Rififi (Day 4)

Rififi My Opinion: 5.3 || I’m a sucker for heist movies. One of the few (maybe only) genres where I can be satisfied with mediocre. And Rififi is not mediocre. In fact, the heist itself is as good as it gets. Where the movie dips into mediocrity, unfortunately, is on the level of character and as a film noir.

Title: Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes)
Director: Jules Dassin
Language: French | Country: France
Year: 1955
Profile: Documentary, Crime | 122 minutes | IMDb (8.2)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix): Recently released from prison, Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) gathers criminals Jo (Carl Möhner), Mario (Robert Manuel) and Cesar (Jules Dassin) for one last heist. But when Tony refuses to give part of the loot to rival gangster Pierre (Marcel Lupovici), Pierre retaliates by kidnapping Jo’s son. Jules Dassin won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival for this French noir caper.

Reaction: The heist itself is justifiably famous for twenty minutes of nearly uninterrupted silence. It’s preceded by another use of extended silence as the heist is being set up. Altogether this middle third of the film is flawless and gripping. (I had to get up and one point, and when I hit pause I found myself stepping very quietly, aware of every sound I made.) One of the great pleasures of any heist movie is watching the ingeniousness of the plan, and this is a prime example: there’s great satisfaction in watching the extremely clever wheels turn with such precision.

It’s worth observing the difference between a typical action scene and a great heist scene. The former can be great fun, but we’re passive observers watching to see what happens next. In the latter, there’s an additional element — we watch with intellectual engagement to see how the actions fit.

Rififi Heist

I’ll also observe that the heist is more fascinating than tense. I never felt gripped by are they going to make it? anxiety. That’s not necessarily a flaw, but it does raise the question of which is more important to cultivate: fascination or tension? (Presumably, the ideal is to achieve both.) Again, I’m reluctant to find fault with the heist scene because it’s so well carried out, but the absence of tension may be related to the relative weakness of the scenes that precede and follow it.

Essentially, the characters are not very compelling. They’re three-dimensional enough to be distinct — but not enough to arouse strong sympathy. In particular, Jean Servais gives a fine performance as Tony le Stéphanois, but he’s largely a blank. It doesn’t help that we’ve barely gotten to know Tony before he’s methodically beating his defenseless former girlfriend Mado with a belt. The tragic ending may be an attempt at redeeming him, but it’s very indirect and not enough.

And there are bigger problems: The central conflict that proves to be the undoing of Tony and his gang is rooted in Tony’s mortal conflict with Mado’s new guy, Gutter. But we don’t care about Tony’s relationship with Mado (or, more accurately, we don’t think he deserves her). So the Tony/Gutter conflict has no stakes and no emotional depth. It’s a plot mechanism. As a result, the conclusion of the movie lacks resonance.

These plot and character weaknesses wouldn’t be such a problem if the film had wit, but there’s little here and it’s confined to the secondary characters. Contrast that with great film noirs like The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, and Out of the Past, where the characters’ snappy, intelligent sparring provides as much a pleasure as the plot itself.

Best Scene: The whole middle-third of the film.

Rifi Musical Number

Worst Scene: Where we watch an interminable musical rendition of the song “Rififi.” In fairness, I’m not a fan of cabaret-style performance, and it seems likely that there’s some French-language wordplay the subtitles can’t capture. But still, the scene doesn’t fit: It’s not a sexy movie, so the presumably risqué fun of the number seems out of place. And much longer than necessary.

File Under: taut, heist, crime, film noir