rififi1

The crime film is a strange animal.  At its most uninspired, it can sink to banal dichotomies of good and evil, littered with gimmicky and ultimately uninteresting McGuffins.  But at its best, it can expose human nature to be simultaneously ruthless and well-intentioned, and the human mind to be at once terrifically focused and hopelessly impulsive and corruptible.  Jules Dassin’s Rififi is an example—perhaps the example—of the crime film at its best.  It opens with Tony (the unbeatable Jean Servais), a middle-aged man with a tired yet detectably pleasant face, already in a backroom gambling after just finishing up a five-year stretch behind bars for a jewel heist.  To the criminals of Paris, Tony is known formidably as the Stéphanois. Within a matter of hours, Tony is reunited with his old friends Jo and Mario (crooked, good-hearted fellows) and involved in strategizing the most complicated and lucrative jewel heist in decades.

The target is Mappin & Webb, a posh jewelry store Jo has cased on several occasions.  With the help of the twinkle-eyed skirt-chaser Cesar (played with panache by Dassin himself), Mario’s Italian friend and the best safe cracker in western Europe, the men devise a beautifully intricate and imaginative heist scenario. A heist scenario that, when executed, goes off with breathless aplomb.  However the euphoria of perfect technique is not long for the world of Rififi, and when Mario visits a lady friend against Tony’s strict orders to maintain a low profile, the glass house develops a fissure.  Grutter, a king thug who owns the night club L’Age d’Or, begins to torture or pick off Tony’s friends in an attempt to get to the loot.  Mario and his doting girlfriend get their throats slit.  Tonio, Jo’s sunny little boy and Tony’s godchild, gets abducted. Cesar is tied to a wooden beam and tortured for answers.  When Tony finds Cesar, a retreating POV shot followed by three sickening gunshots reveals what happens to men who betray their friends.  In the wake of a grand crime, all hell has broken loose.

“Rififi” is a song crooned by the coquettish nightclub singer Vivianne.  As she wiggles and shimmies seductively on the foot of the stage at L’Age d’Or, she tells us in melody of the transformation her man undergoes when the mysterious power of “rififi” takes hold: “It’s the lingo of the streetwise, the battle cry of real tough guys…So don’t fry your brain and grumble, all it means is ‘rough n’ tumble.’”  Men under the spell of “rififi” go into an irrepressible tough-guy mode, destined hypnotically toward the allure of crime.  Yet it is the women dotted throughout Rififi who seem to feel the sting of this spell most acutely.  Vivianne’s song reoccurs at various points in the film, most notably when the men involved in the heist say goodbye to their respective ladies.  During this expertly cross-cut sequence, each woman senses silently that her man is off to commit an unlawful deed, yet she knows the futility of protesting.  Rififi subtly transcends the gender stereotypes of the crime genre by implying that these men and women stand on the same tragic plane, equally powerless to the destructive coaxing of “rififi.”  (It should be noted that Mado, Tony’s ex-lover, does emerge as strong-willed.  She neither succumbs to supplying Grutter with information that would get Tony killed, nor does she need Tony back in her life.  This is a very interesting arc for a character initially forced to withstand a hateful belt lashing while naked.)

The term “cinema of process” has been coined for the great French director Jean-Pierre Melville and his oeuvre of beautifully methodical crime films, beginning with Bob Le Flambeur in 1956.  Yet Dassin’s Rififi is a magnificently-honed work of obsessive process that in fact pre-dates Bob by one year.  (After Rififi’s release in 1955, Melville forced himself to wait until 1970 to make The Red Circle, a heist film with substantial structural similarity to Rififi.)  The “cinema of process” refers to the filmic technique of showing an act, and every detail integral to that act, in a patient, meticulous way.  The heist sequence in Rififi, which consists of nearly 30 utterly transfixing and wordless minutes of the elaborate, creative strategy (umbrellas! fire extinguishers!) used by the four men to relieve Mappin & Webb of its entire jewelry selection, is without a doubt the epitome of a cinema of process.  Yet the question remains: why show the process of an act?  And further more, why use this technique in Rififi?

Rififi is not only a heist film, Rififi is a film (similar to many others, and arguably matched by none) about a heist that is pulled off with bravado and then goes grievously, tragically wrong.  The process of the heist is not only fascinating, it also adds to the ultimate visual catharsis of the film.  It is more excruciating for one to see exactly how something irreparably falls apart when one has first cheered for the brilliant way it was put together.  Cesar spends tense, impressive minutes drilling an artful hole in a safe, and then later completely unhinges a perfectly executed heist by giving a hot ring to Vivianne.  The Stéphanois has the inspired thought to douse Mappin & Webb’s security alarm with fire extinguisher foam, only to later impulsively and secretly save Jo’s little boy from Grutter’s thugs (a save that costs Jo his life).  The elegant science of the process is followed by the senseless irrationality of the undoing.

The final sequence of the film is the haunting Afterward to the heist.  As a bullet-struck Tony drives little Tonio back to safety, he slumps deliriously over the steering wheel, his face ashen while blood drips mercilessly out of his pant leg.  Quick, crazed edits show trees flying by in a surreal blur, and the adorable Tonio looks alarmingly maniacal as he bounces around in the backseat, his toy gun waving and his baby teeth flashing.  The child laughs uncontrollably, the score blares, and we queasily feel the strength it takes for the dying Stéphanois to even press his foot to the brake pad.

The quiet, methodical minutes in Mappin & Webb are now a distant memory.

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