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Rififi

Year: 1955
Production Co: Pathé Consortium Cinéma
Director: Jules Dassin
Writer: Auguste Le Breton/Jules Dassin/René Wheeler
Cast: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin

Hollywood was turning out slightly grittier movies in the mid 50s thanks to the advent of the noir genre, but the golden era glitter and glamour still held sway in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls and Lady and the Tramp.

On the brink of the New Wave, French filmmakers by contrast were eons ahead when it came to realism and style, and if you're new to the movement, Rififi is a great entrée into a whole new world.

It tells the story of a heist and its aftermath, and as you watch it you'll recognise aesthetics that went on to influence great directors everywhere from Scorsese to Tarantino. Tony (Jean Servais) is down on his luck in a poker game, so he calls his pal, family man Jo (Carl M̦hner) to bail him out a little. Jo doesn't hesitate Рhe owes Tony after the latter went down for a heist they both took part in, and Tony never once ratted the younger man out.

It's all shared character history that's conveyed with beauty and precision in only a few lines, but it effortlessly sets up the time and place the characters are in when Jo calls another hood friend, Mario, (Robert Manuel), who has a big score planned at a jewellery shop.

At first Tony wants none of it – he's just done his time and wants a quiet life. But after learning his former beau has shacked up with fearsome mobster and club owner Grutter, he takes to her with a belt (in the film's only scene betraying the appalling gender politics of the time) and tells the guys he'll do the job after all.

After they recruit Italian safecracker Cesar (Jules Dassin, who adapted the novel and directed the film), the heist is one of the most brilliant scenes you'll ever see in a crime thriller. The cool-as-ice professional criminal gang is almost a clich̩ now, but the film depicts the break-in and getaway Рjust over 32 minutes in length Рwithout a single musical note or word of dialogue.

Subduing the shopkeeper and his wife who live on the floor above, drilling down through the ceiling into the store, silencing the alarm, tipping the safe over, drilling through the back for the loot and making good their exit is all done in complete silence, the sting rehearsed down to the tiniest detail.

With over 200 million francs worth of rocks, Jo travels to England to deal with the fence and the wheels start to fall off almost immediately back home in Paris. Cesar has taken a shine to a showgirl at the club, and when Grutter sees the ring he's given her, it makes him think Tony's gang are the robbers everyone are looking for, hatching a plan to extort the money out of them.

Their scheme is violent and deadly, and when Tony starts to discover its fallout, the race is on to find Grutter's gang before he finds them and the people they love.

One of the film's most amazing accomplishments is the way it depicts what were very shocking scenes of sex and violence at the time, keeping the action just off screen or deep down in the frame but leaving you no doubt about what's going on.

It's dark and moody like the finest examples of the genre are, and where a lot of Hollywood output in the mid 50s was still very influenced by the outsized performance style of the stage, director Dassin keeps everything very low key, all fedora hats, low voices and steel-eyed glares.

If you believe the stories, he responded to the themes that inform the second half of the book – of betrayals and squealers – because of his ousting from Hollywood after he was named in the McCarthy communist witch hunts a few years earlier. The suitcase of money in the last few scenes might be seen as the prize of adulation, riches and fame in Hollywood, the bodies left in its wake the price Dassin thought it imposed.

Whatever the intent, Rififi is an essential part of your ongoing film education.

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