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RIFIFI

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jean Servais, Carl Mohner, Robert Manuel, Perlo Vita (Jules Dassin)
Director:  Jules Dassin
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Director Interview, Production Notes, Stills Gallery
Length:  118 Minutes
Release Date:  April 24, 2001

Film ****

At the heart of Rififi is a cautiously planned jewel heist, pulled off with a remarkable patience by the four lead characters.  It is approximately 33 minutes of intensity, without a single spoken word to alleviate the suspense.   The criminals gesture to one another, and we watch the plan unfold with understanding, having seen their intense preparations.   They chip away through the roof, make clever use of an umbrella to prevent the falling debris from triggering the alarm, they defeat said alarm, and begin a long, slow, deliberate process of cracking the safe.  The duration of the event takes an entire night, and Tony (Servais), the mastermind, knows exactly what time a passing florist or street sweeper will be outside, and the men cut the lights and remain still at the exact moments needed to avoid suspicion.  It is, without a doubt, the finest scenario of its kind ever constructed.

Yet the heist, for all intents and purposes, is really only the middle act of three in this influential crime drama directed by Jules Dassin.  It was the first picture made by the director after being blacklisted by Hollywood, and he had to travel to France for the chance to make it.  Admitting the novel wasn’t to his taste, but needing the work, Dassin created what was arguably his masterpiece in this film of a painstakingly planned crime that unravels because of a single human element.

When we first meet the characters, they require our attention.  Not much is given on their backgrounds up front; as the picture progresses, we learn more and more about them.  Tony has just gotten out of prison to find his girlfriend shacking up with a local gangster.  His old friends Jo and Mario (Mohner and Manuel) come to him with an idea for a daring caper, carefully staging a window robbery of a prestigious jeweler that has to be timed to the second for the sake of the outside traffic lights.  Tony, who is cool, intelligent and ambitious, decides a full scale burglary would be worth the attempt, despite the near impossibility of the odds.  

A patient man, Tony is willing to take the time needed in the planning stage to consider every detail.  Knowing the jewelry store is protected by one of the most effective alarms available, he and his men simply purchase one of their own and set it up, thereby giving them a chance to experiment with ways of defeating it.  The major problem:  it’s triggered by vibrations on every wall, door, floor and window.  The roof is a possibility, if chiseling can be done gently enough.

As mentioned, the act of the crime is as breathlessly suspenseful and superbly crafted as any single sequence in cinema.  The silence, as the saying goes, is truly deafening.  Every miniscule sound plays like a startling and potentially fatal interruption.  The face of a clock indicates the duration of the task; it doesn’t play out in real time, but is constructed in such a way that the audience feels every minute of this impossibly long night.

But the central idea of this film, and the many others that followed in imitation, is that there is no such thing as the perfect crime.  Their heist, worth a cool $240 million, begins to fall apart because of the fourth man, Cesar (Dassin himself, under the pseudonym Vita) and his passion for ladies.

The unraveling of the crime is, of course, not as quiet as the heist scene, but just as unnerving.  A simple gift of a ring tips the first domino, and by the time they all fall, nothing of the crime is salvageable.  The final stretch, in which a wounded Tony tries to drive back to Jo’s with his godson and the money in tow, is remarkable in the technique with which it conveys his slow loss of consciousness as he drives.

Rififi is, in purest sense, film noir.  It’s comprised of shady characters, expressionistic light and shadow, gorgeous but problematic women, and a sense of despair that none of the people on screen can break out of the perpetual hell of paying for their past sins.  But Dassin’s second act added new vocabulary to the genre, and influenced countless pictures from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing to the Coen brothers’ Fargo.

But the original is still the best, and despite the imitations, Rififi can still be watched with the joyful intensity of seeing something quite new unfolding before your eyes, even after almost half a century.

Video ***1/2

This stunning new black and white transfer from Criterion is one of the best I’ve seen for films of the period.  The print shows remarkably few signs of aging thanks to the restoration effort, and images are sharp and crisply detailed from start to finish.  The range of grayscale is extensive and masterfully composed, bringing the most out of Dassin’s expressionist noir lighting and shadow play.  Only a few very faint but noticeable vertical scratches near the end keep this from scoring highest rating, but fans of the film or of classics in general will no doubt be more than pleased with the effort put forth here.

Audio ***1/2

Far and away the best single channel mono audio track I’ve heard on DVD.  The original French is the one you want to go with; the English dubbed version is passable, but not nearly as well rendered.  The dynamic range of the French track is startling…equaling or surpassing many modern 5.1 offerings with its power.   Some sequences were loud enough for vibrations to be felt!  The dialogue is crisp, clean and clear throughout, and the musical score by Georges Auric is potent and expressive.  The heist scene, with its deadly silence occasionally broken up by sudden noises, is as good as it gets.  Extremely impressive.

Features **1/2

The highlight is a modern video interview with director Dassin, broken up into chapter stops for easier access.  There is also a trailer, some production notes, and an extensive stills gallery.  Considering the liner notes mention the restored transfer removed some 23,235 instances of dirt, scratches and debris, I would have really enjoyed one of Criterion’s famous restoration demos here.

Summary:

Rififi is noir at its best…a shadowy world of mysterious characters, broken dreams, and crime that comes together in one of film’s most memorably tense sequences.  With this stunning DVD offering from Criterion, this is one no film lover should pass up.