Directed by Jules Dassin
Rififi is a tense, dark little heist film with a cruel protagonist and friends who quickly turn on each other. Outside of a nearly 30 minute-long silent heist sequence, very little about this film romanticizes its story. These aren’t rough and tumble heroes punching up but rather selfish characters reaching too far and bringing pain to those around them.
It’s probably best remembered for that tense heist sequence, sans dialogue or score and just peppered with the sounds of their process, but the film just about begins with a man assaulting his ex-wife and ends with a kidnapping.
That man is Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais). He spends all night losing money in a game of poker before a young protégé of sorts, Jo (Carl Möhner), ropes him into a small heist. Initially resistant, Tony then comes around on the idea after tracking down his ex-wife and showing us just how much we should be weary of him. Then he tells Jo he’s in but that they should go big and get into the vault.
Together with two others, the film concerns their process of breaking into the bank. It’s very detailed, so much so that certain theaters banned the film for fear that it was a blueprint to effective burglary.
And that process is just as riveting as in Le Samourai. In these moments the main characters are machines, toiling or chipping away before revealing rather ingenuous little workarounds for problems we as the audience likely never anticipated. It’s a puzzle that they solve in almost real time, it seems.
But then after the successful heist things start to go awry, allowing Tony to reveal even more of his ugly side as he turns on those around him to save his own skin. There are clear allusions here to the blacklisting policy in Hollywood at this time, of which director Jules Dassin was a victim. You see this kind of thing in other movies of the era like High Noon, in which one man learns that maybe he can’t rely on the people he once considered friends.
It’s an ugly idea, partially because in Rififi Tony isn’t some noble, victimized hero but rather the source of the problem. His co-conspirators, in some cases, do turn on him but only under the threat of death. Then it’s Tony who, in one instance, punishes that co-conspirator by executing him as he’s already tied to a post, primed for a firing squad.
It’s the chicken or the egg but with betrayal and murder. Tony, by far the ugliest character in the film, likely considers that he has played this all by the books. He’s the one his friends are ratting out, and yet he’s the one who remains stoic in the face of such adversity. So by the rules of this game they’ve decided to play, he is in a sense pure. He’s broken no laws.
And yet that game they’re playing is disturbed. Just as well, he’s the one who got the ball rolling by suggesting they break into the vault. He’s the reason the game exists in the first place, so of course he’s the best at playing it.
But by the end it all comes crashing to an end. Tony dies in circumstances that could easily be mistaken as heroic, in another film. He saves his godson from his enemies, the ones who kidnapped him as ransom for the bounty from the heist and dies much like Evelyn at the end of Chinatown. But then the boy’s mother comes out, retrieves her son and offers little more than a second look at Tony. To her he is no hero.
It’s an interesting dichotomy the more I think about it. Tony surely dies as the hero in his own eyes, but this whole time he was playing a perverted game. He holds himself in high esteem for following the rules he thinks matter, even as we see him do so many despicable things including preventing the kidnapped boy’s father from giving the kidnappers the money in exchange for the boy.
So he’s both monster and hero in some odd balance, and maybe this duality is suggested by the film’s bleak, grey color palette, as if filmed exclusively at dawn during a cold and cloudy winter, making Paris look rather purgatory-like. It’s a grey cloud within an otherwise romantic city, but from this movie alone you wouldn’t think it romantic.