Variations of “rififi” are plentiful in the film. It’s in the air in the very first scene, where a card game briefly threatens to spill over into violence because a character fresh out of prison doesn’t have enough money to continue playing. That individual, Tony, is the main character, an over-the-hill criminal who makes a half-hearted attempt to stay on the straight and narrow, but soon embraces his old life. The catalyst setting him on the path of wanting in on one last score is an encounter with his old girlfriend, who has naturally moved on to another underworld figure. Mildly apologetic, she expresses her willingness to help Tony out, which he takes as an invitation to whip her with his belt. In his eyes – and maybe in hers, since she just stands there and takes it -, that is the just punishment for her disloyalty. Having indulged in one kind of rififi, he’s ready for the next: the brazen burglary of a jewelry store with his old crew, who had just been waiting on his participation to get rolling.
When I think of the heist flick genre today I mainly think of comedic films, possibly due to the pop-cultural prominence of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy. Even ostensibly more serious films like Mission Impossible, which have heist elements, have humorous moments. Rififi, however, is anything but fun. It is, instead, a typically bleak film made by Jules Dassin, an American who had become famous for his films noirs before he was effectively exiled from Hollywood during the McCarthy era.
His first French film, Rififi is neatly structured into thirds: exposition and the lead-up to the crime, the heist itself, and the aftermath. The first act would probably be significantly shortened today (showing the real heist while voice-over of its planning is playing seems popular nowadays), but Dassin keeps it economical: There’s nary a wasted scene here, they’re all in service of introducing the characters and setting up later conflicts. Even the fairly long time casing the jewelry store and trying out ways to fool the alarm system has the dual purpose of showing how methodical the characters are and making the viewer anticipate something not going according to plan.
The heist scene itself, counting the getaway, is half an hour long despite the relative simplicity of what the burglary entails (certainly compared to high-tech modern heists): it’s really just the four main characters working together while trying to remain as quiet as possible. But we’re invested in their efforts because we’ve spent so much time beforehand watching their preparations. The scene is made all the more tense by the complete lack of music and dialogue, which has likely contributed to its reputation as a masterpiece within an already great film. Allegedly, the scene was also considered instructional by some real-life members of the underworld, prompting a rash of similar break-ins across the globe.
(but not really, if you’ve seen a serious film noir before)—
Those imitators must have left the cinema before the third act. As befits the film’s noir mood, triumph quickly turns to tragedy. While the heist is successful, a small mistake – a romantic, but unprofessional gesture, another aspect of rififi, if we want to stretch the term -, sets other, more homicidal bad guys on the path of our main characters. Rififi ensues, this time of a particularly bloody and lethal kind. Director Dassin, who had to leave his home country for his refusal to name names, gets to punish a tattle-tale while also showing sympathy (he plays the somewhat inadvertent “Judas” himself).
The film’s very best scene, in my opinion, is its last, a lengthy, disorienting car ride full of suspense not so much about whether the character behind the steering wheel will survive and get away with it, but whether he’ll pull another innocent into the abyss with him before his inevitable demise. ‘Crime doesn’t pay’ isn’t just a tacked-on moral (which may or may not have been necessary to appease French censors). In this wet and gloomy Paris, even an above-board enterprise would have been doomed to failure as long as its male characters were thralls to the idea of rififi and its female ones powerless or unwilling to dissuade them.