Color me embarrassed! When I got a copy of Rififi, I thought I’d find the newest Disney “direct-to-video” sequel to The Lion King. Instead of the further adventures of that film’s wise old mandrill, I found some sort of funky film noir, and a French one to boot!
Although Rififi - actually pronounced “ree-fee-fee”, as it happens - may have included no cartoon animals, but it did provide a surprisingly stimulating and compelling crime drama. Made in 1955, the movie takes place in then-modern day France, where aging criminal Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) recently left prison and returned to society. When a friend named Jo (Carl Möhner) comes to him with a robbery proposal, Tony wants nothing to do with it. However, after he finds out that a past love has let him down, Tony comes around and decides to lend his expertise to the affair. After that, things proceed well for a while, but in the somewhat fatalistic fashion of much film noir, the situation inevitably turns bad and leads to an unhappy conclusion.
Directed by American Jules Dassin - relegated to work in Europe due to his inclusion on the Hollywood blacklist of the era - Rififi revels in the details, and while all of the movie seems compelling, it really comes to life during the robbery itself. Tony and the boys set their sights on a jewelry store. At first, Jo and his friend Mario (Robert Manuel) want nothing more than a simple smash and grab operation; they figure they can quietly slice open the shop’s front window and quickly snag some display wares before the heat gets after them. The much more sophisticated and ambitious Tony can’t be bothered with such piddling profits, so he decides to go after the prizes located within the store’s confines. The crew recruit Italian safecracker Cesar (Perlo Vita, an alias for Dassin himself) to complete their gang and after a tremendous amount of planning, they execute the crime.
While the exposition that leads up to Tony’s decision to partake in the crime certainly was necessary and could be interesting, I only really started to enjoy Rififi once the wheels started in motion. It was fascinating to watch the preparations for the robbery, and the sequence in which the four men perform the deed is a justly-celebrated masterwork. For more than a half an hour, the film proceeds with no dialogue and almost no sound as the boys break in to the shop. Although it could - and perhaps should - have been deathly dull, this was a phenomenally tense and thrilling episode. Dassin really milked the segment for all it was worth, and the piece creates a fascinating highlight in the film.
Not that the rest of Rififi wasn’t worthwhile, but I must admit that the movie doesn’t seem quite as interesting once the robbery ends. The parts after that felt like a long procession toward the inevitable, since it was unlikely any of these hoods would live happily ever after. Still, I mainly enjoyed the ride, as it was generally compelling to see how they encountered their fates.
In addition to Dassin’s strong pacing, Rififi benefited from some solid acting. Best of the bunch was Servais, who made Tony a surprisingly sympathetic character. At times, he seemed cruelly and almost sadistic; no matter how badly he felt his ex-girl betrayed him, the brutal way in which he handled her appeared excessive and should have turned an audience against Tony. However, Servais kept the crowd in his corner and stayed vaguely likeable throughout the movie. Despite his nasty side, I wanted to see Tony succeed, and I think that was due to Servais’ performance.
Ultimately, Rififi offered a fairly winning cinematic experience. Though it stuck with fairly standard film noir fare, the manner in which the story was told made it stand out from the crowd. Director Jules Dassin executed the piece with flair and style that allowed the movie to transcend the genre, and this flick definitely deserves a lot of positive attention.
Rififi appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though the movie showed its age on a number of occasions, I generally thought the picture looked fairly good.
Sharpness consistently seemed solid. Throughout the film, all images appeared nicely crisp and detailed, and I saw very few instances of softness or fuzziness. This was a clear and distinct picture for the vast majority of its 118 minutes. Some jagged edges appeared due to hat brims, and I also saw mild moiré effects through some kinds of clothing; striped dresses and checked coats brought on the most evident examples of these concerns.
Black levels looked very deep and rich throughout Rififi. I thought these dark tones seemed dense and quite solid, and shadow detail also worked well. Low-light sequences - of which this film includes more than a few - were appropriately opaque but they never seemed excessively dim or obscured. Overall, the movie boasted a nice level of contrast that gave the images a fine aura.
As we often encounter in older films, print flaws were the weakest aspects of Rififi. During most of the flick, I saw general examples of grit, grain, small nicks, and speckles. These appeared on many occasions, but they seemed fairly subdued and I was prepared to give the picture a “B-“. However, the defects intensified during the final act of the film. Grain appeared stronger, and a series of thin vertical lines cropped up at around the 95-minute mark. At first these appeared isolated to shots in Jo’s apartment, but they soon spread to the rest of the world, and they could become rather annoying.
I also saw problems related to the film’s editing. Many times when a cut took place in the movie, there would be a distinct “jump” in the frame. The effect could be fairly subtle, but I still found it to be quite noticeable and distracting. Overall, Rififi still offered a positive image, but the mix of print concerns meant that I felt most comfortable with a “C+” rating.
The monaural soundtrack of Rififi provided additional concerns, most of which related to dialogue. Throughout the movie, speech seemed excessively harsh and sibilant. The lines displayed a rather brittle quality that made it unpleasant to listen to them. Since the dialogue was in French, I can’t adequately judge the intelligibility of the speech, but I know that I found the lines to be rough during most of the film.
The remainder of the mix showed similar problems, though they were less strong. Both music and effects offered limited dynamics and they could be rather edgy and discordant. The concerns weren’t extreme in these cases, and they came across as less significant compared to the sound of the speech, but I still thought that the overall timbre of the track appeared shrill. I also heard a mild background hum during much of the mix.
For reasons unknown, the audio was mastered at an unusually high level, which meant that I needed to set the volume on my receiver much lower than normal. I don’t know if this factor had an impact upon the weak qualities of the sound, but it seems possible. In any case, I thought that the audio of Rififi seemed weak even for its era, but despite all of these flaws, the track wasn’t a total disaster, which is why I gave it a “C-“.
Note that the DVD of Rififi also includes an English dub. I attempted to watch the movie with the re-recorded lines and found it to be a silly and distracting experience. I’m not subtitle-snob; if there’s a good dubbed track for a non-English movie, I’m more than happy to give it a whirl. However, Rififi did not fall into that category, so I stuck with the original French edition, warts and all.
Criterion have included a decent smattering of supplements on their DVD release of Rififi. Although it includes no audio commentaries, we do find a fine 28-minute and 50-second interview with director Jules Dassin. Taped in the summer of 2000, this piece covers Dassin’s experiences during the Hollywood blacklist era and we also learn a lot about the making of Rififi. Dassin relates his initial reactions to the book upon which the film was based and he adds many good anecdotes about the shoot. Despite his advanced age, Dassin remains sharp as a tack, and he displays a smart, compelling, and witty personality during this program. I really enjoyed this interview and wish that Dassin had sat for a full commentary.
In addition, the DVD adds two sets of text notes about the movie. There are some very good production notes written by Lenny Borger on the disc itself, and we also find solid comments about the film within the package’s booklet; from Jamie Hook, these provide a few additional details to the mix. The “Stills Archive” includes 69 frames of material. Most of these show publicity photos, but we also get some interesting production art. Lastly, we see the movie’s American theatrical trailer. This piece makes the film look trashy as it touts that “Rififi… means trouble!”
I guess that even back in the Fifties, US filmgoers looked at French flicks as being snooty and too highbrow for their tastes, so an import like Rififi needed to be made more accessible. I don’t know how well the technique worked, but even a crass American like myself thought Rififi was a solidly entertaining and well-executed piece of crime drama. Though it falters at times, the film generally provided a taut and exciting experience that remains quite compelling. The DVD features fairly average picture and sound plus a few decent extras. Rififi should merit a viewing from fans of smart, concise film noir.