Ah, the heist movie! Love them or loathe them, just thinking about them conjures up images of a group of misfits enduring painstaking preparation overseen by some intelligent mastermind. Of masked gunmen overpowering unsuspecting night-watchmen. Of safecracking equipment and smoke grenades. Of fast getaway cars. All the ingredients for a thrill-a-moment spectacle.
Hollywood obviously loves them. The success of remakes like Ocean’s Eleven (and its sequels), The Italian Job and The Thomas Crown Affair is proof that, for the most part, we do too. There are of course, dozens of titles worthy of viewing, both old and new, but if you want to watch one of the most influential of them all, then I recommend the 1955 French classic, Rififi.
Even though Rififi is filmed in glorious Paris, the French capital has never looked so bleak. Director Jules Dassin, argued on more than one occasion with his cameraman by insisting he didn’t want to shoot in sunshine. He wanted the overall look of the film to be grey and cold and consequently it’s about as far removed from the glitz and glamour of somewhere like Ocean’s Eleven’s setting of Las Vegas as it’s possible to get. Dassin wanted gritty realism and boy! – that’s exactly what he got. Indeed, so real is it’s actual heist scene – an incredible 30 minute segment void of any dialogue or music – that upon its release in ’55, several countries banned it on the grounds that it was akin to watching a training film for anyone wishing to commit burglary. A reviewer in the Los Angeles Times referred to it as a “master class in breaking and entering as well as filmmaking”. Burglaries mimicking the film’s scene began occurring around the world. Dassin responded to critics by claiming that the film showed how difficult it actually was to carry out a crime.
Jules Dassin was American by birth and found success as a director in the ’40s, particularly with a number of noir films. But when the communist witch hunts burned through Hollywood like wildfire he was blacklisted and consequently decided to move to Paris to continue looking for work. Nothing came his way for five years until he was offered Rififi, an adaptation of Auguste Le Breton’s novel of the same name and despite shooting on a low budget and with a no-name cast, the film revived his career.
The film follows Tony le Stéphanois (played by Jean Servais), an ageing gangster recently released from a five year prison stretch for jewel theft. Down on his luck, he meets up with two gangster friends Jo le Suédois (Carl Mohner) and Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel) who propose to him a smash-and-grab job from a parisian jeweler’s window display. Initially Tony refuses but when he learns that his girl has hooked up with nightclub owner and rival gangster Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), he accepts the job on condition that they go for the safe inside rather than simply what is in the window. Mario suggests they bring in expert Italian safecracker César le Milanais (played by Jules Dassin under the pseudonym Perlo Vita). The four men then concoct and rehearse an intricate plan to break into the jeweler’s and disarm the (then) state-of-the-art alarm system. The heist is pulled without any major hiccup but the problems arise, as they so often do in this type of story, in the aftermath. And with that, I shall say no more about the plot. I should hate to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it.
Not only did Rififi revive its director’s career but it also found success in America, making Dassin the first artist to come back from the Hollywood blacklist. The film was praised by audiences and critics alike and won several awards during the ’55-’56 season. It also quickly became a hugely influential marker for many heist films that followed. If you’ve never seen it, give it a look and see what all the fuss is about. I promise you won’t be disappointed.