Monday, November 10, 2008

Rififi-A heist movie masterpiece

I'll admit that I don't know nearly as much about French cinema as I should. However, I have little doubt that Jules Dassin's 1955 masterpiece Rififi is the greatest French film ever made. In fact, it's one of the greatest films ever made, period. It technically falls under the category of being a heist movie, but it's of such a high quality that it just makes that label seem inadequate. It set the archetype for all future heist movies, but doesn't feel cheapened due to its imitators. If anything, the imitators feel cheapened in my mind because Rififi shows them how it's supposed to be done.

It starts in the early hours of morning in a smoky room in Paris where a group of men are finishing an all night poker game. Tony (Jean Servais) needs money to keep playing, so he calls up his friend Jo (Carl Mohner) to help him out. Apparently Tony just did a 5 year stint in prison for a jewel heist he pulled, and Jo was the protege for whom Tony took the rap. Jo takes him out of the room and into the fresh air where he plans on taking Tony home, but instead stops at a local coffee shop to meet his friend Mario (Robert Manuel). Tony's in failing health, but Jo and Mario are planning a heist of an ultra high-end jewelry store, and they desperately need Tony to mastermind the operation. Tony brings in an intermediary that they'll launder the jewels through once they have them, and knows of an Italian safecracker named Cesar (Dassin himself, acting under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) that they'll need to get through the safe. The thing about jewel heists though is that things aren't always over after the job is pulled. The guys can't screw anything up by flaunting their new wealth, which would draw the eye of both the police, and maybe the ruthless gangster than Tony's ex-girlfriend shacked up with while he was in prison.

The heist of the jewelry store is by far the most famous sequence in the movie. It's a wordless, music less 32-minute tour de force by Dassin. It's unquestionably one of the handful of greatest sequences to ever reach my eyes. These men are professionals at what they do, have thoroughly prepared for this heist (in a previous terrific sequence in the movie), and communicate with one another almost telepathically. Even after disabling the sound sensitive alarm system, there's no reason for these guys to make any noise while they're working, so they don't. Apparently composer Georges Auric scored the entire 32-minute sequence even though Dassin told him he didn't want music over it. Auric assured him that he'd need it if there was to be a half hour of the movie without dialog. When Dassin screened for him both versions of the sequence, Auric told him "It's wrong, the music. Take it out". If ever there was a piece of film I was going to show someone to illustrate that you don't necessarily need dialog to tell a story, it'd be this sequence.

Jean Servais, as Tony, had been a low level French film star who had fallen on hard times before making Rififi. Dassin said that they were lucky to get him because he was such a good actor, but they were able to get him because he desperately needed work and they didn't have much money. He's haunting as the over-the-hill but still sharp Tony. Obviously a career criminal, you can see in his eyes and hear in his voice that he's a beaten down man, but he comes alive a little bit during the heist and afterwords. It's a wonderful performance, but my favorite performance in the movie was by Dassin as Cesar le Milanais the safecracker. His final scene in the movie is another masterpiece of directing, but it's also an extraordinary performance from a guy who had recently been nearly bankrupt due to being put on the Hollywood Blacklist in the late 1940's. Dassin tried several times to get other projects going, even outside of the US, but was not able to get anything done until a French producer told him he was the only man who could make Rififi.

Rififi was a huge hit upon its release and restored Dassin to both artistic and financial good standing (the producer couldn't afford to offer him a decent upfront salary, so Dassin was given a percentage of the profits contract). Dassin won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, and the movie was widely hailed as one of the great film noirs ever made. Its reputation has only grown in the ensuing 53 years, and with good reason. I'd heard about it for years, but never got around to watching it. Then I had it in from Netflix for a while and never got around to watching it. Now I'm kicking myself for waiting so long to experience this true masterpiece of world cinema.


That Film Girl said...

Someone recently recommended this film to me when I claimed that "The Asphalt Jungle" had the greatest robbery scene of all time. I think I'm gonna try to watch this soon. I'd like to be proven wrong, and I love watching classic french films.

Have you seen any Jean-Luc Godard?

Oh, and they are remaking Rififi:

Kyle said...

I saw that they were trying to remake this one, and I think Al Pacino could be great in the role if the right director gets onboard to steer the project in the right direction. And of course, to not mess up the heist sequence.

Apparently Truffaut said that Rififi was the best noir movie he'd ever seen, which surprised him because the novel it was based on was the worst noir book he'd ever read. That made me laugh.

I think Breathless is the only Godard I've ever seen. I've only seen a couple of Truffaut's movies, and a few recent (last decade or so) French movies like City of Lost Children, La Vie en Rose, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which is why I say I don't know nearly as much as I should about French cinema.