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Rififi: The Criterion Collection

Among the most infamous of dates in Hollywood history is November 24, 1947. On that day the Association of Motion Picture Producers — which included such heavyweights as Harry Cohn, Samuel Goldwyn, Albert Warner, Louis B. Mayer, and 46 other studio executives — succumbed to pressure from the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and blacklisted members of the film industry who refused to testify before Congress on their alleged "communist" sympathies. Among the first to go were Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., and Edward Dymtryk, but the HUAC scourge continued unabated until 1951, at which point 324 people had been denied work on any and all American film projects. Among these was Connecticut-born Jules Dassin, who helmed a series of minor noir and proto-realism masterpieces in the '40s, including Brute Force, The Naked City, and Night and the City. But by 1949 Dassin was persona non grata. Out of work, making very little money selling stories to producer Darryl F. Zanuck, he relocated to Europe, where his attachment to several productions forced his dismissal — the blacklist's influence had spread beyond America's borders. Dassin would not direct another film for five years. And yet, were it not for the blacklist, it's likely we never would have seen 1955's Rififi, the godfather of all heist flicks and Dassin's most famous creation.

Originally released as Du rififi chez les hommes (roughly translated as "Trouble among men"), Rififi concerns aging career-criminal Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais), who's just been released from prison after a five-year stretch — and looks it. Haggard and run-down, few of his former colleagues will have anything to do with him except for his former protégé Jo the Swede (Carl Möhner), for whom Tony took the rap five years earlier to keep the younger family man out of the joint. Jo, along with his Italian friend Mario (Robert Manuel), plan to steal some valuable jewels from a streetside display window in a smash-and-grab robbery, but it seems Tony is too old for such stunts — or perhaps he senses that he's running out of time. He agrees to join the duo, but only if they forget about the display window and go for the big money. And that means getting inside the jeweler's shop and busting open the safe. A fourth criminal, expert safecracker Cesar le Milanais (director Dassin, credited as "Perlo Vita"), is brought in from Italy and the men soon set about the work of defeating the modern alarm system, looting the safe, and plotting their escape. Scientific precision and plenty of ingenuity are the keys to success — but what the men cannot predict is what will happen after the robbery. Inevitably something slips, then somebody talks. And when a rival gang starts working over the thieves for the loot, Tony finds he must convince Jo that the only way to win is to fight back just as dirty, and twice as hard.

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Central to Rififi's fame is the heist sequence. For 33 minutes — fully one-fourth of the film's running time — Dassin portrays the robbery in near-total silence, and while we may already know what some items are for (a suitcase full of ordinary tools), others only become apparent when put into use (after all, why would jewel thieves need an umbrella?). Imitated many, many times since, the sequence was developed by Dassin as a way to cinematically distance himself from the source novel by Auguste le Breton, which Dassin says horrified him with its ultra-violent, racist depiction of the French underworld. In Dassin's script (with dialogue by le Breton), Rififi is a perfect gangster film, depicting a Paris of thieves, hookers, and two-bit hoods, but with a code of honor that sets Tony apart from the rest. Aside from the title tune (performed in the L'age D'or nightclub by Magali Noël), the word "rififi" is not said by any character, but the "rough and tumble" song reflects Tony's core philosophy — the idea that justice, or retribution, must be swift and severe as a matter of survival. When Tony, just out of prison, learns that his lover Mado (Marie Sabouret) has taken up with a local mobster, he beats her mercilessly. Discovering which jewel thief ratted out the team, Tony feels sorry for the guy — but not enough to forgive him. Mado warns him not to pursue the rival gang. "You'll all die, one by one," she warns him. "The whole rotten bunch of you." But for Tony, "rififi" is the only option, leading to one of the most poetic and beautifully rendered climaxes of all films noir.

Criterion's DVD release of Rififi features a clean transfer in the original full-frame ratio (1.33:1) and monaural audio, all from a restored print that recently made a splash in several repertory theaters (also available are a dubbed English track and English subtitles). Supplements are generous, and include an extensive video interview with director Dassin — who talks at length about the blacklist — production notes, a still gallery, and the original theatrical trailer, dubbed in English. Keep-case.

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