Jules Dassin was an American film director, screenwriter, and actor who had to leave his native land for Europe in 1953 because he was blacklisted by the Hollywood film industry during the Communist witch-hunts of the 1950’s.
Dassin’s early affiliation with the Communist Party in the 1930’s was all that the House of Un-American Activities Committee needed to sabotage what had been up to that point a rising career as a filmmaker.
In 1955, after several previous attempts of directing a picture in Europe failed he finally revitalized his career with the release of his classic French film – Rififi.
Dassin would go on to win the Best Director prize for his film at the Cannes Film Festival later that year and would continue to have an active career in Europe for many years directing other films.
Rififi is the story of a group of men pulling off a jewelry heist. The leader of the crew is an aging gangster who is looking for his last big score before he calls it quits. It’s a story that’s been produced time and time again, but rarely has it been executed this perfectly.
The film has all the elements that are necessary for a brilliant heist film. First, it’s shot in glorious black and white, and as such can be classified as a film-noir. This term is used to describe a style of cinema that features stark black and white photography and a theme of desperate men and women doing desperate things, usually to one another.
Secondly, it takes place in an urban location, the city of Paris to be exact. The famed city of lights is transformed into a mean, damp steel of a place that is in and of itself as much of a character in the movie as any of the actors are. It’s a town that we only get to see in the early morning or very late at night. This is not the romantic Paris we’ve come to see portrayed in films; this is the other side, the seedy, dangerous side.
Thirdly, the actors are all what could be described as characters, people who look like they’ve lived a bit and are a little rough around the edges, with faces that have deep troubling lines.
The star of the film is a Belgium actor, Jean Servais, who had gained fame in France during the 1930’s.
Rififi for him also represented a second chance, as his film work prior to this was becoming very sporadic. His portrayal of an aging tough-guy rings true in a way that only happens when art imitates life.
At the core of this film is a flat out brilliant sequence during the break-in and the robbery itself. The entire passage is shot without dialogue and with no music. The only sound we hear is the gang breathing, and shuffling about while they hammer away in an attempt to liberate some priceless jewels from the safe.
This section takes up just over 30 minutes and is the kind of filmmaking a director can only do when he or she is at the top of their game.
Rififi is a film that works on every level, and a perfectly crafted piece that should be seen by any discerning gentleman looking for quality in his viewing habits.