As a big fan of silent films, I appreciate it when filmmakers tell the story visually in sound films. One of the pleasures of “Rififi,” a 1955 caper film directed by Jules Dassin, is that he shows the entire caper — a jewel heist — without a word from any of the crooks, victims or police. Instead of hearing distracting voices, the silence keeps us riveted on the crime. Dassin, an American exiled to Europe because of the McCarthy hearings, delivers a fine caper film and one that seems so realistic that it hardly seems like fiction.
Rififi (which loosely means “trouble” or “conflict”) portrays naive and violent characters in search of the ultimate payday. An ex-con named Tony, played by Jean Servais, decides to mastermind a heist after his pal Jo tells him about a local jewelry store. Jo wants to smash the front window and run, but Tony proposes a much larger and more lucrative plan. Before the heist, Tony deals harshly with his unfaithful girl friend and antagonizes a local mobster named Grutter, played by Pierre Grasset. Tony’s loyalty to Jo and his tough stance with Grutter provide the story’s tension after the heist.
Tony’s psychotic personality, as shown in his brutality to his girlfriend, drives him to risk everything for the money of a jewelry heist. But Dassin and Jean Servais temper his cruelty with an even more important theme of the film — loyalty among thieves. For it’s not disloyalty among Tony’s men that unravels their perfect robbery, but a stupid mistake that gets the attention of Grutter. Tony acts because he has nothing to lose and he possesses a blind loyalty to Jo. After such a compelling and deftly-staged robbery, the film never veers into a police procedural. Instead, it is content to stay in the world of thieves and hoodlums.
The French film industry embraced the concept of American film noir in the 1950s, as reported in the book “A Panorama of American Film Noir,” by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton (published in 1955). The book mentions the influence of John Huston’s 1950 film, “The Asphalt Jungle,” several times. In that film, we also get the combination of the heist film with film noir. Dassin became a major film noir director with the excellent “Thieves Highway,” made in 1949. The “impressive outbursts of brutality” that the authors describe in that film also occur in Rafifi, but with a cast of characters that seem oblivious of the stakes.