#36 — Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955)
Though I’m aware enough of the facile nature of this statement that I prefer not to default to it, I have been known to deflect questions about what “kind” of movie I like by answering, “I like movies that are about something.” Like most who glibly offer that assertion, I typically mean that I want a film to have some thematic heft to it, an intellectual, philosophical, or even emotional reason for being beyond visual razzle-dazzle. I think the phrase is better used to refer to something a little different, though. Yes, I want a film to be about something, but I’m not really after injections of gravity as much as a solid commitment to specifics. If, say, a movie is going to be a crime picture, then truly make it be about the crime.
It’s been so long since I first saw Jules Dassin’s Rififi (which miraculously played in a revival print at my local art house movie theater in the late nineteen-nineties) that I don’t totally remember all the revelations that accompanied the viewing. The one that lingers, though, is the artistic value of locking into the details of a story with unwavering devotion. The film follows a gangster named Tony (Jean Servais), who has recently gotten out of prison on a five year stint for a jewel heist. In the manner of movies (and, realistically, probably life), barely any time passes before Tony is drawn back towards illicit opportunities, specifically the robbery of a jewelry store in Paris. Tony eventually acquiesces to the job, although with the understanding the he can orchestrate it to make it more elaborate–and therefore more profitable–that originally intended. From a thematic standpoint, Rififi can be posited as about a great many things, including the fatal allure of criminality and the human inability to break away from conceptions of self. The most striking thing about the film is the way it is actually about–almost to the exclusion of everything else–the heist itself.
Dassin locks in on the mechanics of these modern outlaws at work, developing the commission of the crime as the film’s stunning centerpiece. He heightens the impact not through an infusion of whiplash technique, but instead a withdrawal into patient, unfussy clarity. The director jettisons most of his story-enhancing tools, depicting the robbery in depth. He spends approximately a half-hour on the scene, stripping away most dialogue (because criminals in the midst of this sort of act pride stealthy silence over chattiness), all the music, and just about anything that signals that an act of cinematic fiction is afoot. The heist gets exactly the sort of focus that the men perpetrating the crime would need to give it, making it loom as large for the viewers and it does for the characters. It is a simple and profound way to carry the inevitable twists of guilt, mistrust, and betrayal that follow beyond the boundaries of mere melodrama into something sharper and tougher.