A Little Ominous Noir Music Makes Jules Dassin's 'Rifif' Nearly Perfect

This benchmark of the heist genre shows that for the criminal, elegance and brutality go hand-in-hand, never more vividly depicted than in this tightly structured ode to Paris.


Director: Jules Dassin
Cast: Jean Servais, Carl Mohner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Marcel Lupovici
Distributor: Criterion
Studio: Pathe
Release date: 2014-01-14

In no small part due to Rififi’s influence, heist films traditionally have derived much of their pleasure and appeal from the counterplay between what is shown and not shown. Think of recent examples like Steven Soderbergh’s first two Ocean's films, Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Thirteen, both of which present one possible scenario for the heist before pulling a switch and revealing the gang’s actual plan which has been executed concurrently with their elaborate ruse.

The planning, setup, and execution are still central to that climactic thrill of seeing the true plot snap into place, no less than in the comparatively straightforward burgles of Michael Mann’s Thief or David Mamet’s constantly pivoting Heist. Roger Ebert’s review of the card-shark character study Hard Eight put it best: “I like movies that show me precisely how to get away with something.”

Rififi shows us the getting away, and the getting, perhaps better than anyone ever did before or would again. The second act is methodical and pragmatic to a fault; issues like character and theme are forgotten as the assembled team (the pinch hitter is a safecracker played by director Jules Dassin himself) set down to solve the problems before them. Sitting at a window observing deliveries in the early morning hours gives the thieves a deadline to make: ten minutes before six.

A trip into the jewelry store tips them off as to the state-of-the-art alarm system they’ll have to evade, and a scene of luxurious detail shows them hunkered together, tinkering with the machine to determine just how far they can push their luck. These are not genius criminals pulling a magician’s trick. They are real men hammering their heads against a serious problem, until finally a tentative solution appears. It is no panacea: it will demand patience, sweat, silence, and five hours of physical labor. The getting’s never easy.

Freed of the constraints of America’s Production Code, Dassin never bothers passing a moral judgment on the crime. He is, instead, interested in a specific choice made by ex-convict Tony the Stephanois, a switch that seems to flip in his mind after he sees his old lover bound to Pierre Grutter, club owner and leader of a feared criminal gang.

Tony takes her back to his apartment and the sound of blows and her cries echo in the small space while the camera pushes in another direction, toward an old photo of them as the happy couple. Only after this encounter does Tony express interested in Mario Ferrari’s idea of a jewel heist, but not as the proposed smash-and-grab operation that will yield only the display window’s wares. Instead, Tony suggests a play for the safe, and a more elaborate plan.

This suggests not just an awakened greed on Tony’s part but an impulse to try things a different way; their eventual scheme ends up perhaps not easy or bloodless, but it boasts an elegance that the straightforward sledgehammer-to-window approach wouldn’t have had. Dassin’s interested not just in how to get away with a crime but how the choices his criminals make make up their compromised existence within the criminal underworld.

Can you be a crook and an artiste, like Dassin’s fey safecracker who proves, shall we say, a disappointment? One of the film’s most indelible images sees his character trapped backstage at the club L’age d’or, amid ropes, stage props and musical instruments, all signs of culture, as the camera dollies backward and leaves him helpless and insignificant as a pinprick at the frame’s vanishing point.

For Rififi is structured rather like a musical, the title itself explained in a gaudy song-and-dance number at L’age d’or. It’s an ominous ditty, if not of much interest as performed, one whose lyrics warn that everything will come to senseless violence in the end. As the one venture into straight-up musical territory, it’s the most inelegant of Dassin’s alterations to the source novel.

But look again at those violins backstage, the umbrella that serves as a crucial tool in the heist, the scenes of preparation and observation that draw on the city symphony genre and the works of Rene Clair, or a moment of keen frustration and fury for Tony as he stands onstage in the empty club. Like so many great artists of the shoestring B-picture -- perhaps Edgar Ulmer most of all -- Dassin’s scenes feel composed rather than shot, staged and scripted.

The wordless, 30 minute heist scene is a showstopper in the most literal sense for this revue without melodies or lyrics, one in which the absence of emotion is itself its most potent and violent expression. The bodies pile up with precious little slipping of the masks even in death, all building to an oddly serene final race against time that indicates what Tony has wanted all along, what he hoped his share of the loot might buy him. If it’s a hushed, underwhelming sort of finale, that only seems fitting. In musicals, you don’t always remember the particulars of the last scene, where the characters end up, or the lesson that’s been learned. You remember the songs.

Boasting by far the ugliest packaging and menu artwork for a Criterion Blu-ray to date, its update of Rififi arrives with little supplemental fanfare, reflecting the influential film’s contemporary status as something of a critical afterthought, if still a respected benchmark. The booklet essay by great American critic J. Hoberman pays homage to the persistence of Dassin’s career (thriving abroad during a period of blacklisting in America), but seems unable to muster up much enthusiasm for the picture.

The accompanying half-hour video interview with Dassin is a holdover from the 2001 DVD release, while the English audio track is only noteworthy for its professional execution. This is one of Criterion’s most perfunctory releases, fulfilling its usual expectations of quality presentation while giving none but the most determined of collectors any impetus to place an order.





Political Cartoonist Art Young Was an Aficionado of all Things Infernal

Fantagraphics' new edition of Inferno takes Art Young's original Depression-era critique to the Trump Whitehouse -- and then drags it all to Hell.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

OK Go's Emotional New Ballad, "All Together Now", Inspired by Singer's Bout with COVID-19

Damian Kulash, lead singer for OK Go discusses his recent bout with COVID-19, how it impacted his family, and the band's latest pop delight, "All Together Now", as part of our Love in the Time of Coronavirus series.


The Rules Don't Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.


Siren Songs' Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels Debut As a Folk Duo (album stream + interview)

Best friends and longtime musical collaborators Meredith Kaye Clark and Jenn Grinels team up as Siren Songs for the uplifting folk of their eponymous LP.


Buzzcocks' 1993 Comeback 'Trade Test Transmissions' Showed Punk's Great Survivors' Consistency

PopMatters' appraisal of Buzzcocks continues with the band's proper comeback LP, Trade Test Transmissions, now reissued on Cherry Red Records' new box-set, Sell You Everything.


Archie Shepp, Raw Poetic, and Damu the Fudgemunk Enlighten and Enliven with 'Ocean Bridges'

Ocean Bridges is proof that genre crossovers can sound organic, and that the term "crossover" doesn't have to come loaded with gimmicky connotations. Maybe we're headed for a world in which genres are so fluid that the term is dropped altogether from the cultural lexicon.


Claude McKay's 'Romance in Marseille' Is Ahead of Its Time

Claude McKay's Romance in Marseille -- only recently published -- pushes boundaries on sexuality, disability, identity -- all in gorgeous poetic prose.


Christine Ott Brings the Ondes Martenot to New Heights with the Mesmerizing 'Chimères'

France's Christine Ott, known for her work as an orchestral musician and film composer, has created a unique new solo album, Chimères, that spotlights an obscure instrument.


Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.


The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.


ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.


Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.