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EMPIRE ESSAY: Rififi Review

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Tony Stephanois, just out of prison and angry at his girl Mado's infidelity, decides to join his pals Jo and Mario in an ambitious crime. With Italian safe expert Cesar, they meticulously plan the burglary of a large jewelry establishment. Not a word is spoken as the crime is carried out. And then things begin to go wrong...

★★★★

Just as Bullitt (1968) is remembered for its definitive car chase even as the plot details fade in the mind, the 1955 French crime movie Rififi (originally entitled Du Rififi Chez Des Hommes) is universally recalled as the film with the long, wordless robbery sequence. This set-piece takes up over a quarter of the running time of the movie, and has been imitated by heist pictures ever since.
A crew of efficient burglars force their way into an apartment over the Paris salon of Mappin & Webb jewellers, tie up the aged occupants, and hammer through the ceiling into the shop below — forced to chip away at the hole without using heavy equipment because a super-sensitive alarm system will be triggered by any major disturbance.

Later variations on this theme, like director Jules Dassin's glossier Topkapi (1964) or the Mission: Impossible films, deploy hi-tech equipment and feature robbers who are acrobats or secret agents with unbelievable skills, but Rififi is credibly craftsmanlike. The crew use an umbrella lowered through the initial hole to catch chunks of falling masonry and disable the alarm by filling it with foam from a fire extinguisher. Special tools are required to cut into the safe in which the jewels are kept, but so are off-cuts of wood and, at one perilous moment, the strong back of the team's youngest member.

The robbery, including a getaway under the noses of les gendarmes, lasts about 25 minutes and plays with only minimal ^ sound effects and no background music. The crooks keep silent for the same reason that they wear gloves: just to be on the safe side. Having achieved this cinematic coup, Dassin can't resist capping it with a gag—the first line of dialogue to interrupt the wordlessness comes from a moll who barges into the room where the burglars are celebrating with, "Sorry, I heard noises".

Though his name makes him sound French, Jules Dassin was actually an American director. He made a name in Hollywood with the horrific prison movie Brute Force in 1947, then pioneered the documentary-style on-the-streets crime movie with The Naked City (1948), the underrated Thieves' Highway (1949) and the masterly British-shot original of Night And The City in 1950. He skipped America ahead of a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee, served because director Edward Dmytryk had named him as a card-carrying Communist and became an international filmmaker; eventually settled in Greece where he entered a personal and professional partnership with Melina Mercouri. In France in the mid-50s, Dassin hooked up with Auguste le Breton, a crime novelist famous for carrying a gun and acting like one of his characters, to develop a script based on le Breton's recent novel. It is ironic that Rififi is famous for a dialogue-free sequence, since le Breton was known for his command of underworld argot and all the characters in the film speak in a distinctive Franco-Italian crook patois. The title expression was so unfamiliar even to French audiences that a song had to be written in to explain it.

The actual plot is along the lines of the earlier The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and the later The Killing (1956). Tony le Stephanois (Servais), a craggy burglar just out of jail after a five-year stretch, discovers his girl Mado (Marie Sabouret) has ditched him for dope-dealing pimp Pierre (Marco Lupovici). His younger, married protege Jo (Mohner) and genial, grinning Mario (Robert Manuel) try to talk him into a smash and grab raid on the jewellers' window so Jo can buy toys for his young son and Mario can splash out on his bubbly floozy Ida (Claude Sylvain). Tony is reluctant but commits if the raid can be stepped up into a real heist, with specialist Cesar the Milanese ("They say there's no safe that can resist Cesar and that there's no woman Cesar can resist") called in. Perlo Vita, who plays the lounge lizard-like Italian safe-cracker, is Dassin himself, stepping on screen under an assumed name to thumb his nose at the red-baiters back home. These are subtly different from the sort of hoods found in American crime movies: pipe-smoking, wine-drinking, sentimental, fatalist. Though suspenseful, the film has little of the melodrama of similar American movies, even after the
robbery when things inevitably fall apart.

As in The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing, the problem isn't the cops but better-organised and nastier crooks. When word gets out that Tony's mob have scooped "240 millions des bijoux", Pierre tortures Cesar into talking, sets a razor-wielding junkie on Mario and Ida, and has Jo's son kidnapped. Tony, appalled that the criminal code he believes in no longer applies, regretfully but remorselessly murders the squealer Cesar ("I liked you, Macaroni, but you know the rules") and shoots his way into the derelict hide-out where Tony's son is being held. However, though the kid is rescued, Jo is already on the way with the cash for the ransom and winds up dead too. Tony, lonely and gutshot, touches Jo's dead face with a tenderness he'd never show a woman (earlier, he beat up Mado) and empties his gun into Pierre, who is already dead in a grave. It ends, like many French crime films, with a shrug and the almost-unnoticed death (another wordless scene) of the protagonist. Ca va.

A much plundered, but never bettered heist yarn.