In the years following Night and the City Jules Dassin was in an unfortunate position. He had been labeled a Communist by the Hollywood blacklist and was barred from working on any productions that he found to be worth his time. Humiliated and growing weary of finding anything to utilize his talents, he found a willing audience in France where he was presented with the opportunity of adapting the novel Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes to the big screen. Shortened to Rififi, Dassin began working furiously to keep himself alive and produce again.
The joke ended up being on America. Dassin was able to funnel his feelings of betrayal and anxiety into a tense noir with a central heist so controlled and expertly deployed that it has never been duplicated (and certainly needs to be studied more). More interesting is the way that he implicates himself in the blacklisting, and tries to get across the idea that the only way to escape unscathed is for him to have never stepped foot in Hollywood at all.
It is not my favorite of Dassin's noirs, and the broad story outlines aren't as unique as the approach he took with Night and the City, but it is a spectacular noir and well worth the trip. The opening moments show Tony (Jean Servais), recently released from prison and completely out of luck. Having just gambled away his last bit of cash he turns to his young apprentice, Jo the Swede (Carl Mohner), a handsome young family man who's been waiting to hear from Tony for some time.
Despite the fact that none of the other gangsters will bankroll Tony, these opening moments establish the kind of clout that Tony still carries in the underworld. But it's built on fear, not respect, and will only carry him so far. Tony slowly reintegrates himself into the crime world, and after hearing about the possibility of a jewelry heist gathers his team of Jo, the lighthearted Mario (Robert Manuel), and Cesar (Dassin himself) for the job.
The interplay of the team and their characteristics make for a unique assemblage of personalities in the annals of film noir. The less successful noirs that I've seen revel in the dark nature of their characters to the point of idealization, and there's a bit of worry here that these are just going to be decent folk that happen to like robbing things than characters in a cesspool of moral ambiguity. But despite Jo's devotion for his family, Cesar's love for a cocktail waitress, and other various high points these are still people solely devoted to themselves.
Tony establishes this pretty early on when he has a run-in with his old love Mado (Marie Sabouret). They used to have a good thing going, but she didn't wait for him after he went to jail, and instead aligned herself with the most ruthless gangster that she could find. Tony expresses his displeasure at this in a scene where he forces her to strip, and then beats her with a leather strap resulting in moans that are not out of place in a S&M parlor. The photograph of the two in happier times seems to be a mere illusion covering up what he really is - Tony is not one to be crossed and punishment comes as he deems appropriate.
The centerpiece of Rififi is one of the ultimate triumphs of film noir. Bathed in shadow, Tony and his team descend on the jewelers in an extended break in sequence that runs on for over thirty minutes. During this time not a single word of dialogue is uttered. Dassin intends on making sure that the audience is patently aware of the danger surrounding their chosen profession, and how the slightest screw up can have the worst consequences. Echoes of this scene can be witnessed in films as recent as Ben Affleck's heist film The Town, but none are as quiet or as patient as the heist in Rififi.
Rififi is not nearly as stylized as Dassin's other film noirs. His penchant for extreme angles and grotesque caricatures is pushed to the side to allow for a more nuanced look at the lives of the thieves and their world. He does allow himself in some more stylistic indulgences at the end when everything has gone to hell, but overall is significantly more reserved than in his previous films. Sound is his playground more so than the visuals here, and as seen (or, rather, heard) with the heist it is a realm he manipulates wonderfully.
What's most interesting about Rififi is how closely it mirror Dassin's fall from Hollywood, and how he chooses to implicate himself. Dassin, as Cesar, betrays the team out of his love for a waitress and ends up condemning them all. Considering that Dassin himself was betrayed by his friends in Hollywood, it is interesting that given the opportunity to act in one of his own films, he would choose to play the betrayer. The noir implication is fairly simple, our baser instincts and darker impulses will drive down anyone that chooses to indulge in them. But the real world implication is fascinating in that the only way he could have avoided being blacklisted was either by betraying his friends, or by simply not playing the Hollywood game to begin with.
These metaphorical extensions are all well and good, but Rififi deserves it's place in the noir hall of fame by being an expertly crafted tale of moral ambiguity that came from Dassin's desperation. Truly one of it's kind, Rififi attains a perfect noir cocktail that no one has been able to reproduce since it's initial release. We've become to enamored with the constant drone of gunfire and soothing voices to make the delve back into the masterful silence that Rififi offers. There are still lessons to be learned, and Rififi will remain a stalwart teacher for anyone looking to plumb the outer edges of film noir.