Directed by American filmmaker Jules Dassin when he moved to France after being infamously blacklisted for his Communist sympathies in 1950 (during the production of Night And The City), 1955's Rififi (or Du rififi chez les homes if you prefer) is widely considered to be one of the finest heist films ever made, and for good reason. Almost sixty years after it unspooled in French cinemas and later played in America in an English dubbed version the picture still has the power to grip us and hold us riveted in complete suspense.
The film follows Tony "le Stéphanois" (Jean Servais), a jewel thief who has just finished serving five years in prison for his past offences. Given that he's just gotten out of prison, it's not surprising to learn that Tony is broke. He needs money. When he meets up with his old friend and the man he took the rap for, a Swedish gangster named Jo le Suédois (Carl Möhner), he somewhat begrudgingly says no to the invitation to help out on what should be a simple smash and grab. The plan would have been to meet up with an Italian gangster named Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel) and snatch the jewels out of a store window. Tony soon learns that his ex-girlfriend, Mado (Marie Sabouret), has moved on and is now involved with a Parisian mobster named Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) who runs a nightclub. He shows up there, invites her back to his place, and then proceeds to beat her pretty severely for getting involved with Grutter. At this point, with nothing else going for him, Tony decides to reconsider Jo's offer. In fact, he wants to up the ante: instead of doing a smash and grab and taking the jewels from the store window, he wants to crack the safe.
Jo and Mario are in but they know they'll need help to Mario brings in a safecracker named César le Milanais (Jules Dassin) and the four thieves then set about planning an elaborate heist, one big enough to make them all very, very wealthy men… if they can pull it off. Given that Grutter is none too pleased about what Tony did to Mado and that he's got his drug addicted brother Remi (Robert Hossein) out on the streets looking to kill him and all the betrayals soon to follow, getting into the safe almost seems like the easy part of all of this.
Featuring a perfectly complimentary score courtesy of composer Georges Auric and some wonderful black and white photography from cinematographer Philippe Agostini, Rififi is a superb technical achievement. It consistently looks fantastic, with picture perfect framing accentuating the tension as the heist gets underway but also letting body movement and character quirks coyly foreshadow some of what is to come in terms of how this cast of characters evolve and react to one another. A simple close up shot of the sweat on a man's brow manages to mean so much more in the context of the story that Dassin masterfully tells (and which was based on a novel of the same name by Auguste Le Breton. Shadow and light combine in wonderful ways to create fascinating visual contrast and everything from a scene in which some men play cards for reasons that are less than initially obvious to the shots where we see how everything plays out in Grutter's posh nightclub (particularly when Magali Noël performs for the audience) are never less than beautiful to look at.
Of course, visuals are all well and good but a good movie needs more than that to be a great movie and thankfully Rififi's cast are completely game. Dassin didn't have a huge budget for this picture and so he wasn't able to cast marquee stars, but it would seem that the movie is all the better for it as we get to pass by all the posturing and ‘star value' that the producers might have insisted on had there been different actors in the lead roles. Jean Servais is fantastic in the lead. He's a conflicted man and we know by the scene in which he beats his ex-girlfriend that he is a very flawed man, prone to overreacting and not necessarily the nicest guy around. Servais plays this world weary character with the utmost believability and turns in a perfect performance. Marie Sabouret, as that ex-girlfriend, has some appealing and seductive qualities that she rightfully exploits through her take on Mado. Her character is a catalyst in a lot of ways for what happens in the last half of the film and she brings an interesting and at times somewhat unlikely screen presence to the picture. Möhner and Manuel as Servais' accomplices are also excellent as is Lupovici and yes, even Dassin in his interesting supporting role.
Of course, the highlight of the film is the heist scene. So meticulously planned is all of this that the film absolutely has to get all of the details right or it would all be for naught and Dassin scores top marks for the way in which he lets all of this play out. We're almost there with the characters, we feel their misgivings and their transgressions and frustrations and we more than certainly understand their nervousness. It all comes together marvelously and Rififi remains a mesmerizing picture, a tense but all together very real and very human picture that feels ageless as it stands the test of time and continues to entertain and enthrall.
Rififi arrives on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition widescreen presentation framed in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.37.1 in what the packaging is touting as a new 2k restoration. The clarity here is outstanding, with the new transfer showing consistently excellent detail and texture throughout the film. Contrast looks dead on, the blacks are nice and deep without ever getting murky (though in some of the outdoor scenes, shut under overcast skies, things can look a little more grey than black) while the whites stay clean and clear and never bloom or look too hot. There's no evidence whatsoever of any noise reduction or edge enhancement and print damage isn't ever an issue either. There's a natural and pleasant amount of film grain present in the picture, enough to make this ‘feel like film' but never to the point where the picture looks dirty or to the point where it distracts. There aren't any obvious compression artifacts and generally speaking, this is a fantastic transfer that really brings out the film's mood and shadowy atmosphere.
The French language audio track, which is in LPCM Mono format, comes with optional subtitles in English only. For an older single channel mix there's a surprising amount of depth here, most of which stems from the excellent score used in the film. Dialogue has nice presence and the levels are nicely balanced. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion, the movie sounds remarkably clean, and all in all, this is about as good as the movie could probably sound, there's really nothing to complain about here at all. An optional English language dubbed track is also included in Dolby Digital Mono format. This is fine for those who want it but the film definitely plays better in its original French language than in the dubbed version.
The main extra on the disc is an interview with director Jules Dassin recorded in 2000 in New York City. It runs just under a half an hour in length and in the interview Dassin discusses the various contributions of the cast and crew he worked with on the picture, his thoughts on the story and the script and of course, his own personal career and more specifically, what it was like being blacklisted during the Communist witch hunts that swept Hollywood in the years before this picture was made it's quite an interesting talk with the man, his memory is quite sharp here and he has no shortage of input on the various topics.
The disc also includes a collection of set design drawings from art director Alexandre Trauneras well as some production stills, the film's original trailer, menus and chapter selection. Inside the case is a full color insert booklet that contains an essay on the film written by film critic J. Hoberman that details Jules Dassin's career and which makes some interesting observations about the artistic merit and importance of this particular film not just in Dassin's filmography but in the French noir movement in general. Additionally, as this is a combo pack release, a DVD version of the movie with the same extras is also included inside the packaging.
Outside of the fact that this disc could have benefitted from a few more extra features, The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack release of Jules Dassin's Rififi is pretty much flawless. The audio and video both receive impressive upgrades over the past DVD release and the movie itself remains a high point in the French noir movement and the heist film genre. It's smart, it's well acted, and it's amazing shot and on top of that it still retains the power to keep viewers on the edge of their seat. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.