Thomas Lowery, Contributing Writer
The modern heist film seems drunk on the idea of glamour, style and the glorification of criminals. Such a template is not a problem insofar as the primary goal of a heist film is to entertain its viewers. Yet if you are in the mood for the complete antithesis of the above description, namely a heist film which does not compromise realism for the sake of the audience, the great Rififi (1955) is waiting. In spite of a title that resembles the name of some pet, this is a dark and serious crime thriller about a group of hoodlums and its elaborate plan to rob a jewelry store.
lthough it may sound as if it were meant to defy the general conception of the heist film, it was actually made in 1954, long before it became popular to glamorize criminals. As the title indicates, the movie is French, but it was directed by an American, Jules Dassin, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era for supposed Communist sympathies. Consequently, he went to France, and there showed that the cinema was an ideal medium for a great heist story. A novel can certainly get the facts across, but to really experience a heist and all the machinations related to it, one needs visuals. Dassin recognized the benefits of the medium and used them to bring the jewelry robbery to life with painstaking authenticity.
The complex heist occupies 28 minutes of the film, creating a nerve-inducing half-hour in which every meticulous detail of the crime is presented. It is almost as if Dassin is offering an instructional video for an impeccable robbery. Even if this is the case, his ultimate conclusion seems to be that the perfection of a crime cannot withstand the imperfections of those committing it. The mastermind behind the heist oversees every possible detail except for the fact that his team consists of smart yet terribly flawed individuals. He has confidence in the logistics of the crime because he can control it, yet the aftermath of it is beyond his grasp. Rififi’s heist sequence may be the film’s great highlight, yet what makes it transcendent is the way in which it shows how intelligent criminals morph into savages once they obtain the treasure. I won’t reveal the juicy details here. Suffice it to say that the ramifications of the heist reveal with eerie precision how honor among thieves quickly turns to dishonor.
Rififi is a film that has basked in glory since its release. Despite the fact that Dassin was blacklisted, he neither had trouble making the movie nor getting it to show in America (where it was a big art house success). And, unlike his fellow blacklisted contemporaries, he did not have to live under a pseudonym once the movie came to the states. 57 years later, Rififi lives on vibrantly. And despite its uncompromising nature compared to more modern fare, it is still considered the gold standard for heist pictures.