Criterion Corner: Rififi (#115)

Perhaps my experience of watching Jules Dassin’s Rififi for the first time would have been different, or at least more smooth, if I’d remembered its original French title: Du rififi chez les hommes. The English title, especially if you (like me) don’t know what the word ‘rififi’ means. The film is kind enough to provide something of an explanation, in the form of a song performed in a nightclub to an audience of gangsters, hoodlums and molls: rififi is brouhaha, trouble, especially the kind that goes on between gangsters over money, women, the size of their guns. But without that knowledge, the title Rififi sounded like a cocktail, a musical style that makes you snap your fingers, or a Mediterranean resort town. This together with the film often being described as the quintessential heist movie made me expect something jazzy, breezy, stylish. Something fun.

So when fifteen minutes into Rififi the main character makes his former girlfriend strip and then brutally beats her with a belt because she’d gone off with another man while he was serving five years in prison, I was taken aback – especially when the film in the scenes following the violence seemed to shrug and go, “Well, that’s what men are like, that’s what women are like, and that’s how everyone likes it.” I was ready to press STOP, eject the disk from the Blu-ray player, put it away and never think of Rififi again.

Warning: spoilers for Rififi in the following, including the film’s ending.

I’m glad I didn’t stop watching at that point, but if there’s a classic I’ve seen in recent years that should come with a trigger warning (other than the many Golden Age of Hollywood classics that seem to find blackface indispensable), Rififi is it. It’s not as misogynist as it seems at first, and even if the female characters never really develop much agency or even personality, the film is definitely critical of the hyper-masculine world it’s depicting. It’s not immune to the surface cool of the gang of jewel thieves we’re watching, and there is an element of the ‘competence porn’ syndrome that I mentioned in a recent Six Damn Fine Degrees, but Rififi finally shows the posturing, the macho antics, and even the impressive, exciting display of skill that is the half-hour heist scene at the heart of the film, to be just that: empty, self-defeating and rather sad.

Is Rififi moralistic in (seemingly) changing tack halfway into the film, from “macho gangsters are cool” to “macho gangsters are doomed”? Does it do what so many American gangster films ended up having to do during the Production Code, namely tack a “Crime doesn’t pay!” message onto a film whose producers were very much aware that crime, indeed, does pay, at least at the box office? I don’t think so. It was a mistake to go in expecting a black and white, Francophone Ocean’s Eleven, but that was my mistake. In hindsight, I’d argue that Rififi wants to make us uncomfortable early on, and for dramatic rather than moralistic reasons. Rififi is no Sunday school lesson.

The queasy thriller-drama aspect of Rififi was engaging, once I had a better idea of what it was doing and no longer assigned the misogyny to the film (beyond the certainly sexist baseline of 1950s French culture) but to the characters instead – though I’m not sure it would be called more than a minor classic if that was what Rififi mainly had going for itself. No, what elevates it and makes it massively influential in its genre is the break-in at a Parisian jeweller’s. Heist films are dependent on getting the heist right: unless heists are your jam to such a degree that you’ll even put up with a mediocre example of the genre, you’re likely to nope out and watch something better instead, the way classical music fiends wouldn’t go to a concert by a mediocre pianist when there are lots of good and great ones out there. (Unless, of course, that mediocre pianist was your child, which might also work for heist movies: “Oh, isn’t little Oscar good at cracking that safe? Just last week he got one open in under ten minutes! Okay, granted, we’d left him the combination on a Post-it…”)

And boy, does Rififi get the jewel theft right. Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais) may be a self-pitying macho arse, but he’s certainly in his element during the planning and execution of the heist, and his co-heisters aren’t exactly slouches either. The break-in is exquisitely tense and heightened by being staged in practically complete silence. And, differently from a crime caper meringue such as Ocean’s Eleven, there’s also a gritty realism to it that is its own joy. Where Danny Ocean’s capers are one step away at most from actual magic in how they outsmart the various security systems and the people they’re up against, with Tony & Co we can see the precision that is needed, the craftsmanship, we can almost feel the tension in their muscles and the sweat running down their backs. Small mistakes, like Jo the Swede (Carl Möhner) accidentally putting enough weight on a piano key in the flat above the jeweller’s to play a note, are amplified in the silence and stillness, so that we freeze along with the gangsters, listening out for the sound of les flics.

In that respect, the heist is both the main reason Rififi is remembered and something of a detriment: it is the undeniable highlight of the film, and arguably one of the all-time highlights of the genre, but what came before and what follows it doesn’t come close to the sublime purity of that half-hour. That’s partly the point: for these men, executing the perfect heist is something akin to nirvana, and everything else is messy, imperfect, corrupted. Perhaps it doesn’t matter in the end that they end up dead and the money is lost, because they did reach that kind of peak – but the sweaty, deadly fumbling of the film’s final half-hour, which is such a stark contrast to the heist, suggests otherwise. They’re like junkies: they need the fix of the caper, but that fix cannot be had without everything that goes into achieving it and that follows it, no matter how base and miserable.

Verdict: It’s rare that I watch a film and my opinion and attitude change so drastically and so many times between its first scene and the last: usually I have a good initial sense of whether and how much I like a film pretty quickly. Unless a film then proceeds to pull the rug from under my feet, that first impression rarely changes completely. If you’d asked me what my impression was of Rififi after fifteen minutes, I wouldn’t have been very complimentary – but the heist pulled me in, and the conclusion of the film allowed me to understand better what Dassin was doing to begin with. There are still some issues with the film: ideally you’ll be prepared for pretty offputting (male) behaviour that isn’t immediately called out as such (the film does appear to condone it and even describe it as perfectly okay at first), and you have to accept that this is not a film that’s much interested in its women as actual characters. You also have to be prepared for a second act that is sublime and that can’t help but render the third act frustrating, even if that frustration is the point to a large extent. In brief: definitely don’t go in expecting Les 11 de Ocean, because that kind of mindset may make it difficult to recognise what the film is doing and enjoy it for what it is. But if you have the slightest interest in crime capers, there’s no way around Rififi. If heists are your fix, Rififi is where it’s at – including the jonesing before and the comedown after.

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