Watching Rififi now for a third time it occurred to me that Jules Dassin's 1955 French heist drama is a film without any discernible flaws. These things perhaps sneak up on you, these essentially perfect movies. You can't make such a declaration after a single viewing, for sure, and it does probably take a little passage of time to come to that conclusion. Dassin has an earlier picture, Night and the City, that cuts deeper for me because of its protagonist and the lead performance of Richard Widmark. I still prefer that one, always letting emotion lead the way without apology. It is, in several ways, the true epitome of film noir and certainly, along with Double Indemnity, Out of the Past and maybe a couple of others, one of the greatest, most archetypal examples of that dark style. But the filmmaking in Rififi is better. It's leaner, more structured. There's a feeling that this is a movie deserving of being taught, analyzed and enjoyed all at once. It's that good and that disciplined. There are no false notes. Its two hours tick off in what feels like about half that amount of time.
There are three informal sections to Rififi, all of which serve a distinct purpose and know exactly when to end. The first begins with the film, opening on the image of a card table in use. Men - dirty, grubby, shady men - are playing when one runs out of money. The exposition of this introductory sequence is key. The man is our protagonist Tony le Stephanois. He calls a friend, Jo, for some quick cash because his fellow players will accept nothing else. Jo hurries over to this backroom game, chiding the other men for denying credit to the weathered-looking gambler whose name he announces as though it carries some importance. As Dassin continually pushes little pebbles of information about Tony, we learn that he's just recently been released from prison and that he refused to implicate the other men, including Jo, who were involved in his crime. Already Jo and another man, Mario, are trying to involve Tony in the heist of a jewelry store. Tony is not interested.
But we know these types of films. We know that an ex-con fresh out of prison always gets roped in to another job, often despite his own skepticism, and we know, above all, that there's a woman somehow involved. I'm not sure we quite knew this to such a certainty when Dassin was making his film in the mid-fifties, but we definitely learned it in the interim. Jean-Pierre Melville, the master of French gangster films (and someone who was once attached to direct Rififi), borrowed or shared so many of his repeated points and themes with Rififi, and Le cercle rouge, in particular, plays like a beautifully wounded version of the Dassin picture. Melville's Le deuxieme souffle also has in common a variation on those main points of a criminal who exits prison, locates a former flame, and reluctantly commits to what is intended to be one last job. The way the female is presented is rather important in Rififi. Tony has come out of prison with his honor fully intact and immediately is interested in finding Mado, who had been his girlfriend. Only when she rebuffs him, in a brutal scene where le Stephanois literally whips her with his belt as some sort of punishment for her behavior while he was away, does he change his mind about the heist. The idea, it would seem, is that Tony no longer has any reason to remain free or, maybe, alive.
Indeed, there's a strong sense of fatalism that weaves its way across the whole of Rififi in regards to Tony le Stephanois. The performance of Jean Servais deserves a good deal of the credit, to be sure, but there's also the terribly ominous way in which Dassin and cinematographer Philippe Agostini show the character. He never looks comfortable, owing partly to the ill health that's alluded to on multiple occasions and which seems to be characteristic of tuberculosis. During the celebrated heist sequence Tony's face is seen covered in droplets of sweats. There's an enigmatic, stoic cool to the character but he nonetheless always appears to be aware of his fate. That final, gorgeously-photographed drive is particularly affecting. It also has a modernity to it that makes the scene look and feel like it had been done at least ten years after it actually was. Servais seems to pull back on every occasion, though not in the way, for example, the actors in Melville's films later would. It's more connected to the whole of the film than ingrained in the individual. One distinctive difference between Rififi and most of Melville is that the former relies far more heavily on the collective rather than internalizing so much in one or two characters.
The perfect point of reference for that would be the respective heist sequences in Rififi and Le cercle rouge. Both are almost equally brilliant but the emotions stirred up in the viewer while watching are quite different. Rififi's version, which forms the second section of the film, cuts the score out completely and offers a silent look at the almost impossibly tense fleecing of the Mappin & Webb jewelry store. Dassin has shown just enough of the preparatory work of the characters to let us know what the major obstacles will be while attempting the robbery. When it begins, the viewer's concern is for the completion of the task rather than the safety or temerity of the participants. They are all in it together, sweating and laboring equally. Tony has to smoke a cigarette; Mario opens a bottle and shares it with the already exhausted Jo. Le cercle rouge differs in holding the spotlight on each of its men a little longer and a little brighter. Despite outfitting them in similar, disguising clothing, Melville films his characters without their anonymity. Yves Montand's Jansen becomes a particular focal point. They are less a group acting together than individuals each performing their own requisite task.
The heist sequence in Rififi deserves further praise, and its fame is completely justified. Melville was reluctant to attempt his own scene for years, putting off Le cercle rouge to allow for some distance between the two similar setpieces. The lengthy, silent break-in was later lightly parodied in the Italian film Big Deal on Madonna Street and given homage by Dassin himself in Topkapi. The scene's influence hardly stops there and is virtually immeasurable. Even today, it still proves electric. There's roughly half an hour that passes without a word of dialogue and with little more than muffled drilling on the soundtrack. And it goes by in what feels like about five minutes, leaving the viewer with perhaps just slightly less perspiration on the forehead than the men in the film. There's a classy quality, a breathless ring-a-ding-ding to the whole thing. Dassin, appearing as the Italian safe cracker, even wears quite the stylish suit.
With the heist over, Rififi's third and final section concerns the aftermath of the crime. It's roses until the monkeywrench hits. This is an endlessly fascinating development. Blacklisted American director of studio films Jules Dassin, first earning a living at MGM and then showing his stuff with desperately tense noirs for Universal and Fox, cast himself as the character who causes everything to unravel and then turns informer. The man whose name was named by fellow director Edward Dmytryk before the House Un-American Activities Committee, whose Hollywood career was destroyed in the process, played a character who tried to save himself by telling on others. Our protagonist Tony, as is made clear more than once in the film, refused to name anyone else to the police when he was arrested five years earlier and went to jail. "But you know the rules," Tony le Stephanois tells Dassin's César le Milanais before the camera slowly retreats and the informer is shot three times. Dassin in the film dies, but Dassin the director saved his career and was awarded Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for his work here. Poetic justice, or something like it.
Rififi is given a Dual Format release in the UK from Arrow as part of the label's Arrow Academy line. The BD50 is locked to Region B. The DVD, also dual-layered, is PAL and R2.
Menu design is perhaps a little too clever for its own good. Instead of the usual options like Play, Chapters, Extras, and Set-Up, Arrow opted to name these respective functions Auditorium, Reel Change, Kiosk, and Projection Booth. A valiant effort but probably unnecessary and potentially confusing (especially for those not as well-versed in the English language).
The high definition transfer from Arrow maximizes the impact of the film's piercing black and white cinematography. It looks wonderfully crisp and sharp. Heretofore unseen or unappreciated detail emerges. The 1.33:1 image is also stable, fluid and clean, lacking any significant or even visible damage marks. Contrast has a pleasing balance to it that allows for deep, dark blacks to coexist with necessarily brighter moments. This really is an excellent presentation of the movie. I detected no excessive fiddling or digital manipulation, and the noticeable presence of grain in the image gives it a nice filmlike look.
Audio deserves nothing but praise, as well. The French language LPCM mono track quickly makes its presence known by emphasizing Georges Auric's musical score. When the largely silent heist sequence comes later, that near void of sound becomes even more tense. The single-channel track is also generally clean and free from distracting instances of hiss or crackle. And for audio that employs just one speaker it's a pretty strong listen, with good consistency of volume. The English subtitles are optional. They are white in color.
Special features consist of a few digital extras, all vital, and an enclosed booklet.
Billed as an Introduction (24:08), Ginette Vincendeau's video piece sets up the film well and also discusses various aspects of it in some depth. Viewers new to the movie will probably get more out of this after watching Rififi rather than playing it prior to viewing. An absolute gift of an interview (29:54) with Jules Dassin, recorded by the Criterion Collection for its 2004 DVD release, has been included by Arrow. It's one of my very favorite supplements I've ever come across on any DVD or Blu-ray to date. Also really delightful is a Q&A session (37:10) with Dassin that was recorded at the NFT following a screening of Rififi. It's been carried over by Arrow from the label's earlier DVD release. Finally, there's an English-dubbed trailer (2:51) that looks to have perhaps accompanied the American theatrical release since it uses quotes from New York City newspapers. In all, only the Vincendeau introduction was newly created for this release but it's a strong overview of the film and both of the Dassin interviews are essential inclusions.
The DVD contains only the trailer and Vincendeau's introduction.
You'll also find a lengthy booklet (40 pages) included inside the case. Arrow has put together a collection of pieces, beginning with a new essay by David Cairns, that cover the film from a variety of angles. The write-up by Cairns is focused, if not entirely revelatory, and takes up nine pages of text. It's followed by an excerpt from a book by Alastair Phillips that discusses the author of Rififi's source material, Auguste Le Breton, and the Série Noire line of which it was a part. This somewhat dry though informative piece has five pages of text and another with footnotes. A single page is occupied by former Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors John Trevelyan's memory of his decision to pass Rififi. The well known original Cahiers du Cinéma review given to Dassin's film by François Truffaut is reprinted across two pages. Lots of pretty pictures and stills, plus an attempt to define the word "rififi" early in the insert and a note on the translation later on, have also been sprinkled across Arrow's booklet. A quite handsome and useful extra indeed. (And a hearty round of cheers is deserved for using the film's Polish poster as the back cover!)