It is a testament to Jules Dassin’s direction that Rififi can still knock one’s socks off. In an era where the tropes of the heist genre are being repurposed for everything from Marvel films to spy thrillers, the fact that this film still feels innovative speaks to the brilliance of its construction. While most modern films see the execution of the heist itself as the climax, Dassin sees it more as a jumping off point. The theft itself is more of a gateway into the film’s study of both masculinity and unwritten codes that bind men of ill repute.
Setting the blueprint for generations of crime films to religiously follow, and measure themselves up against, Rififi’s premise is practically a paint-by-the-numbers affair when looking at it with modern eyes. A team of four skilled thieves assemble to pull off a crime that is seemingly impossible and risk everything on a plan that requires the utmost precision.
Where the film goes off the beaten path is in its attention to detail. The characters are always aware of their surroundings and the things that may impact it. An unattended bicycle on the street is more than a mere means of urban transportation. It becomes a signal that the cops are lurking in the shadows nearby. An umbrella becomes the perfect tool to ensure all falling debris is captured without making a sound. Just as the characters within diligently study their plan, Dassin himself exudes patience in every frame of the film. He takes his time noting every little detail that could alter how the narrative unfolds.
This methodical approach allows Dassin to up the tension by presenting the actual jewellery heist without any dialogue. For a half-hour only the muzzled sound of tools, and the odd piano keys, which provide brief moments of levity, can be heard. By eliminating the element of discourse, Dassin succeeds in pulling the viewer deeper into the world of these supposed hardened criminals.
While the men might be skilled in the art of theft, Dassin’s film suggests that they are ultimately boys playing a dangerous game that has them in above their heads. When the theft leads to real-life consequences, the fragile nature of each man becomes apparent. These men may talk tough, but their egos cannot mask their weaknesses. This hits home even further when the distraught wife of Jo le Suedois (Carl Möhner), whose part in the heist ends up impacting his family in ways he never imagined, chastises him by questioning why others who grew up poor like he did had the strength to avoid a criminal life. As Dassin shows through men like Jo and skilled veterans like Tony le Stéhanois (Jean Servais), the lynchpin of the job fresh off a five year stint in prison, the heist itself is not fully about the money.
It is about ego.
Though a man like Tony adamantly lives by the code of thieves, one where the breaking of said code is punishable by death, he would rather spend time with his godson than get pulled back into the underworld life. However, he cannot stand the fact that his former flame, Mado (Marie Sabouret), is now in the arms of club owner and gangster Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici). In one of the film’s most uncomfortable moments, Tony takes his anger out on Mado, while the camera zooms in on a picture of the pair in happier times, by whipping her to the point where visible marks are present. Like cattle, Mado is branded to send a message to Pierre as to who her real owner is.
This sort of tough guy persona, just like the male ego itself, ultimately crumbles under the searing ramifications of their actions. Tony is immediately remorseful of the way he treats Mado; Cesar’s (the ladies man in the team played by Dassin himself) fortitude is taken over by fear, and Jo is ravished by family guilt. Even Mario’s (Robert Manuel), the comic relief of sorts in the group, loving relationship with his wife tragically betrays his smooth gangster façade.
As the wonderful musical number – in which a silhouetted man acts out the gangster lifestyle behind a lounge singer – points out, the “rough n’ tumble” life of thugs is one that only a select few can truly handle. It is a world where ego and pride are often mistaken for respect and power. Offering an intriguing exploration of masculinity, and featuring one of the most breathtaking heist scenes ever filmed, Rififi is a true cinematic classic. A film that can still invigorate audiences today as it did when it first shook up the world of cinema 60 years ago.