- Rififi (1955) movie review: An American political refugee in France in the mid-1950s, Jules Dassin (Brute Force, The Naked City) directed (and co-wrote) this first-rate heist thriller, which remains one of the best films noirs made away from Hollywood.
Rififi movie review: U.S. director Jules Dassin’s French-made heist thriller is one of the finest non-American films noirs ever
The easiest, most obvious point to start when discussing Jules Dassin’s 1955 thriller Rififi / Du rififi chez les hommes is the 30-minute heist that comprises its middle third.
Without dialogue, the sequence unfolds with a cinematic economy that belies its complexity. Even if the viewer has watched similar setups in subsequent films, the precision in these scenes is thrilling.
With the assistance of cinematographer Philippe Agostini and editor Roger Dwyre, Dassin orchestrates the action in a manner that is inclusive of the audience, generating uneasiness with his wicked use of composition and transition, among other aesthetic techniques.
The stillness of a wide shot picturing four hoods crouched above a crawl hole cuts to a low-angle shot of that hole which, as seen from below, creates a play of light and shadows. The spatial order in every shot is constantly challenged by way of subtle framing devices or a slight lack of asymmetrical balance in the mise en scène. Movement is viewed from around and above and below.
The gang itself remains mostly calm, but the suspense is suggested all around them.
This technical and artistic conceptualization of the heist sequence manifests itself again in the movie’s final minutes, as priorly implied tensions – now accelerated and magnified – suddenly erupt.
Visually unstable motifs
Based on a 1953 novel by Auguste Le Breton, Rififi mostly revolves around Tony le Stéphanois (the fantastic Jean Servais; the moniker refers to his hometown of Saint-Étienne in central France), a recently released criminal who is invited to join a small burglary planned by his protégée, Jo the Swede (Carl Möhner), and fellow hood Mario (Robert Manuel).
Tony is at first reluctant, but upon discovering his girlfriend’s infidelity, he is spurned. Once he becomes a member of the group, he concocts a more elaborate heist. Cesar (Jules Dassin, billed as “Perlo Vita”), an Italian safe-cracking expert, is also enlisted.
From then on, the preparations for the robbery are presented in motifs that build toward the visual instability found later in the film.
Cinematically sealed fate
Of the gang, only Tony has little to lose. Dassin emphasizes this in a short, dark, but lovely sequence that precedes the heist.
Jo, Mario, and Cesar each leave their respective women (lovers who happen to leave much unsaid) in “tranquility” – in other words, rife with sadness and foreboding.
Even as these relationships function under the weight of misogyny, there is an uneasy tenderness in the brief scenes that Dassin destroys in the next moment: The lone Tony is seen from a low angle, shot night-for-night and backlit with a flood of exterior lights. In this harsh interlude, his fate is abruptly revealed.
The post-heist narrative unfolds predictably to modern audiences, but that doesn’t prepare the viewer for Tony’s desperate, unsettling final scenes.
Film noir classic keeps getting better
Rififi is one of the best films of the 1950s.
It’s also one of the best non-American films noirs. Almost every visual and existential element of that non-genre is integrated into its core.
And here’s a special plus: The layers that Jules Dassin works into the narrative become even more rewarding in subsequent viewings.
Rififi / Du rififi chez les hommes (1955)
Director: Jules Dassin.
Screenplay: Jules Dassin, Auguste Le Breton, and René Wheeler.
From the 1953 novel by Auguste Le Breton.
Cast: Jean Servais. Carl Möhner. Robert Manuel. Dominique Maurin. Janine Darcey. Claude Sylvain. Pierre Grasset. Magali Noël. Jules Dassin (credited as “Perlo Vita”). Marie Sabouret. Robert Hossein.
“Rififi Movie (1955): 1 of Best Non-Hollywood Noirs” review text © Doug Johnson; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Rififi (1955) Movie Review” endnotes
At the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, Jules Dassin shared Best Director honors with Sergey Vasilev for Heroes of Shipka.
Marie Sabouret and Jean Servais Rififi movie image: Pathé-Consortium Cinéma.
“Rififi Movie (1955): 1 of Best Non-Hollywood Noirs” last updated in October 2021.