The heist is the thing in Jules Dassin’s Rififi, the quintessential caper movie and a fascinating historical document. Obviously, the film’s wordless, scoreless 30-minute robbery centerpiece is going to be the focus of most pieces about this film, and how could it not be? Dassin’s intensely focused, carefully controlled camerawork mirrors the remarkable concentration of his jewel thieves, and the almost unbearably tangible stress of the sequence just keeps mounting and mounting. It’s a legendary moment in cinema — crime, noir or otherwise.
There’s a lot more to Rififi though; the Melville-like emotional detachment in the heist sequence is notably absent from the rest of the film, and it’s the responsible tempers, attachments and disloyalties that undo all the precision of the robbery itself. Characters get caught up in old relationships they should have forgotten and loose lips threaten the success of the crime. Informing is one of the cardinal sins in Rififi, and it’s not too difficult to decipher why; Dassin’s blacklisting by the HUAC forced him to take his talents to France.
The grim, darkly funny Rififi had to have helped Dassin work out his feelings on the matter; he even cast himself as the Milanese safecracker César, imported to pull off the most crucial part of the heist. Somber elder statesman Tony (Jean Servais), just freed from a stint in jail after taking the fall for family man Jo (Carl Möhner), reluctantly agrees to the scheme to rob jewelry store Mappin & Webb in the heart of Paris’s 1st arrondissement, convinced by Jo and Italian pimp Mario (Robert Manuel) that the reward is worth the risk. Tony’s an old pro when it comes to the actual burgling, but his relationship with former flame Mado (Marie Sabouret) and her connection with gangster Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) isn’t too conducive to a clean getaway.
Shot on the cheap on the streets of Paris, Rififi is one of the cornerstones of the French noir, among other estimable works by Becker and Melville. Its heist centerpiece isn’t merely an isolated masterwork of suspense; it’s the backbone around which a great crime film is formed.
The Blu-ray Disc
Criterion presents Rififi in 1080p high definition and a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, finally getting around to upgrading their 2001 DVD release. The film has been available on a very nice Blu-ray for a couple years from UK outfit Arrow Films, but the Criterion disc was worth the wait for Region A-locked consumers. The transfer presents a strongly film-like image, with stable and cleanly rendered grain. Fine detail abounds in close-ups and long shots, and grayscale separation is superb, even as the transfer tends toward the darker side in certain shots. The uncompressed mono French audio is mostly clean and crisp, even if there’s a noticeable amount of hiss underneath the dialogue. A non-lossless English dub track is also included.
A pretty light slate of extras, duplicated from the old DVD release. A 2000 interview with Dassin runs about 30 minutes and features his passionate, articulate recollections about the film. A gallery includes production stills and set design drawings, and the film’s trailer rounds out the disc. The package includes a booklet with an essay by J. Hoberman as well as a DVD copy of the film with identical bonus content.
The Bottom Line
Rififi looks absolutely stunning on the Criterion Collection’s essential Blu-ray release.