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With: Jean Servais, Carl Mhner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Marie Sabouret, Janine Darcey, Claude Sylvain, Marcel Lupovici, Pierre Grasset, Robert Hossein, Magali Nol, Dominique Maurin
Written by: Jules Dassin, Ren Wheeler, Auguste Le Breton, based on the novel by Auguste Le Breton
Directed by: Jules Dassin
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 115
Date: 04/13/1955

Rififi (1955)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Rough and Tumble

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1955, Francois Truffaut hailed Jules Dassin's Rififi, saying "out of the worst crime novels I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I have ever seen." Dassin was in a particularly interesting situation at the time. He was an American born filmmaker who left the US after being blacklisted. And so, he was able to make a movie that the Hollywood-struck French critics loved, and at the same time a movie that seemed highbrow to Americans and thus worthy of praise in the US. This aside, though, Rififi is still a crackerjack crime film when viewed today. It's being re-released in a new print by the wonderful Rialto Pictures (whose recent presentations include Nights of Cabiria, Grand Illusion, and The Third Man).

Rififi has been close to unavailable for years. I saw it once about five years ago on a horrible video tape, and I got a kick out of the centerpiece -- the twenty-minute silent robbery sequence -- but was bored by the rest of it. Seeing it again in its new print, though, I was struck by how good it really is.

It's a film about thugs with skills. These are not your stylized criminals living in high class like, say, Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief made the same year. These are the guys who stopped getting a thrill from the job long ago. Now they just do the work. Rififi concerns a jewel robbery committed by four men. The oldest, Tony (Jean Servais) is a burnt-out jailbird whose empty shell sits half-heartedly around all-night card tables unable to stifle exhausted coughs. Servais, with his hangdog face, plays him perfectly. Next we have the pretty boy Jo the Swede (Carl Mohner), the Italian loverboy Mario (Robert Manuel), and the suave Cesar (played by Dassin himself under a pseudonym).

The movie breaks down into three neat acts: the setup, the robbery, and the downfall. (As in all true film noirs, the protagonists never get away with anything.) The setup also shows us the rules for the film; that this is a pared-down crime film with no flash or glamour. The best part is, of course, the 20-minute robbery which has no dialogue. We see the team working out some of the details of the robbery beforehand, but others we only learn about during the crime. They break into the building, dig through the floor, silence the alarm, crack the safe, and get out. I defy anyone not to have clammy hands at the end of this sequence.

The last third is something of a letdown by comparison, but Dassin manages to keep the same tone and doesn't betray his story despite running out of gimmicks. He even manages to develop a certain level of suspense out of all the thick malaise.

Quentin Tarantino has said that this was one of the films that inspired his Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Yet Rififi is the exact opposite of those films, with their wisecracking wise-guys, always quick with a snappy remark or a colorful story. Rififi is drained of all color. True, the characters in Rififi are all personality types, but they come across as more professional than cool.

A note about the title. It's a song sung by a dame in a night club about dating tough guys. The word "Rififi" roughly translates to "Rough and Tumble." The song grinds the movie to a halt, and even Truffaut singles it out in his review as a drawback. But rough and tumble this movie is. It's raw and pure and feels like the real thing.

Until now, Rififi was only available in horrible, muddy, jumpy VHS videos, but the magnificent folks at Rialto Pictures restored it for a theatrical release last year, and now the Criterion Collection has made a sparkling new DVD from this new source material. The disc contains a new video interview with the director, now in his 90s.

In 2013, Criterion released a two-disc DVD/Blu-ray combo pack. The extras are still the same -- the interview with Dassin (who died in 2008), set design drawings by art director Alexandre Trauner, stills, and a trailer -- but they are included on both discs. There's an optional English-language track, too. The great film critic J. Hoberman provides an essay the liner notes booket. The Blu-ray comes with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Compared with the first time I saw the movie, the picture and sound quality are miraculous.

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