Thursday, 30 January 2014

RIFIFI - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The Greatest Heist Film Ever Made - Bar None!!! Available on Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Rififi (1955) *****
Dir. Jules Dassin
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner,
Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Janine Darcey, Magali Noël

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The major set piece of this extraordinary French crime film by blacklisted American director Jules Dassin is a breathless thirty-minute-long heist sequence that is shot with natural sound, no dialogue and no music.

It's pure cinema!

It's also one of the most nail-bitingly suspenseful scenes in movie history. We've come to know the characters, we understand the high stakes for all of them if they don't pull off the big steal and worst of all, we're well aware of what will happen if they're caught - especially the desperate old man, Tony "le Stéphanois" (Jean Servais). He's just served five years of hard time for a heist gone wrong and his only choices in life amount to petty crime, gambling and/or getting caught and being tossed back into the hoosegow until he's dead (or as close to dead as he'll ever get).

These men are criminals, but we want them to succeed. It's post-war France and the opportunities for men who've known only one way to survive are pretty much non-existent. They live by a strict code of honour and they'll steal, but they won't kill (at least until they are pushed to the limit to do so). There's clearly honour amongst these thieves (save for the slimy, greasy, lazy borderline pimps who weasel into the proceedings later on) and we never once feel like there are viable options for our main characters.

And so, we follow them willingly and almost complicitously into the breach - an insanely daring heist that requires split-second timing, impeccable teamwork and one hell of a massive whack of horseshoes worth of luck stuffed up their respective and collective keisters.

If the heist was only thing Rififi had going for it, there's no doubt the picture would be highly regarded, but that its bookends are as solid and compelling as all get out place Dassin's movie on s pedestal that holds some of the greatest crime pictures ever made. The manner in which Dassin shoots the heist is completely in keeping with his approach to the rest of the movie. Shooting almost exclusively on location captures the naturalistic feeling of the film's hard-boiled tale. Much like his groundbreaking American crime pictures (Naked City, Brute Force) which, broke American cinema out of the studio bound mould and took them onto the streets a la the Italian neorealist movement, Rififi is a glorious blend of stylized frissons within the framework of life itself.

Dassin, of course, had a tiny budget and little time to shoot the film, so he personally scouted all the locations in order to get a strong visual sense in advance to allow for impeccable planning. In many ways, Rififi is a model picture for independent, low budget approaches that are still infused with the highest degree of production value. Within Dassin's impeccable eye for visual detail, he's doubly blessed by working with the genius production designer Alexandre Trauner who manages to deliciously goose the look of the film.

Narratively, the tale is tough-minded and even romantic, but the attention to the details of the lives of the criminals and the heist itself (including the meticulous planning) give it the crank it needs to always keep us glued to the screen. As well, there's no overwhelming (and annoying) sense of the proceedings ever diving into moralistic waters. We believe in these men AND their criminal intent. We want them to succeed and if things go wrong and all becomes futile, Dassin sets the picture up in such a way that we're going to feel and care deeply about whatever plight the characters suffer. It helps, also, that the casting is impeccable - especially Servais as the world weary "le Stéphanois", Dassin himself as the funny, sprightly and finally, almost tragic figure of the ladies' man, as well as the other disparate and memorable members of the team.

The importance of Rififi as both dazzling entertainment, but as well, its place in laying the foundations for crime pictures that followed as well as the whole French New Wave that would come a few years later is, frankly, incalculable. All its historical significance aside, it's one hell of a good show! Rififi is brutal, harrowing and darkly funny and it seldom got better than this. The dames are dames, its heroes noble and the villains are pure filth. Sure, the movie trades in on the tropes of the genre, but does so expertly within its overwhelming naturalism that nothing ever feels cliched and is, in fact, far fresher than most films made today.

"Rififi" is available on a gorgeous Criterion Collection Dual Format Blu-Ray/DVD release complete with New 2K digital restoration, my favourite uncompressed monaural soundtrack, a very inspirational interview with director Jules Dassin, set design drawings by art director Alexandre Trauner, still, trailer, an optional English-dubbed soundtrack (especially handily for additional screenings to just study Dassin's visuals and a terrific essay by Jim Hoberman.