RIFIFI (1955), also known as DU RIFIFI CHEZ LES HOMMES, was a real "wow" filmgoing experience for me this evening, a highlight in a fantastic year of big screen movies.
This was the first time I'd ever seen RIFIFI, part of a double bill of films from director Jules Dassin in UCLA's just-opened Hollywood Exiles in Europe series.
RIFIFI was both longer (at 122 minutes) and darker than the movies I typically favor, but this jewel heist film reels you in and leaves you hanging on until the very last shot. Not a minute of screen time was wasted. I was completely mesmerized, and very glad that I gave the movie a chance based on my older daughter's enthusiastic encouragement. As my daughter said, at some point you even forget they're speaking French!
Jean Servais plays Tony le Stéphanois, recently released from five years in prison after taking a rap to spare his younger protege Jo (Carl Mohner). Jo and Mario (Robert Manuel) present a plan to Tony to rob the window of a prestigious jewelry store, but after initially demurring, Tony agrees to the job if they will actually go in the store and rob the main safe. To that end, the group recruits Cesar (director Dassin, under the name Perlo Vita), an Italian safecracker.
The film's centerpiece is the heist sequence, which runs nearly 30 minutes and has no dialogue or music. The viewer becomes so caught up in the suspense that one ends up rooting for the jewel thieves. Can they possibly make it out of the building in time?
Any guilt the viewer may feel over sympathetic feelings toward thieves is taken care of in the rest of the film. RIFIFI is really two or three movies in one: first a heist film, then a disaster movie, and finally a tale of rescue and revenge.
Cesar is quite the ladies' man, which proves to be his undoing, as he gives his girlfriend Viviane (Magali Noel) a ring he pocketed as a souvenir. Viviane's nightclub boss, Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) -- who is also the ex-lover of Tony's ex-girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) -- very quickly puts two and two together and the thieves' seemingly successful operation quickly unravels.
The story culminates with Grutter kidnapping Jo's little son (Dominique Maurin) to force Tony and Jo to turn over their ill-gotten gains. While Jo waits by the phone, Tony scours Paris looking for his young godson before it's too late.
One of the things that fascinated me was Jo's apartment, which visually makes clear how he indulges his little boy: the puppet theater, the oversized ball, the other toys strewn everywhere. The set communicated a great deal without words, showing Jo making up for his own poor childhood; Jo's wife (Janine Darcey) later says that the men who overcame such backgrounds without resorting to crime were the "real tough guys."
There were many other unforgettable shots and scenes, from the phone call made by Ida (Claude Sylvain) and her sudden, shocking change of heart; Tony and Jo in a taxi paying their respects to a funeral procession (and the irony -- or desperation -- of criminals participating in a religious ritual); the almost surreal mad drive through the streets of Paris, with the arrival at the final destination providing a completely satisfying ending.
The movie was filmed in gritty black and white by Philippe Agostini.
RIFIFI is available in a DVD/Blu-ray dual-format set from the Criterion Collection. Criterion also released it as a DVD in 2001. The DVD can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix.
It's also available on VHS and has been shown periodically on Turner Classic Movies.
Jules Dassin films previously reviewed here: THE AFFAIRS OF MARTHA (1942), YOUNG IDEAS (1943), A LETTER FOR EVIE (1946), TWO SMART PEOPLE (1946), and THE NAKED CITY (1948).
Update: My review of NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950).