1955 was a landmark for the heist movie. While Jules Dassin, an American exile driven from the US by the Communist witchhunt, was filming this tough gem in Paris, Stanley Kubrick was preparing to make The Killing in Los Angeles. Both followed the generic blueprint John Huston had perfected with The Asphalt Jungle (1950): a group of variously skilled men concoct a watertight plan, pull a job, then watch it all go wrong. Where Kubrick’s cut-up movie deconstructed Huston’s model, however, Dassin’s represented the heist movie refined to its essential form.
Rififi details the robbery of a Parisian jewellery store and its messy aftermath. Jean Servais plays aging ex-con Le Stephanois, a coughing, blank-eyed death angel, turning to crime as existential gesture. With nothing to lose, he proposes going after the jeweller’s safe with two old colleagues and a new recruit, Cesare (Dassin himself, pseudonymously billed as Perlo Vita), known for his lock-breaking expertise – and his weakness for women, the fatal flaw.
Dassin adapted his script from ex-hoodlum Auguste Le Breton’s gruesome paperback, Du Rififi chez les hommes, wringing elegance from pulp, all iconic, laconic tough guys, hats and coats. His eye for location, which had previously discovered an unseen New York for The Naked City (1948) and revealed London as a feverish labyrinth in Night and the City (1950) renders Paris as a downbeat grey wash of inclement skies, odd places and forgotten times of day. Rififi convinces as an insider’s view; this might be the only movie made by an American in Paris not to feature the Eiffel Tower.
The defining scene is the robbery, a thirty-minute sequence that’s all about men at work, unfolding without dialogue or music, the only sounds the grunts of barely-breathing criminals, the chink of tools, the boulevard swish of traffic outside. It was still being aped as late as Mission: Impossible. See this to understand how pale all the imitations have been.