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Blacklisted American director serves up distinctive noir on French soil
on August 10, 2014
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
RATING: 3.5 out of 5.0
The director of 'Rififi', Jules Dassin, was down on his luck at the time he was asked to get involved with this gritty film noir. Dassin was a successful American director of film noirs up until the end of the 1940s when he was suddenly blacklisted during the days of the Senator Joe McCarthy witch hunts and barred from working in the United States. Speaking during a 2000 interview featured as part of the Criterion Collection's DVD extras, Dassin remarked that he was paid very little to direct 'Rififi' as the cast and crew also worked under an extremely low budget.
'Rififi' is a very atmospheric film noir, shot intentionally under low light conditions. The plot revolves around a gang of jewel thieves led by Tony "le Stéphanois" (played by Jean Servais, a successful French actor in the 30s, whose career was in in decline at the time, due to alcoholism). Tony, just out of prison on a five year bid for a prior jewel heist, is approached by former pal, Jo, who proposes that they accept mutual friend Mario's plan to steal some jewels from a window display case of a prominent Parisian jewelry store.
The plan is initially rejected by Tony who is preoccupied with his former girlfriend, Mado, who has taken up with a tough guy nightclub owner, Pierre Grutter. In the first of a number of scenes, craftily infused with a palpable, violent edge, Tony beats Mado up for going with this other guy.
With Mado now out of his life, Tony decides to accept Mario's plan but instead of a simply 'smash-and-grab' of the jeweler's store window, he proposes knocking off a safe in the apartment above the jewelry store. Mario's friend, the Italian-speaking Cesar (played by director Dassin himself) is brought in to complete the team. The gang goes through a rehearsal before committing the crime itself. This mainly involves de-arming the sophisticated alarm system. I'm not sure if we needed all the pre-heist rehearsals, particularly because much of it is repeated during the actual heist itself (I'm thinking particularly of the spraying of the fire retardant foam into the alarm box, which appears to be rather redundant and anti-climactic).
Nonetheless the bulk of the heist scene is particularly noteworthy due to its having been shot without any dialogue. Also quite remarkable is the way in which an umbrella is utilized to prevent the alarm from going off, during the burglary. To my surprise, this was actually based on a crime involving a travel agency break-in, dating back to 1899!
After the heist is committed, the plot takes a few other clever twists and turns. The gang is undone by the simple greed of Cesar, who pilfers a small diamond ring for his girlfriend. Grutter and company get wind of this, and end up murdering Mario and his girlfriend (another shocking scene of violence in the film), in an attempt to extort information from Jo, as to the whereabouts of the very expensive jewels, taken from the jewel company's safe. I wonder why, however, Grutter's gang failed to ransack Mario's apartment, before giving up on trying to find the jewels.
After Tony finds a tied-up Cesar (captured by Grutter), he reluctantly murders him in revenge for violating the 'code of silence' between thieves. It's said that this represented Dassin's feelings toward colleagues who betrayed other colleagues during the blacklist era.
The plot races toward its inevitable conclusion after Grutter kidnaps Jo's son and holds him as ransom for the jewels. Tony tells Jo to sit tight while he tracks down the kid. But Jo can't wait and meets Grutter with the cash they got from a fence for the jewels. Inevitably Grutter kills Jo and is about to make off with the jewels when Tony shows up (somehow Mado had heard that Grutter had swiped Jo's son and knew where he was). With information provided by Mado, Tony indeed tracks Grutter down and after being seriously wounded, shoots and kills Grutter (why Grutter doesn't make sure Tony is dead, before attempting to make his get away), seems a bit far-fetched.
Despite his crimes, Tony performs the great sacrifice by driving Jo's son all the way back home, before he expires, with a suitcase stuffed with millions, in the backseat.
'Rififi' has all the ingredients of an engaging, taut, film noir. Particularly notable is the great on-location cinematography, sure-fire editing, very believable performances by some lesser-known actors as well as director Dassin's determination not to tone down the violent scenes in order to mollify a few prurient filmgoers. 'Rififi' suffers from a few flat notes including the long-winded 'heist rehearsal' as well as a number of (aformentioned) questionable plot contrivances, that don't always add up.
Overall, 'Rififi' is a pretty, solid noir. Jules Dassin was said to have regretted only the use of the song that bore the film's title. Dassin didn't want to use any music at all but was somehow talked into using the out of place song 'Rififi'. The title translates as 'rough and tumble'--a rather trite allusion to the overall atmosphere the film engenders.