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The best of all heist movies, Jules Dassin’s tough-minded clockwork thriller Rififi, from 1955, is also one of the great films about process, about prepping for and grinding through small challenges, about improvisational teamwork within the framework of a plan, about the satisfaction of the last few cranks of a wrench at the end of a complex project.
The sublime break-in and safe-cracking sequence bests its 60 years worth of imitators in its rigor and cleverness and attention to detail, the very qualities it celebrates. The film turns grim by the end, and even before the heist we see the lead hood (Jean Servais) go after his ex with a belt, but the centerpiece caper is light and inviting. As a crew of four hack their way into a Parisian jewelry shop, we’re shown their tools and their problems and given plenty of silent time to consider how the former might be set to the latter. Viewers become something like collaborators, invested in working out what, say, that umbrella is going to be used for — and then pleased to discover whether we’ve gotten it right or not.
Contrast that to the cheats that the impatient directors of such scenes usually get away with. When he faces a locked safe, it’s a given that Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man bro will crack it — and that it will take a ream of dialogue to explain the quasi-magical hows of it. Without painstaking visual storytelling like Dassin’s to engage us, we wait out such scenes from a remove rather than feel like imaginative participants. Too often we have to take the movies’ word for it that we’ve seen something worth seeing.
The rest of Rififi is almost as strong, but it’s the opposite of inviting. (The film is being shown in a handsome DCP restoration.) Despite the whimsy of that umbrella maneuver and Dassin’s interest in balloons, kids’ toys, shadow-play cabaret numbers, and just barely covered breasts, this is tough-guy noir of the highest proof, the kind of movie where the putative hero has to put down a much more likable character because of the Code of Thieves or whatever. (An American director of crime hits, Dassin exiled himself to Europe after being blacklisted in the House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunts; Rififi throbs with his anger and let’s-see-the-bastards-top-this showmanship.)
Dassin shows us that murder from the first-person perspective of Servais’s crook, the camera backing slowly away as his compatriot, trussed to a post in a cabaret nightclub’s wondrous basement prop room, stoically awaits the killing slug. An earlier shot, from the perspective of Marcel Lupovici’s Grutter, the ostensible villain, had glided us through that same space, past memorable set decorations: a daisy, a man-sized ukulele, and three simple white eye masks of the sort that Shakespearean types can hide a whole identity behind. Besides their beauty and for-the-ages technique, these scenes are richly suggestive about the theater of character, about how easily our ideas of hero and villain can slip into each other, about just how much darkness we’re willing to accept from a protagonist with whom we identify. Rififi mirrors the arcs of the criminal lives it examines: It seduces you in, and then won’t let you out cleanly.
Directed by Jules Dassin
Opens September 2, Film Forum