Sunday, March 4, 2018


Films in Focus

By Jean-Paul Garrieux

Du rififi chez les hommes (Gaumont, 1955) – Director: Jules Dassin. Writers: Jules Dassin (adaptation). René Wheeler (collaboration). Auguste Le Breton (novel). Stars: Jean Servais, Carl Moehner, Robert Manuel, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Robert Hossein, Marcel Lupovici, Dominique Maurin, Magali Noël, Marie Sabouret, Claude Sylvain, Jules Dassin, Armandel, Alain Bovetet & Alice Garan. Black and White, 122 minutes.

Out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen.” – Francois Truffaut.

In 1950 John Huston directed a film about an elaborate jewel heist titled The Asphalt Jungle. Written by Huston and Ben Maddow, it was adapted from W.R. Burnett’s novel. It was made by MGM and reflects the resources such a large studio was able to bring to such a project, such as a well-known cast, extravagant sets and a budget of over a million dollars. For Rififi, Dassin had to do with a budget one-tenth the size.

On the other hand, Jules Dassin, exiled from the United States because of previous communist affiliations, was forced by economic circumstances to take on a project for which he had little enthusiasm. Filmed on what could generously be called a shoestring budget, Dassin not only managed to make a better jewel heist film than Huston with all his studio backing, but a movie that has gone down in history as the greatest heist film ever made. By the end of the decade, thanks in large part to Rififi, he had fame, wealth and Melina Mercouri. 

Though he was flat broke with no money coming in, Dassin was not really anxious to take the job. When producer Henri Berard gave him a copy of Henri Le Breton’s novel, Du rififi chez les hommes, to read, Dassin replied that he hated it. For one thing, he had a hard time making sense of it, as it was written in the French slang of the criminal world. He was also repelled by the content, which he saw as racist: light-skinned European gangsters pitted against their dark Arab and African counterparts, who were the book’s villains. In addition, there was a strong sub-plot concerning necrophilia, a subject of which Dassin wanted no part.

However, he didn’t really have much of a choice if he wanted to eat, and Dassin set to work cobbling a workable screenplay from the novel.

With the help of screenwriter Rene Wheeler, who translated the novel for him, Dassin wrote a screenplay in English over the course of six days. Wheeler then translated it into French and added extra material. Dassin solved the racism problem by making everyone French with their ethnicity vague. He ditched the subplot and instead focused on ten pages in the novel concerning a heist. He would expand these ten pages into the film’s 33-minute centerpiece.

His fame was now such that he was identified with his European oeuvre. Even the pronunciation of his name changed – from DASSin to DaSAHN as he transformed himself from capable studio director to European auteur.

Rififi was not the first French film noir, nor was Dassin the first choice as director. Jean-Pierre Melville was the first choice, but producer Henri Berard, looking for publicity and noting that Dassin’s 1948 film, The Naked City, was a big hit with the French public, hired Dassin instead. That honor goes to Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (Do Not Touch the Loot) from 1954, released around the time Rififi began filming. Also around the same time Jean-Pierre Melville began filming his neorealist noir masterpiece, Bob le flambeur (see our essay here), from a script by Auguste Le Breton (whose slang-filled novel was the basis for Rififi), and was released in the same year as Dassin’s film.

Though Rififi is structured like a classical tragedy in three acts: Act I, Preparation; Act II, Consummation; and Act III, Aftermath, its underlying theme is that of loyalty. This is what separates the protagonists from their mortal enemies.

As Rififi opens, Jo (Mohner) has just come to the aid of good friend Tony (Servais) after Tony is refused credit at a poker game. After berating the others for not extending credit, the two adjourn to a nearby cafe. 

Jo hands Tony a roll of bills as we learn about the bond between them. Tony has recently served a prison stretch, taking the rap for the younger Jo, who with a family, could not afford to serve. Tony’s time in prison has left him in poor physical shape, but there is a genuine and deep affection between them. Tony is the godfather to Jo's and Louise’s (Darcey) young son (Maurin), who is named Tonio in honor of Tony. 

At the cafe they await the arrival of Mario Ferrati (Manuel), a friend who has hatched a scheme. His plan, concocted with Jo, is to do a smash and grab of jewelry from the storefront window of the fashionable and expensive Mappin and Webb Ltd. jewelry store, a British-owned Parisian equivalent of Tiffany's. Tony immediately dismisses the idea. The risk far outweighs the reward.

Jo and Mario also inform Tony that his old girl friend Mado (Sabouret) has shacked up with Pierre Grutter (Lupovici), the owner of L’Age d’Or nightclub. Tony has some unfinished business with Mado for running out on him after he was incarcerated and taking up with Grutter. He pays a surprise visit to Mado and takes her back to his apartment. There he orders her to undress and beats her savagely while the camera turns away to a photo of Tony and Mado in happier times, looking quite carefree and affected. Tony has derived no joy from the beating. For him it was a matter of honor and duty, for she had broken the code of loyalty and had to suffer the consequences. It will also prove to be a fateful mistake.

Afterward, Tony realizes that to live, he needs a score. He agrees to the jewelry heist, but with a condition. Tony’s idea is to rob the store’s safe, filled with millions of francs in diamonds and other jewelry. Since the job will require an experienced safecracker, Mario suggests calling his friend Cesar (Dassin), telling Jo and Tony that there’s not a safe that can resist Cesar.

Tony decides to pay a visit to his enemy Grutter. The others tag along to watch his back. In the nightclub we see the club’s chanteuse, Vivianne (Noël) performing the title song. The combination of the song and her effect on Cesar foretells the movie’s later complications. Tony, meanwhile, learns that Mado left town the previous night.

The film’s second act begins with Jo, Tony and Mario scoping out the store and its surroundings, committing it to memory. Cesar goes inside on the pretext of being a customer. He spots the store’s alarm system, memorizing the type and model. He also notices an expensive diamond ring and makes a mental note of where it is kept.

Some time later, Tony and the boys obtain the same alarm system used by the store. Experimenting on how to neutralize it, they discover it can be immobilized with foam from a fire extinguisher. They are now ready for the heist.

The much heralded heist, which takes place over the course of 33 minutes, a quarter of the film, is done in an almost complete silence, with no dialogue and no background music, which only serves to heighten the already present tension. It begins when they chloroform a guard before chiseling through an upper apartment floor to the store below.

Dassin draws the audience in on the heist itself, taking us though each step and delighting us with little touches, such as placing a thick sock over a hammer’s head to reduce the sound of it striking the chisel used to open the floor, the use of an unfurled umbrella to catch the plaster chips falling for the ceiling, and Cesar wearing ballet slippers while the others are wearing sneakers. By the time they finish the heist we are as exhausted as they.

Act III begins as the gang makes off with millions of francs in jewelry, which is hidden in Mario’s apartment awaiting word from their fence in London. Before they leave the store, however, Cesar takes the ring he was admiring earlier without the others’ knowledge. Later he gives this to Viviane as a token of his love, an act that will bring the group down. 

Meanwhile, Grutter has seen Mado, examined her injuries, and is infuriated by Tony’s actions. He provides Remi with heroin and tells him to kill Tony. He also spots the huge rock on Vivienne’s finger and after a few questions, not only learns that Cesar is her paramour, but that Tony and his gang are the ones who pulled the heist, news of which is all over Paris. He begins to scheme as to how he can relieve the gang of the jewels. Suspecting Cesar as the weak link, Grutter kidnaps him and forces him to confess.

Grutter and his boys go to Mario’s to retrieve the jewels, but neither Mario nor his girlfriend Ida (Sylvain) will talk. Grutter kills them, but not before Ida alerts Tony that Grutter was looking for the jewels. After Remi and his companions leave, Tony goes to the apartment and retrieves the jewels, stashing them with Jo. He also pays for the couple’s lavish funeral anonymously, after which he begins looking for Grutter. 

In the film’s most moving and unforgettable scene, Tony heads to Grutter’s nightclub, but finds it deserted except for Cesar, who is tied to a pillar in the basement. When Tony reports that Mario is dead, the pained look on Cesar’s face tells Tony that Cesar gave up Mario to Grutter. Cesar tries to apologize, but Tony rebuffs him. “I liked you. I really liked you, Macaroni,” Tony says. “But you know the rules.” Cesar nods sadly as Tony backs up. “Forgive me. I was afraid,” Cesar says just before Tony puts a couple of slugs into him. The scene, not in the original novel, was added by Dassin and is a clear allusion to his experience before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the process Dassin becomes both the betrayed and the betrayer.

Dassin now goes headlong into the finale. Grutter, unable to secure the jewels, plays his last card. He and Remi kidnap Tonio. The ransom for the child is the jewels. Jo and Louise are willing to go along to save Tonio but Tony reasons that Tonio is a witness and Grutter will kill him as soon as he gets the loot. The only course of action is to go after Grutter and his gang and snatch Tonio back before they know what hit them. Tony searches for the boy, calling on the streetwise knowledge of people he knows to get a lead on where Grutter is hiding the boy. Even Mado comes back to help, for despite what Tony did she is still loyal and places the safety of Tonio before her own concerns. 

The bonds of loyalty are also seen in the actions of Jo. He is in possession of the jewels and can make a deal with Grutter anytime he wants, but he places his complete trust in Tony and his ability to get Tonio back safely. For Dassin, solidarity is a key component of loyalty, and the most important bond between the characters. When it is broken, as in the case of Cesar, anarchy follows and innocence as well as weakness is open for exploitation by the amoral as represented in the persona of Grutter.

Rififi reaches its climax amidst an eruption of violence in a race against time to snatch Tonio back before Grutter kills him. Through the use of inspired framing by cinematographer Philippe Agostini and skillful editing, Dassin is able to emphasize the urgency of Tony’s mission. 

With Mado’s help, Tony tracks Tonio to Grutter’s country home and kills Grutter’s brothers Remi and Louis during the rescue. But on the way back to Paris Tony learns Jo has cracked under the pressure, fenced the jewels and gone to Grutter’s house to make the exchange. Tony speeds there, but is too late, as Grutter has killed Jo. Tony then kills Grutter, but not before being mortally wounded in the process.

The film’s final scene sees the badly wounded Tony speeding through the streets of Paris as Tonio, dressed in a cowboy outfit, is giggling hysterically, enjoying what he thinks is a game. Tony, on the verge of death, delivers Tonio back to his mother as both police and bystanders close in, viewing the suitcase carrying 120 million francs.

Rififi is a sterling example of bold, imaginative and stylish filmmaking; a combination of meticulousness that, mixed with a crude and violent edginess, makes the film seem real. Assembled in an audaciously fresh and intelligent manner, it set the bar for the crime films that followed. Even its use of violence is unique in that much of the violence takes place off-screen, thus becoming more effective because we see only the face of the person committing the violence. This small touch personalizes the act and gives the audience even more of an emotional stake in the film. Another decision by Dassin was to forgo any fist fights, for these are not really stylized violence.

While The Asphalt Jungle benefited from a budget of over a million dollars, Dassin had to do with a budget one-tenth the size. Because of the low-budget, sets were a luxury and Dassin had to use everyday locations in Paris. Nightclubs, cafes, back alleys, train stations, and even a construction site are put to use as Dassin uses their realism to heighten the story, giving us a real feel for the Montmartre of the 1950s. Given the budget, Dassin scouted the streets of Paris for suitable filming locations, making use of everyday locales. Despite the budget, both Dassin and producer Henri Berard agreed the film, set in the Paris winter, would be shot only when the weather was cloudy in order to preserve the tones of grey. 

Art director Alexandre Trauner spent much of his time improvising as well, making simple impromptu sets look carefully planned. What little money he had was put to good use, as with the interior of the nightclub, L’Age d’Or.

Cinematographer Philippe Agostini frames streets, bridges, and staircases in such a way that, seen from the camera’s perspective, an elongated effect is produced, giving each shot beautiful and stylized depth. The nighttime shots in particular, stand out, with the silhouette of Tony’s hat against the neon background of Montemarte’s streets.

George Auric’s music serves as an excellent compliment and background to the activity at the club, and “Le Rififi,” the song sung by Magali Noel explaining the meaning of the term, was written by lyricist Jacques Larue and composer Philippe-Gerard in only two days.

Rififi left a notable influence on French cinema. Dassin brought the element of Hollywood style to the genre. French moviegoers were beguiled by the Hollywood influence while American audiences reveled in the continental sophistication; a sort of tourist’s passion for the awe and wonder of Parisian nightlife. It’s easy to become caught up in the plot and with the characters. We find ourselves rooting for them, even though we know from the start how it turns out – how it must turn out.

Rififi also benefits from a solid ensemble cast. Jean Servais who was one of France’s most renowned character actors in the ‘30s before alcoholism took its toll, was cast as Tony. Coming across the screen like a desiccated Jean Gabin and radiating doomed elegance like a diamond stick pin, his worn and sorrowful interpretation works to his advantage as he is also able to shift gears to a cold-bloodedness when necessary. While Dassin lets us see Tony as a loving godfather to Tonio, he also shows the criminal instincts that rule Tony as repulsive, unromantic, and murderous. 

Austrian actor Carl Moehner, suggested to Dassin by the producer’s wife, was cast as Jo and was the highest paid cast member. (Dassin would cast him again in his next film, He Who Must Die.) For the role of the jaunty Italian pimp Mario Ferrati, Dassin cast Robert Manuel after seeing him in a comic role as a member of Comedie-Francaise. The only major role left open was that of safecracker Cesar. Dassin had hired an Italian actor for the role, but the deal fell through at the last minute and Dassin himself took up the role, using the pseudonym Perlo Vita and nearly walking away with his own film, as witness the final scene between Cesar and Tony. And it is no coincidence that, especially with the arrival of Cesar as one of the gang, that informing becomes Rififi’s deadly sin.     

Rififi was released in France on April 13, 1955, receiving positive reactions from audiences and critics in France (where it was one of the top grossing films of the year), the United States, and the United Kingdom. It earned Dassin the award for Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. Rififi was also nominated by the National Board of Review for Best Foreign Film.

With the film’s release, Dassin, who owned 10 percent of the profits, was more than solvent. He settled in Europe and married the beautiful and talented Greek actress Melina Mercouri in 1966. Their marriage lasted until her death in 1994. Over the course of their relationship they participated in many joint projects, including the 1964 film Topkapi, a heist film that parodied Rififi.


Rififi's famous heist scene was based on an actual burglary that took place in 1899 along Marseille's cours St-Louis. A gang broke into the first floor offices of a travel agency, cutting a hole in the floor and using an umbrella to catch the debris in order to make off with the contents of the jeweler's shop below. It has since been mimicked by criminals in actual crimes around the world. Dassin answered critics who saw the film as an educational film on how to commit burglary by claiming the film showed how difficult it was to actually carry out a crime.

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