1955. Starring Jean Servais. Directed by Jules Dassin.
Has there ever been a cinematic caper that has gone to plan? Jules Dassin filmed one of the best, an unforgettable crime tutorial, where the “Rififi” – the rough-and-tumble men – are willing to risk everything for a successful heist.
The craggy Jean Servais leads a group of conspirators who have every step of the crime planned, every move timed, every potential hazard covered. Their target is a secure jewelry store, and their planning pays off to the tune of 240 million francs. But you know that something’s going to go wrong. . .
Servais plays Tony le Stephanois, fresh out of the pen, having served a stretch for an earlier heist, but much respected because he kept his mouth shut. He is brought into the plot by two younger hoods, Mario (Robert Manuel) and Jo (Carl Mohner), along with Cesar le Milanais – played by no other than Jules Dassin himself. It is said that “there’s not a safe that can resist Cesar and not a woman that Cesar can resist.” Everyone who has seen a crime flick in the 50 years since can guess where the trouble begins.
The heist is painstakingly portrayed, illustrated in a 32-minute wordless sequence that maintains its suspense throughout. And this is no Ocean’s Eleven sleek inside job. The thugs of Rififi bust through plaster, cut through metal and wipe the sweat from their eyes, just long enough to reach in for handfuls of diamonds. As the successful operation unravels, the gang drops one by one, and an innocent life is endangered.
The streets of 1950s Montmartre are wet and grimy, filmed under overcast skies, but streets have rarely looked so good. The cafes, nightclubs and apartments are all standard film noir fare, but this is what city streets should look like.
Jules Dassin died on March 31 of this year, but left behind some classics: Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), Thieves’ Highway (1949), Night and the City (1950) and then, finally, Rififi. That’s one hell of a streak. An American director, Dassin was a victim of the Hollywood blacklist and moved to France and married Greek actress Melina Mercouri. I meant to write something when I read of his death, but decided that watching Rififi would be a much more enjoyable way to honor him.