Rififi (1955), directed by Jules Dassin, is far from obscure and hardly needs me to call it an early caper/heist masterpiece, but I will. Tubercular Tony (Jean Servais) has just returned from prison, totally broke and looking worn down, when he meets up with his friends Jo (Carl Möhner) and Mario (Robert Manuel). They share their plan to do a smash and grab at the jewelry store and steal a few rings from the window display. Tony tells them they should be thinking bigger and go for the store’s safe. In order to do that, they call in expert safe cracker Cesar (Jules Dassin). As the four men practice and prepare, they show us the expert skills, hard work, resourcefulness and perfectionism that will make the robbery such a success, and so rewarding to watch. They also reveal the special weaknesses and complicated relationships that will send everything after the robbery into such a tragic, deadly downward spiral.
First they learn the routines of the neighbourhood and snoop at the store, then in a cellar they recreate the store’s ultra-sensitive security system to figure out how much sound, motion and pressure the thing can sense, and how to disarm it. The most famous part of the film is the half hour of silence representing the hours of work as they break in, drilling down from the floor above, and carve into the safe, but that set piece happens halfway through the movie. There’s still the getaway, complicated by police checking out their car, a war with a competing group of crooks, the evil Grutters (Marcel Lupovici, Pierre Grasset, Robert Hossein), who figure out what Tony and friends have done, and kidnap Jo’s boy to get to the jewels or cash.
At every stage there is suspense, character development and most importantly, sympathy for the men. In this world they’re the good guys, and pay dearly with their lives, and by feeling the pain and consequences of their sins before they die. They have work they’re great at, broken hearts and desires that cloud their thinking, and women and children they love. The scenes of safecracking process and technical preparation are balanced by very personal and unique goodbyes before the job, and later, their moves through the city to enlist underworld assistance in the search for Jo’s boy, are balanced by a domestic scene where Jo’s guilt is made worse by his wife’s resentment. Cesar’s romantic streak is an obvious part of his introduction, so it’s no surprise when that’s what does them all in. When he gifts his cabaret singer crush Viviane (Magali Noël) a special ring from the store, he kicks off a chain of snitching and murder that makes all that loot meaningless. It leaves only Tony with his determination and the cold ruthlessness we saw in his violent reunion with his ex Mado (Marie Sabouret), to enforce honour among thieves and save the boy.
Besides the colourful characters and suspense, I enjoyed so many of this movie’s great images, most of which capture the Paris streets and city life, plus an unforgettably clever use for an the umbrella during the robbery, and a poignant contrast that has sick, weary Tony standing next to a photo of him and Mado in happier and more glamorous times. It’s all very similar to another great essential of the genre I watched recently, Bob le Flambeur (1955), where an aging gangster pulls off a big heist in Paris and watches it fall apart.
This is part of the Blindspot Series hosted by Ryan McNeil of The Matinee