In 1955, Jules Dassin, an American director in exile in Paris, made this flat-out perfect piece of cinema. The film came as a redemption for Dassin: a one-time promising young director cranking out B-movies under an MGM contract ("They were awful. It was just plain unhappiness and embarrassment," he later said of his work of those years), his career had been ruthlessly strangled by the obsessive hand of the paranoiac House of Un-American Activities Committee. Named a communist, he fled to Europe, where he tried to direct for various French and Italian companies, only to be foiled when Hollywood made it clear to the foreign producers that it would forbid any film that bore Dassin’s name to be distributed in the U.S. By 1955, the situation was unbearable. Deprived of work, penniless, heartbroken, he was despairing of ever working again when a French agency approached him to direct Rififi. Despite grave concerns over the nature of the script—which he hated—he accepted.
The film that Dassin made became unquestionably his most loved work. Telling the story of Tony le Stephanois, a newly sprung bank robber who engineers the perfect caper, the film is a delirious fantasia of gangster ethics and underworld locales, artfully framed in a baroque, twisting plot and hung lovingly against the gorgeous backdrop of Parisian streets. Dazzling, ornate, and artfully crafted, Rififi is, arguably, a work of perfection.
Part of the key to Rififi’s genius is that no single element outshines another. Like a diamond, each facet of the film gleams as brightly: The performances, especially Jean Servais’ minimalist take on the dog-eared protagonist Tony and Dassin’s own lighthearted portrayal of the safecracker Cesar le Milanais (under the pseudonym Perlo Vita), are quite excellent. The cinematography is stunning, particularly the nighttime shots, where we see the sharp of Tony’s hat laid against the smears of neon that pulse in the city streets behind him. The music, by famed composer Georges Auric, is dead on, restrained and somber, occasionally breaking into dance. The plot is an economic wonder: three succinct acts that unfold with the dedication of an opera, building to a glorious, melodramatic finish. And the sets, by the great designer Alexandre Trauner (who had worked on Children of Paradise), manage to hold their own against Dassin’s obsessively and lovingly researched street locations. The interior of the obligatory gangland nightclub (named "L’Age d’Or" in homage to the Buñuel film Trauner also previously designed) is especially handsome, its definitive architecture piling the requisite layers upon layers—like the ballroom leading upstairs to the gangster’s office, which, of course, has a back door that takes us to the dreamland of backstage. Only the gorgeous Parisian locations—the train station and assorted back alleys—threaten to outshine Trauner’s lovely sets.
And yet, even in a film of such generous superlatives, something does stand out, towering over it all. For Rififi is that most hallowed of films, a film that contains a monument within. Like the Grand Hall ball in The Magnificent Ambersons or the pickpocketing sequence in Pickpocket or the crop-duster chase in North by Northwest, the virtually silent, gleefully long heist scene at the center of Rififi is a tingling, ecstatic, sustained act of brilliance—a sacrament of the cinema. For an astounding 33 minutes, Dassin removes all dialogue, hushing the soundtrack to the mere sounds of breath—the accidental note from a piano is enough to stop your heart—as we observe the criminal team at work, breaking through the floor, silencing alarms, cracking safes, checking watches, and signaling each other. It is a scene you’ve seen before (shameless imitators have been cannibalizing it for decades), but you will never see it so purely, respectfully done as here. The fetishistic shots of the safecracker’s tools, the rope that comes out of the suitcase already knotted and ready for climbing down, the team’s proprietary language of hand-gesture, the justly famous (and I won’t give it away) conceit of the umbrella—all of these elements are so lovingly described, it makes you want to cry out.
But it is the simple image of the men working together that binds it all. The film may be about crime, but at its heart, Rififi reveals itself to actually be a paean to work—not the drudgery of labor, but the poetic "Love Made Visible" that Khalil Gibran once described. In these 33 glorious minutes, we see our heroes as they were meant to be: working together.
I spoke with the 88-year-old Dassin by phone this year, just after seeing his film. I asked him if he knew how fine a work he was making during its construction. I could almost see his craggy smile on the other end. "I didn’t know what it would become when I was making it. I really didn’t know," he said. "I was just so concentrated on working—having work to do, getting up in the morning and going to work, enjoying the company of the crew—that’s all that was on my mind, actually. . . ." To which, one can only say, Amen.