If you read anything about Rififi, the classic French film noir, it’s likely the author will mention the perfection of its famous jewelry-store heist, which defines the movie for many people.
There’s lots to love about this centerpiece of a scene, it’s true. Instead of being hurried, it’s extraordinarily drawn out, showing us step-by-step the effort and ingenuity that goes into the execution. It’s a powerful slow boil of a sequence. Rififi doesn’t make crime seem easy or effortless; Jamie Hook (writing for the Criterion Collection) rightly observes that “at its heart, Rififi reveals itself to actually be a paean to work.” The crime feels real, in part because it combines specialist techniques with practical know-how. If an umbrella gets the job done, use an umbrella, they say.
As good as the heist scene is, however, it’s not the beginning and the end of the movie, at least for me. What has stayed with me more in the days since I’ve watched it is Rififi‘s greater mood and message, which seems to be that things are hopeless. This is, after all, a film noir, so that’s not surprising, but it’s especially poignant and discouraging here, I think.
The psycho-spiritual linchpins of most movies are their protagonists: For a hundred minutes, their fates feel like ours, at least if the movie is successful. But of Rififi‘s four-man crew, the one singled out by the film for special attention, Tony, is the least likable. His gang includes Mario, an ebullient Italian; Cesar, who carries an almost innocent air about him and who spends his non-burgling time falling in love with a local chanteuse; and Jo, a dedicated family man. Tony, recently released from the clink, is easily the steeliest of the bunch, and Jean Servais, the actor who portrays him, isn’t much photogenic, and his demeanor doesn’t make him seem any more cuddly than your average viper; no winning smiles for the camera here.
As an audience, we regularly give crooks a pass in films as long as they’re moderately charismatic – think of George Clooney or Steve McQueen. But we’re not given any reason to like Tony, and in fact, for my part at least, it’s established early on that we shouldn’t really be rooting for Tony in the usual way.
I’m thinking of the scene where he confronts his ex, Mado, who seems to have found someone else to fill his place a little too quickly after he got put away. Maybe we’d excuse a little bitterness on his part – this could be the starting point for some barbed flirting, perhaps? – but Tony’s demeanor is one of focused contempt. She agrees to go back to his house, and we wonder if he’s finally going to melt and forgive her for whatever imagined transgressions. Maybe then these two kids can realize they love one another after all?
That’s way too Hollywood for this film, however. After a brief moment between them that could only charitably be read as sexually charged, things get deeply unsexy: Instead of launching into a torrid love scene, Tony beats Mado with a belt. Finally laying off, he smashes a glass and practically tosses her out of the apartment. He’s enraged, but in that slow-burning, barely contained way that’s almost more violent than actual rage. Now, having snubbed all possibility of reconciliation and tenderness, Tony calls Jo: He’s in for the big jewelry job he’d turned down earlier. Why? “A man’s got to live.” It’s a happy phrase that would normally mark an embrace of life, but the look on Tony’s face is of a man who couldn’t be any less joyful, a man who has finally found himself driven to risks he knows to be too great for no reason in particular — no reason at all, really.
The sense that Tony is facing a deep existential crisis comes again later, when the heist has already been pulled off. Our band of four is examining the score, and it’s magnificent. Basking in the glow of their coup, each of Tony’s partners, beaming, talks about his plans, and by turns they are jubilant, dryly funny, and sincere. (Jo, who might well have been the hero in a sunnier version of this movie, thinks of what the money could do for his family.)
And then they turn to Tony and ask, what does he want? He doesn’t know. The whole movie has shown him moving methodically toward a goal that now, once achieved, seems empty. He’s been planning and executing a brilliant heist, one for the record books, and he doesn’t have a goddamn clue why he’s been doing it. Tony is, finally, a man devoid of meaning with a heart full of simmering resentment.
Having said that, I find that there’s still a little more I want to say about the tone and consequence of Rififi. There’s a single scene that would seem to undermine what I’ve already explained about the purpose of the film, one that superficially has nothing to do with anything described above yet which feels somehow crucial.
Well before the heist, as the team is still getting to know one another and the details are only slowly coming together, there is a nightclub sequence; there are some plot points to get through in this location, but we start out by watching the entire performance of a song, itself named “Rififi.” The porcelain singer, through the lyrics, narrates her relationship with her man, a sharply dressed killer, much like our burglars but one with a tough-guy mentality that leads him to macho acts of violence. “Rififi,” she explains, is a word you can’t find in the dictionary, but all it means is “rough ‘n’ tumble” (by the Criterion Collection’s subtitles, at any rate). He’s even rough with her, she intimates, but she can’t get enough of him, and wants her own bit of “rififi” from him.
The song would seem to be talking about our own Tony, but it’s sung in a slightly campy manner that’s eons from the existential fatalism that rules Tony’s life. In essence, the song seems to be telling us – almost literally – not to take the violence of the movie’s scenario seriously, even though the rest of the film never betrays a hint of the song’s insouciance. One intriguing detail: Parallel to the unfolding of the song on screen, we see Cesar thunderstruck by the glamorous yet somehow approachable singer. The thing is, Cesar himself is played by the director, Jules Dassin. Symbolically, this could be rich if we read it as the director being seduced by the fantasy of sex and violence.
But in fact, with Rififi the film, Dassin gives us a picture that’s nearly as bleak as it could be. Not only is Tony’s life a brutal one, it is a meaningless one, and by his own determination. I don’t know which is worse.