new consumer goods, with general class aspirations
The first act mixes the French and American noir influences where, as Vincendeau points out, the quintessentially French noir that depicts the bonds between Tony's gangster friends (Jo's arrival at the card game that opens the film and the meeting in the cafe shortly after) and his position as ailing patriarchal figurehead. This dovetails with the violent sequence where Tony punishes Mado for her allegiance to Grutter and he humiliatingly forces her to strip and then whips her with a belt. This violence and the rest of the first act also emphasises the all important Paris locations, Jo's domestic life (his wife is seen hoovering and his son is constantly playing with his father) and Mario's flirtatious relationship with his girl Ida that suggest Dassin's American noir influence.

The opening thirty minutes clearly establishes the humanism of Tony and his friends, invites us into their lives to generate some empathy for them, delineating their underworld connections within a domesticated milieu and where the locations of the Pigalle are contrasted with the affluence of Place Vendome. There is also much in the film about French society and how it was undergoing change as it entered the 1950s, leaving the War behind.

Here criminality is aligned with the desire for new consumer goods, with general class aspirations and linking the desire of Tony's gang, who eventually break into Mappin & Webb, with their painful, rather impoverished childhoods. Tony himself lives a better life through his friendship with Jo, Mario, their wives and lovers, and Jo's little son, Tonio. This is signified in the way that Dassin allows the moral and social context of crime to play out through the homosocial bonds between Tony's men and his own role as a 'father' figure. 

One final note on the first act must include the sequence in the nightclub where the cabaret singer Viviane performs the film's title song. This is a supreme moment of meta-textuality in the film - while the singer performs behind her a shadow play on the stage depicts the stereotypical silhouettes of the gangster and his moll - where the title song presents the film in miniature (the silhouette is one repeated through the film as it contextualises the relationships between criminal men and their women), emphasises the stark expressionist visuals of the genre and the slang patois (words that, as the lyrics underline, you wouldn't find in a dictionary) used by the film's characters.

The middle act is one where the mechanics and process of cinema are wonderfully exploited by Dassin in the preparations for the robbery and the heist sequence itself. The brilliant thirty-minute heist scene in the film, played by the actors in complete silence and with no scoring, much to composer's Georges Auric's chagrin, is now seen as a particularly fine example of French noir. As Graeme Hayes notes, the shooting and editing of these scenes places importance on "repetition, long takes, minimisation of dialogue or interpretive sound, close-ups, tight framing and so on."

Dassin forces us to pause and revel in the choreography of the theft, to understand that these are, as Vincendeau calls them, 'artisans' engaged in a precise race against time and the all pervading threat of discovery either through the disturbing of an alarm system or the local gendarmes spotting the getaway car. The homosocial bond between the men, explicitly rooted in the trust and loyalty of the criminal code, is also heightened by the scenes of preparation as they discover a way to silence the alarm and then in the balletic interplay of physical activity and their mutual gazes during the heist.
... a man locked in an existential battle with the city 
If the opening act establishes character and setting then the last forty minutes show how this successful operation is demolished like a house of cards simply through one moment of selfishness and Grutter's desire to eliminate Tony after Mado leaves him. We see both characters and settings unravel as the film shifts to recriminations and betrayal as the locations of the narrative take Tony out of the city and into the suburbs. César keeping one ring back from the heist for his girlfriend emphasises the film's exploration of the humanity of the criminal code and how it only takes one member of the gang to crack under pressure.

Grutter discovers the nature of the theft through César's weakness and his confession is part of an extraordinary sequence where Grutter holds him at gunpoint backstage at the nightclub. Dassin uses César's point of view as he walks through a surreal space filled with theatrical props, the behind-the-scenes ambience of the club acting as a symbolic underworld, until he is physically pushed into frame by the unseen Grutter. Crude violence is once again the signature of the film's conclusion with the murders of Mario and Ida in which they acknowledge their own status as sacrificial victims as they attempt to protect Tony.

César's odyssey through the 'underworld of the nightclub' is repeated when Tony confronts him and practically retraces César's steps. He does this in a wonderful reverse of the previous tracking shot through the prop store of the club but this time with Tony out of frame and César slowly diminishing into the background until shots are fired. There is also another subtext to their confrontation where, as César admits to grassing on Mario, Dassin later revealed that this scene is, as Graeme Hayes observes, "an explicit allusion to the betrayal felt by many such as Dassin at the willingness of his contemporaries to name names before the HUAC." There is even greater irony here in that César is played by Dassin himself.

The film concludes with Jo's own collapse under pressure, arranging for Grutter to pick up the money from the heist in exchange for his son Tonio, unaware that Tony has pressured Mado to reveal Grutter's hideout and that the boy has already been rescued. The two sub-plots tragically intertwine and the film ends with the equally impressive and exhilarating final scene where the wounded Tony returns the kidnapped child home after a climactic shoot-out in Saint Rémy-lès-Chevreuse. It is a giddy carnival ride as he desperately drives his car back through the Paris suburbs, narrowly avoiding a crash or killing pedestrians, as he loses blood from the fatal wound received in the shootout. In the back of his car is a little boy, dressed as a cowboy, that other great symbol of Americana, playing with his toy gun and oblivious to the cost of real violence.  

Certainly all of the noir characteristics of a film like Dassin's Night and the City (1950) are present and correct and the similar theme, of a man locked in an existential battle with the city, permeates Rififi. His importing into the film some of the attitudes towards violence, masculinity and women that were the staples of American noir and indeed his realistic view of these themes caused Rififi much trouble with censors in many countries. The film's European credentials were validated by Francois Truffaut, unequivocal in his praise in his book The Films in My Life, "One of the worst crime novels I've ever read, Jules Dassin has made one of the best crime films I have ever seen."

Even though Truffaut may have scoffed at Breton's novel, Dassin's adaptation triggered a series of 'Rififi' films in the late 1950s and early 1960s and certainly Rififi and Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, released in 1954 and starring Jean Gabin, were responsible for a wave French noir thrillers where the audience was asked to empathise with the criminals before they met their fate. Rififi itself remains a hugely influential film, particularly on the crime genre in France even to this day, and it certainly comes highly recommended.

About the transfer
The transfer in high-definition is nothing short of beautiful and only very occasional moments of softness can be seen in an incredibly strong, crisp presentation. Contrast and highlights are very robust and details on faces, in objects and costumes are to the fore. The location work comes off particularly well and the early morning and late night sequences in Paris are truly evocative of the genre and brilliantly showcase Philippe Agostini's Expressionist cinematography. Really quite stunning. The audio track is also impressive. Clean and clear, the dialogue and sound effects are pretty flawless and Georges Auric's wonderful music score is very effectively presented on the soundstage.

Special features
Filmed introduction by Ginette Vincendeau
French cinema critic, scholar and author Vincendeau provides an excellent introduction to the film, deftly summarising the themes of the film and its French and American genre credentials as well as a brief review of the heist scene.
Interview with Jules Dassin [Blu-ray only]
A thirty minute, fairly in depth interview that looks not just at his work on Rififi but also ranges through his Hollywood career too. He also talks about his blacklisting in the 1950s and provides plenty of background to the film itself.
Q&A with Jules Dassin at the BFI Southbank, London [Blu-ray only]
A further thirty eight minutes of background to his career and his work on Rififi. The anecdotes are often repeated from the interview but this is still a lovely extra to have.
Original Theatrical Trailer
Comprehensive booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by writer and filmmaker David Cairns, author Alastair Phillips (Rififi: French Film Guide), Francois Truffaut and John Trevelyan.
Artwork presentation packaging including three original posters and a newly commissioned artwork cover

Pathé-Consortium Cinéma / Indus Films / S.N.Pathé Cinéma and Primafilm 1955
Arrow Academy FCD495 / Released 09 May 2011 / Region B 1080p Dual layered BD / DVD region 2 / LPCM Mono Audio (Blu-ray), Dolby Digital Mono Audio (DVD) / Aspect ratio 1.33:1 / Duration: 118 mins (Blu-ray), 113 mins (DVD) / Cert: 12

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