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Influential Heist Flick – RIFIFI

RIFIFI means Trouble! And by “Trouble” I mean one of the coolest heist films ever made.

In 1950 American director Jules Dassin (The Naked City) was blacklisted and exiled from Hollywood, whereupon he fled to France and agreed to helm a low budget adaptation of a seedy French pulp novel, “Du Rififi Chez les Hommes.” Disgusted by the novel’s racism and lurid subject matter but desperate and needing money after five years of unemployment, Dassin took the job on the condition that he could make changes to the story. Thus the stereotypical African and Arabic gangsters became Europeans and a queasy subplot involving necrophilia was jettisoned, Dassin choosing to shift focus to character development and the details of the heist itself, and to infuse the script with a sense of bitterness and themes of betrayal still fresh in Dassin’s mind after being named by friends and coworkers during the McCarthy witch hunts. Rififi’s antihero is ex-con Tony le Stephanois, played by Jean Servais with a world-weary charisma befitting a Gallic Humphrey Bogart. When we first meet Tony he’s just returned to Paris after a five year stretch in the pen, with little money, few prospects and slowly dying of consumption. It’s only a matter of time before he decides to pull the proverbial “last job” – a daring jewelry heist. So let’s see: One last job? Check. A charismatic leader who assembles an eclectic team of professionals, each the best at what he does? Check. An ingenious plan to break a security system designed to be unbreakable? Check. Plans that go awry, double crosses and the inevitable blowback? Check, check and check. While Rififi has much to recommend it, the film’s reputation rests largely on Dassin’s deft handling of the heist sequence, among the most influential and imitated scenes in all of cinema. But for all its influence, its most distinguishing characteristic is the least imitated: its use of silence. Dassin shoots the lengthy heist sequence without a word of dialogue or musical accompaniment (unless you count the nerve-rattling jangle of an accidentally struck piano key). For 33 minutes, over a quarter of the film, not a single word is uttered. The men communicate with gestures; a hand signal, a nod of the head or a knowing glance. By stripping the sequence of sound Dassin ratchets up the tension, as each breath, every footstep, even the faintest sound of tapping could trigger the alarm. It’s an ingenious way to build suspense and one wonders if Dassin had seen Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s earlier The Wages of Fear, in which the slightest jostling of a truck threatened to set off an explosion of nitroglycerin. Like John Huston‘s The Asphalt Jungle before it, Rififi helped cement the tropes common to every subsequent heist film: whether it’s the studied cool of crime films by Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Mann or the breezy capers of Grand Slam, Ocean’s 11 and Mission Impossible, the impact of Jules Dassin’s 1955 classic Rififi continues to be felt, which is a profound testament to the man’s directorial vision.

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September 23, 2010   1 Comment

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