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'Rififi': The flawless apotheosis of the heist genre

'Rififi' - Jules Dassin

One of the greatest filmmaking talents of the 20th century, Jules Dassin produced some of the most memorable masterpieces of the film gris genre during which leftist directors launched scathing attacks at the capitalist frameworks of American society. For this very reason, Dassin was blacklisted by Hollywood even though he made fantastic works such as Thieves’ Highway and Night and the City. Due to the dystopian politics of the McCarthy era, Dassin was forced to move to France where he ended up making his magnum opus Rififi.

Over the years, Rififi has influenced many prominent auteurs ranging from French New Wave pioneer Jean-Pierre Melville to American visionary Stanley Kubrick. Interestingly enough, Melville was originally set to direct this particular project but he passed it onto Dassin who hadn’t made a film in five years after being thrown out of Hollywood. Created with a relatively low budget of $200,000, Dassin had to weave cinematic magic from limited means and he did just that.

Revolving around a group of criminals who plan that mythical last gig, Rififi is a pretty simple film at its surface but its rich subtext as well as Dassin’s methodologies have crystallised this masterpiece as the greatest French film noir ever made. Jean Servais stars as the film’s central figure, an ex-convict named Tony (also known as “the Stéphanois”) who has issues with gambling addiction, alcoholism and abusing women. Dassin specifically wanted Servais for this role because the actor’s own career had taken a hit due to his substance abuse issues.

Along with other gangsters he hangs out with as well as an Italian master of safecracking (played by Dassin himself under a pseudonym), they set out to craft a meticulously researched plan for robbing a high-profile Parisian jewellery store. What makes Rififi so special is the brilliant attention to details; Dassin draws the audience into the engaging planning process and makes them complicit. In fact, the heist plan was so well-researched that Rififi was banned in several countries as local criminals went to watch the film as an instructional documentary.

Throughout its spectacular 28-minute sequence where the crew drills a hole into the ceiling of the store and cracks the safe, none of the characters speak word. Dassin insists that the dialogue is superficial, laying out a timeless lesson for future generations of filmmakers on how to maintain cinematic tension through the visual narrative and the incredibly thought out pacing. Unlike most modern heist films, Rififi does not show the successful heist as a triumphant ending and carries out with his thesis that the real challenges begin afterwards. That is why the director maintained that Rififi should never have been banned because, if anything, it showed how impossibly difficult such a criminal act was.

As is natural, people who have discovered the film many years after the film’s release have approached it with different sociopolitical sensibilities. Rififi has been criticised by them for “glorifying” misogyny but Dassin never engages in that. Instead, he deconstructs the very idea of a “tough guy” by highlighting the relationship between criminality and masculine impotence. Throughout the film, none of the male criminals are idolised since their flaws are always in the foreground – no matter how talented they are at breaking and entering.

Rififi has been touted as the finest heist film in existence (which it probably is) as well as a subtextual critique of the political corruption and the deceitful climate that Dassin had experienced during his time in Hollywood. It is all those things and much more, constructing an ethereal vision of Paris where the quest for capital only results in death and despair.

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