Criminal’s code

Jean Servais, Marie Sabouret: Sit your moneymaker down.

Jean Servais, Marie Sabouret: Sit your moneymaker down.

Rated 4.0

Tony the Stephanois (imbued with brittle bitterness by Jean Servais) is a stand-up guy. He refused to rat on his pals when he was last busted for a Paris robbery and has just completed a five-year stretch in the pen. His closest cronies have not forgotten him. Felon and family man Jo the Swede (Carl Mohner) and happy-go-lucky pimp Mario Farrati (Robert Manuel) want him to participate in a smash-and-grab jewel heist. Tony suggests they ignore the Tiffany-like shop’s window display and hit its safe. Soon the three conspirators are up to their shoulder holsters in trouble as an oily nightclub owner and his junkie brother muscle in on their action.

Rififi, Jules Dassin’s 1955 gem of a crime story, was the American filmmaker’s first French production. He had moved to Paris in 1952 after being fingered as a communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Unable to land a major development deal, he adapted Auguste Le Breton’s pulp novel to the screen without star power or much of a budget. The result is a lean, moody, exquisitely detailed caper in which the ultimate transgression is—maybe not so coincidentally—informing on one’s compatriots.

The film has the three-act structure of a classic tragedy and all the basic ingredients (hoods, dames, betrayal, drugs, gunplay) of a lurid potboiler. Its cinematography and editing drape criminal activity and its peripheral life forces in naturalistic textures and rhythms, and Dassin choreographs this credible heist procedural with ballet-like lyricism and precision.

The robbery setup is complemented by crisp introductions of all the players. It also includes a rather playful scene in which our trio of thieves and a safe cracker imported from Milan (played by Dassin under the name Perlo Vita) try to outwit the alarm system that separates them from a fortune in diamonds. The heist itself features a wordless 20-plus-minute segment that is broken only by the sounds of the tapping of a hammer on a chisel, gagged hostages, a passing car, a lone note struck on a piano, an electric drill and cautious body movement. The aftermath is a domino effect of rampant greed and revenge.

With its talk of a criminal code of ethics that is often violated with violent repercussions, Rififi has become a blueprint and inspiration for countless heist films, such as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. It escorts us through a Paris that lies in the shadows of common tourist routes. Little touches, such as the cymbal crashes that punctuate a woman’s sudden appearance and disappearance on an apartment balcony, add to the film’s allure, and a more prominent highlight includes the ingenious use of an umbrella and a fire extinguisher during the heist itself. The dialogue is a hotbed of noir-ish attitude (“Hello, kid. Sit your moneymaker down,” says a hood to one female nightspot inhabitant) and feels like it’s been stripped to bare necessity.

The film is also flawed. The lead women seem to have been cast more for their chest size than their acting chops, but their characters do, after some abuse and upon final demand, exhibit a certain amount of bravado and guts. They also feel mechanically, rather than organically, inserted into the story. One tacky intrusion on the film’s realism is a tacky nightclub number that explains the title (translated here as rough ’n’ tumble), and the occasional loss of some subtitles (at least on my preview video) on white backgrounds is irritating.

Dassin, who revisited the world of jewel thieves in 1964’s Topkapi, would have had trouble getting this film released in 1955 America. The more liberal French censors allowed him to expose more flesh and attitude than the Hayes Code would have permitted, and a scene in which Tony has his former girlfriend strip and then beats her off-camera with a belt, would probably have been relegated to the cutting-room floor.

At one point Rififi shows its thieves struggling with the encroachment of high technology on their lifestyle. “It’s getting harder to make a living," says one concerned hoodlum. The humor and beauty of the moment, and of most of this film, is that the observation, although rooted in an artificial noir landscape, still feels very real today.