Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Robert Hossein, Marcel Lupovici
Auguste Le Breton (novel, "Du rififi chez les hommes"), Jules Dassin (adaptation), René Wheeler (collaboration), Auguste Le Breton (collaboration)
["Rififi"] ... means Trouble!
After making such American noir classics as Brute Force and The Naked City, the blacklisted director Jules Dassin went to Paris and embarked on his masterpiece: a twisting, turning tale of four ex-cons who hatch one last glorious robbery in the City of Light. Rififi is the ultimate heist movie, a melange of suspense, brutality, and dark humor that was an international hit, earned Dassin the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and has proven wildly influential on decades of heist thrillers in its wake.
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
French LPCM Monaural
English Dolby Digital Monaural
Runtime: 118 min.
Release Date: 1/14/2014
• Interview with Director Jules Dassin
• Stills Gallery
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Rififi: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1955)
Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 2, 2014)
Color me embarrassed! When I got a copy of Rififi, I thought I’d find the newest Disney “direct-to-video” sequel to The Lion King. Instead of the further adventures of that film’s wise old mandrill, I found some sort of funky film noir, and a French one to boot!
Thus ends the “bad comedy” portion of the review. Although Rififi - pronounced “ree-fee-fee” - includes no cartoon animals, it does provide a stimulating and compelling crime drama.
Made in 1955, the movie takes place in then-modern day France, where aging criminal Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) recently left prison and returned to society. When a friend named Jo (Carl Möhner) comes to him with a robbery proposal, Tony wants nothing to do with it.
However, after Tony finds out that a past love has let him down, he comes around and decides to lend his expertise to the affair. Circumstances proceed well for a while, but in the somewhat fatalistic fashion of much film noir, the situation inevitably turns bad and leads to an unhappy conclusion.
Directed by American Jules Dassin - relegated to work in Europe due to his inclusion on the Hollywood blacklist of the era - Rififi revels in the details, and while all of the movie seems compelling, it really comes to life during the robbery itself. Tony and the boys set their sights on a jewelry store. At first, Jo and his friend Mario (Robert Manuel) want nothing more than a simple smash and grab operation; they figure they can quietly slice open the shop’s front window and quickly snag some display wares before the heat gets after them.
However, the much more sophisticated and ambitious Tony can’t be bothered with such piddling profits, so he decides to go after the prizes located within the store’s confines. The crew recruits Italian safecracker Cesar (Perlo Vita, aka Dassin himself) to complete their gang and after a tremendous amount of planning, they execute the crime.
While we need the exposition that leads up to Tony’s decision to partake in the crime and those parts can be interesting, I only really start to enjoy Rififi once the wheels go in motion. It becomes fascinating to watch the preparations for the robbery, and the sequence in which the four men perform the deed delivers a justly-celebrated masterwork. For more than a half an hour, the film proceeds with no dialogue and almost no sound as the boys break in to the shop.
Although it could - and perhaps should - have been horribly dull, this provides a tense and thrilling episode. Dassin really milks the segment for all it was worth, and the piece creates a fascinating highlight in the film.
Not that the rest of Rififi lacks worth, but I must admit that the movie doesn’t seem quite as interesting once the robbery ends. The parts after that feel like a long procession toward the inevitable, since it feels unlikely any of these hoods would live happily ever after. Still, I mainly enjoy the ride, as it remains generally compelling to see how they greet their fates.
In addition to Dassin’s strong pacing, Rififi benefits from some solid acting. Servais becomes the best of the bunch, as he makes Tony a surprisingly sympathetic character. At times, he seems cruel and almost sadistic; no matter how much he felt his ex-girl betrayed him, the brutal way in which he handles her appears excessive and should turn an audience against Tony. However, Servais keeps the crowd in his corner and stays vaguely likeable throughout the movie. Despite his nasty side, I want to see Tony succeed, and I think that’s due to Servais’ performance.
Ultimately, Rififi offers a winning cinematic experience. Though it sticks with fairly standard film noir fare, the manner in which the story develops makes it stand out from the crowd. Director Jules Dassin executes the piece with flair and style that allows the movie to transcend the genre, and this flick definitely deserves a lot of positive attention.
The Blu-ray Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B/ Bonus C+
Rififi appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The movie barely showed its age in this terrific transfer.
Sharpness consistently seemed solid. Throughout the film, all images appeared nicely crisp and detailed, and I saw very few instances of softness or fuzziness. This was a clear and distinct picture for the vast majority of its 118 minutes. No signs of jaggies or moiré effects develop, and edge haloes remain absent.
Black levels looked deep and rich throughout Rififi. I thought these dark tones seemed dense and quite solid, and shadow detail also worked well. Low-light sequences - of which this film includes more than a few - were appropriately opaque but they never seemed excessively dim or obscured. Overall, the movie boasted a nice level of contrast that gave the images a fine aura.
Print flaws were a non-factor in this clean presentation, as it lacked any specks, spots or other defects. With a light, natural layer of grain, I didn’t suspect any digital noise reduction; the effort remained smooth and film-like. This became an impressive visual presentation.
Though not as impressive, the LPCM monaural soundtrack of Rififi worked fine for its age. Since the dialogue was in French, I can’t adequately judge the intelligibility of the speech, but I thought the lines sounded reasonably natural. Some of them sounded a little “looped”, as it was clear much – it not all – of the dialogue was dubbed, but I still thought speech seemed good, without edginess, reediness or other issues.
The remainder of the mix showed similar qualities and satisfied. Music lacked great range but sounded reasonably concise and distinctive, while effects were fairly clean and clear. No notable distortion affected the mix, and it didn’t suffer from any background noise. Nothing about the track dazzled, but it was more than satisfactory given the movie’s vintage.
Note that the disc of Rififi also included a Dolby Digital monaural English dub. I attempted to watch the movie with the re-recorded lines and found it to be a silly and distracting experience. I’m not total subtitle-snob; while I prefer the original experience, if there’s a good dubbed track for a non-English movie, I’ll give it a whirl. However, Rififi did not fall into that category; it’s one of those loop-jobs that gives translated dubbing a bad name, so you should skip it.
How did the Blu-ray compare to the prior DVD from 2001? Audio was significantly clearer and tighter, while visuals demonstrated obvious improvements in terms of definition and cleanliness. In all ways, the Blu-ray provided a substantially superior presentation.
Most of the original DVD’s extras repeat here. Taped in the summer of 2000, an interview with director Jules Dassin goes for 28 minutes, 42 seconds, and covers Dassin’s experiences during the Hollywood blacklist era and we also learn a lot about the making of Rififi.
Dassin relates his initial reactions to the book upon which the film was based and he adds many good anecdotes about the shoot. Despite his advanced age, Dassin remained sharp as a tack, and he displayed a smart, compelling, and witty personality during this program. I really enjoyed this interview and wish that Dassin had recorded a full commentary.
The Stills Gallery includes 19 frames of material. Most of these show publicity photos, but we also get some interesting production art. Lastly, we see the movie’s American theatrical trailer. This piece makes the film look a trashy B-movie as it tells us that “Rififi… means trouble!”
A second disc provides a DVD copy of Rififi. This includes the same extras as the Blu-ray.
The set concludes with a 12-page booklet. It includes an essay from film critic J. Hoberman. While not the best Criterion booklet I’ve seen, it adds a nice complement to the package.
Even back in the 1950s, apparently US filmgoers looked at French flicks as being too snooty and highbrow for their tastes, so an import like Rififi needed to be made more accessible. I don’t know how well the technique worked, but even a crass American like myself thought Rififi delivered a solidly entertaining and well-executed piece of crime drama. The Blu-ray brings us excellent visuals, good audio and a few informative supplements. I like the film and think the Blu-ray replicates it well.
Viewer Film Ratings: 4.5 Stars
| Number of Votes: 4