Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin, René Wheeler
Starring: Jean Servais, Robert Hossein, Magali Noël, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset
Watching professionals do their job well can be therapeutic at times. You watch someone with the training and experience in a certain field excelling to show the true potential of what can be completed. A well-performed surgery, an excellently composed piece of music, or a heist in the case of Rififi. Incredibly thrilling to watch, but also incredibly influential as it stands out as one of the pioneering films in the heist genre.
Fresh out of prison we find Tony (Jean Servais), who did time for a previous jewelry heist. He gets proposed to by some friends to rob a jewelry store to get him back on his feet. After initially declining, he accepts as they go through with the heist with their own set of reasons.
Heist films typically have a weightless feature to them, because the focus must always remain on the heist, which means establishing the characters beforehand is vital. Rififi does it well by showing who these characters are, displaying their motivation in completing the heist, and then the aftermath of the attempt. Tony stands out as the protagonist of the story, as much of the emotional moments happen around him in the way he seeks redemption for the life he left behind when he went to jail.
When he returns to society, he sees his ex-girlfriend has moved on and decided to be with a French gangster who happens to be bad news. Seeing her again made Tony reconsider his position on taking the heist, as the anger brewing inside of burns to its apex. Even with Tony being a character the audience should root for, he shows himself to be incredibly flawed. One scene, in particular, shows him at his angriest and taking it out unjustly on one of the characters. It serves as a reminder that this man is no angel and should not be regarded as such. He made his living from robbing others, which makes the scenes of him showing aggression towards others not too surprising.
The other members of the crew have their own reasoning for wanting to do the heist, but the relationship between them establishes an interesting observance of their dynamic. Tony looks older and has more experience, which makes him a calming presence when things get a bit hazy. We have Jo (Carl Möhner), Mario (Robert Manuel), and César (Jules Dassain) filling out the ranks and their different levels of youth brings some immaturity, but their skill within their heist more than makes up for it.
The shining moment of any heist film is the heist, as it’s always the main attraction of why anyone would seek out the film. The one completed in Rififi embodies professionalism and excellence in a way that made it a pleasure to watch. Their method involves breaking through walls and opening a safe to retrieve the jewels, which would make them millions of dollars. The entire sequence of the heist became therapeutic in the way they methodically break everything down to get what they seek. Their excellence gets highlighted by the sudden erasure of the score. As the audience, we just sit there and watch everything happen and witness the time and preparation going into the job in almost complete silence. Small moments of sound coming from their tools immediately get muffled, as they hope to not attract any bit of attention towards the jewelry store by any officers of the law. They work as a unit and each individual demonstrates why they are an asset to the entire team. It’s the type of teamwork any leader would shed a tear at in prideful joy. This scene has a magic to it in a filmmaking sense in the way it focuses on the crew and the objective at hand. It demonstrates a mastery of skill in the act of thieving, but also behind the camera.
Even with the heist being the main draw, the rest of the story has a gripping feeling of danger, which some heist films lack. It creates a moment where a sigh of relief becomes a gasp of despair. Stealing the amount of jewels and the price tag they carry, turns some heads and some strongly-willed parties take interest in who took it. The plot of the story has obvious moments ripped from it and utilized in other films, obviously inspired by the ingenuity on display in Rififi. Moments in this film have influenced moments in other heist films but also in something like Goodfellas. Its reach goes deep because of the excellent story surrounding the excellently crafted heist scene.
Rififi does everything right in its story and many of its plot points felt familiar because so many others copied it from this film. It creates moments of tension when we should theoretically be calm and creates characters worth caring for, even with the illicit profession they have chosen. An excellently crafted film and one that remains a classic.