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DVD SAVANT

RIFIFI


Du rififi chez les hommes
Criterion
1955 / B&W / 1:37 full frame / 120 m. / April 24, 2001 / 29.95
Starring Jean Servais, Carl Mohner, Robert Manuel, Perlo Vita (Jules Dassin), Marie Sabouret, Janine Darcey, Claude Sylvain, Marcel Lupovici, Robert Hossein, Magali Noel, Dominique Maurin
Cinematography Philippe Agostini
Production Design Auguste Capelier, (Alexandre) Trauner
Film Editor Roger Dwyre
Original Music Georges Auric
Writing credits Jules Dassin, René Wheeler, & Auguste Le Breton from the novel by Auguste Le Breton
Produced by René Gaston Vuattoux
Directed by Jules Dassin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Du Rififi chez les hommes is touted as 'the first French film noir', but it should really be called the first Euro noir. By definition film noir is an American Style, and Rififi is actually a Parisian version of The Asphalt Jungle, concentrating only on crooks versus crooks and leaving out the moralizing about cops vs. robbers. The acting, lighting, and direction are flawless - it's Jules Dassin in the director's chair, the maker of the noir classics The Naked City, Thieves' Highway, Brute Force and Night and the City. Rififi is a continental riff on a style he knew from the inside out.

Synopsis:

Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais) is a grim, hardboiled crook fresh from a stretch in stir for a noble gesture. He took the rap for his younger buddy Jo le Suedois (Carl Mohner), a mug who is also a family man. Tony tracks down his old flame Mado (Marie Sabouret). When he finds she's been unfaithful he first makes her strip and then beats her with a belt so hard he leaves permanent scars on her back. A resulting depression prompts him to throw in with Jo and the fun-loving Mario (Robert Manuel) on a risky and complicated jewel heist. The well-planned Caper culminates in a long, realistic, dialogue-free break-in scene that involves cutting through buildings and outwitting a modern alarm system. All goes more than well until imported safecracker Cesar (Jules Dassin, the director) steals an extra little diamond tidbit for the sexy singer (Magali Noel) he's dating....

Snappy, hardboiled and sporting some of the best photography of the streets of Paris ever committed to film,  3 Rififi is perhaps the first crime thriller to really concentrate on the Caper for its key focus.  1  The genre bounced right back to America with glossy, gimmicky pix like Five Against the House, Seven Thieves and even Ocean's Eleven. The main issue in each film is the planning and execution of a technically complex robbery. And since the only real suspense in these stories occurs when plans go awry, the crooks are judged not on the basis of morality but how well they react to the unexpected problems with which fate tries to trip them up. It's even been argued that The Great Escape is really a Caper film.

The personalities on view are as exotic as the French locale itself. Jean Servais is excellent as the weary, burned-out Tony, with his crook's code of conduct and a fatal soft spot for his godson. He's introduced particularly well in a gambling scene where his honorable reputation means nothing to cardsharps who treat him like a down 'n' out bum. Tony's eyes simmer in the darkness: like Eddie Constantine's beautiful, sad eyes in a ravaged face in Godard's Alphaville, Servais' countenance is an instant icon. Carl Mohner, later a familiar face in German war movies (and Hammer's The Camp on Blood Island) is a handsome and beefy lead who stays sympathetic even when he endangers his family. Robert Manuel is a lively comrade and the skirt-chasing Milanese safecracker Cesar is really director Jules Dassin, playing under the name Perlo Vita.

Unrestricted by the prudery of the Hollywood code, a racy streak of sensuality is at work not only in the raw brutality when Tony whips Mado but in the earthy relationship between Mario and his wife Ida (Claude Sylvain). When she steps into the parlor wearing an almost totally transparent nightgown, the blood pressure goes up. This is the kind of stuff that filled American pulp paperbacks but never made it to 1955's Kiss Me Deadly or The Big Combo. Those U.S. pictures had to answer to the censors for errata as lame as a black singer holding a microphone stand too 'suggestively.' Savant's taking it for granted that Claude's entrance was snipped from Rififi's dubbed import version, probably along with several short scenes depicting drug addiction.

Nowhere in Rififi is the literal translation of its original French title explained. A sultry cabaret song explains that the word "rififi" means 'the rough and tumble', presumably of violent sex. The singer who delivers it is another looker-to-die-for, Turkish-born Magali Noel. She notably graced the later Fellini pictures La dolce vita and Satyricon, and finally played everyone's heartthrob Gradisca in Amarcord.

After Rififi Jules Dassin made several more French and Greek films, going in the direction of ponderous art with the political Christ parable He Who Must Die (Starring Servais, Mohner and bad guy Robert Houssein from this film) and moving on to UA's Phaedra with Greek Earth mother Melina Mercouri. We can expect his two big Mercouri pictures, Never on Sunday and the Istanbul caper thriller Topkapi from MGM in the next year or so, but the haunting Phaedra is so obscure the best hope of seeing it is on TCM Cable.


Criterion's Rififi is as clean as a gendarme's whistle, which is saying a lot. Savant's previously seen only miserable 4th generation 16mm dupes that totally hid the film's beautiful photography and sexy soundtrack (I'm thinking of the nightclub number). An unfortunate flaw is the fact that a couple of reels are out of sync, with the sound a split-second early. (Note - this flaw has since been fixed and the disc reissued - GE) There's a delightful set of interviews with a very healthy-looking Jules Dassin, shot just last year. He covers his blacklisting exile to Europe, Clare Booth Luce's campaign to get him fired from an Italian movie, and the filming of Rififi while literally dead broke.

If you like your crime pix hot and bothered there's no need to be afraid of Criterion black-jacking you with a fistful of High Art - Rififi is pure rough-and-tumble entertainment.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Rififi rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Jules Dassin interview, trailer, production notes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 30, 2001


Footnotes:

1. Perhaps this emphasis on the nuts & bolts of robbery was too educational for Finnish censors, who banned the picture outright for three years.
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3. One scene takes place at a Seine-side brickyard morgue, that fans of Franju's Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) will instantly recognize.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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