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After five years in prison, Tony le Stéphanois meets his dearest friends Jo and the Italian Mario Ferrati and they invite Tony to steal a couple of jewels from the show-window of the famous jewelry Mappin & Webb Ltd, but he declines. Tony finds his former girlfriend Mado, who became the lover of the gangster owner of the night-club L' Âge d' Or Louis Grutter, and he humiliates her, beating on her back for being unfaithful. Then he calls Jo and Mario and proposes a burglary of the safe of the jewelry. They invite the Italian specialist in safes and elegant wolf Cesar to join their team and they plot a perfect heist. They are successful in their plan, but the Don Juan Cesar makes things go wrong when he gives a valuable ring to his mistress. Written by
Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
A classic for its silent robbery sequence, and a classic French "polar noir"
A recent re-issue of the French crime film (original title 'Du Rififi Chez les Hommes'), with its famous 20-minute silent jewel heist sequence, now comes in the US in a gorgeous new print from The Criterion Collection with improved subtitles and some extras. Jules Dassin was an American (born Julius Dassin in Middletown Connecticut) who was forced to make films in Europe because he was Blacklisted. Rififi was well publicized in the US and did well in art houses. Later Dassin became a lot more famous in the US for 'Never on Sunday' (1960) starring his wife, the Greek actress and political activist Melina Mercouri. (Greece was again glamorized and popularized for Americans and others with Anthony Quinn in Mihalis Kakogiannis' 1964 'Zorba the Greek', which was even a big hit in Cairo.) The new Rififi DVD includes a recent interview with Dassin. I did not previously realize that one of the main robbers, Cesar the Milanese, was played by Dassin, who stepped in when the original actor became unavailable. He's one of the most memorable characters, a dandified Italian safe cracker who speaks no French.
Although this classic has all the trappings of French film noir--the black and white twilight world of well lit apartments, shiny black cars, men in suits, the nightclub scenes, including a dramatically filmed and lit title song performed at the club, the stony faces and the Gauloises in hand or mouth--I don't think it's as atmospheric or has quite as distinctive a style as Melville's films do. But there's the mesmerizing robbery, which still holds up today as a tour de force. It goes like clockwork, with a fine sense of craft and teamwork among the robbers. Some nosy cops are efficiently dealt with. Things quickly go wrong after they go home and distribute the loot when one of the players gets sloppy and gives a dame a ring with a million-dollar bangle in it. Has there ever been a heist film whose perps lived happily ever after?
It's the wordless heist sequence that guarantees this a special place, and Dassin, an American director who had an unusually varied and exotic career, deserves full credit for that. He took a novel so conventional he was going to reject it, and added some key elements that make it special. In the event, he couldn't pass on doing the adaptation: he needed the money too much. Jean Servais, who plays the lead character Tony le Stephanois, was an actor rather down on his luck. His grim face is perfect for the role. He was later to play the lead in Dassin's He Who Must Die (1957), which used French actors in Greece for a political tale. 'Topkapi' is a somewhat disappointing 1964 caper film (it pales compared to 'Rififi') that also got US distribution. It does have a good setting, but it's wasted, gone all bland and bright and prettified. Of Dassin's post-Hollywood oeuvre, 'Never on Sunday,' with its catchy theme song and charismatic heroine, is the popular choice (and won Best Film at Cannes 1960); 'He Who Must Die' the political choice; 'Rififi' the genre choice. An odd piece is his 'Phaedra' with Mercouri and Tony Perkins (1962). Purists of tough-guy Hollywood genre work would eschew these and favor Dassin's early films, which include a prison drama, 'Brute Force' (1947);a cop flick, 'The Naked City' (1948); and two hard core noirs, 'Thieves' Highway' (1949), and 'Night and the City' (1950). Personally I tend to like French noir and American neo-noir spinoffs better than the original American noir source material--hence my enduring fascination with 'Rififi'. But Dassin is rather unique in having not only made Hollywood noir but then going over to Paris and producing a memorable example of its Fifties French derivative.
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