There are truly very few filmmakers in the history of film that are quite like legendary auteur Jules Dassin. Spending much of his career in the world of “genre” cinema, the early portion of his career saw him arrive in the states to ultimately make such masterpieces as the one-two punch of Brute Force and The Naked City. However, when he became blacklisted during the production of the aforementioned 1950 Fox classic The Naked City, his career changed completely. Other than a brief stint directing Bette Davis on Broadway, Dassin would not go on to direct another film for four years, breaking what was ostensibly a film-a-year streak Dassin was on prior.
But thankfully, the film that would see him return to the big screen is quite possibly the greatest film the crime genre has ever seen.
Entitled Rififi, the film is now finally available on Blu-ray here stateside thanks to The Criterion Collection, and is one of the most influential films to have been made during the 1950s. Telling the story of four ex-cons who attempt to strike it rich with one final heist, the film introduces us to the poker-addicted Tony le Stephanois as he rings a longtime friend for some extra funding for his latest game. Jo le Suedois (played by the studly Carl Mohner) arrives to give him some cash, but instead the two leave with Jo hinting at something he needs to show his old friend. They introduce us to Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel), who lays out this risky heist. From there we become privy to a twisty and darkly comic story that is as breathtakingly told structurally as it is aesthetically. One of the greatest heist pictures ever made, this is not only a genre classic, but one of the greatest films from one of film’s many golden eras.
As writer/director, Dassin is far and away this film’s biggest star. With also a small little role in the picture as Cesar le Milanais, this is as singular a heist picture as the genre has ever seen. Getting gorgeous black and white photography from cinematographer Philippe Agostini (the same DP behind a film like Port Of Shadows), the film receives a gorgeous new 2K restoration that really helps this film prove itself as the visual piece of art that it truly is. Dassin’s camera is evocative and be it the ferocious close ups or the occasional bit of flourish (I’m thinking a dolly shot near the film’s conclusion that is beyond comprehension), this is an angry and energetic piece of filmmaking coming out of the soul of an auteur banished by Hollywood. Rugged and in many ways brutally blunt and unflinching, the film has a quiet maturity about it that the genre would go on to try and recapture ever since, a film that may be best known for one bravura 28 minute segment that is truly a crowning cinematic achievement, but is only the tip of the iceberg here.
That said, it is one hell of a sequence. Told for nearly half an hour sans dialogue and sans music, this is inarguably one of the greatest set pieces in all of cinema. A detailed look at the heist and the preparation leading up to it, the setpiece itself is purely indicative of the film’s overall aesthetic. Quiet, but in a thematically resonant way, this 28 minute stretch is rough and unflinching, with conversations being held by looks and gestures. Like the greatest scene the silent cinema never great us, this is a dark and gritty look at the rough and tumble world of jewel thieves, and following this sequence it gets exponentially more bleak as the film progresses. Often times discussed as what one would think to be the film’s finale, the following 45 minutes or so is a chase picture of the highest regard. Dassin has a great sense of tone and mood here, blending a dark sense of humor with some truly harsh violence turning this film into a crime film unlike any before, or since. It’s not shocking that Dassin would win Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.
The cast here also helps in setting the film’s overall sense of striking realism. Mohner and Servais are truly fantastic here, and the latter’s introduction in a smoke filled poker game, stone faced as any noir lead you’ll ever see, is a stellar character introduction. He and Mohner’s chemistry feels real, and the centerpiece of the film is able to come to life thanks to the physicality that these two, along with names like Robert Manuel and even Dassin himself really turn their characters into living, breathing beings. Rounding out the cast are actresses Janine Darcey, Magali Noel and Marie Sabouret, all of whom help give this film even more urgency and energy.
Besides the new 2K restoration, the release is a relative port of the original Criterion DVD. The cover art is still one of my favorites so far this year, and the Hoberman essay is a must read. There’s an old interview with Dassin that is absolutely superb, but outside of that, you’re coming for the new restoration, and staying for the Dassin interview. Wonderfully paced and artistically awe-inspiring, Rififi is without a doubt one of the greatest heist pictures ever made, and besides wishing for a few new supplements, this is a really worthwhile Blu-ray that was just one major new supplement away from being an early contender for release of the year.