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When Jules Dassin's Rififi (original French title: Du Rififi chez les hommes) was released in 1955, it set a new standard for heist films and arguably has never been surpassed. Its classic robbery sequence takes up nearly half an hour of screen time with no dialogue or music, a virtuoso piece of filmmaking that has influenced practically every heist film since, from Dassin's own Topkapi (1964) to more recent efforts such as Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven (2001).
Many assume that Jules Dassin (1911-2008) was of either French or Greek origin because of his later films, but in fact he was born in Middletown, Connecticut to Russian-Jewish parents from Odessa. His family relocated to New York and he began his theater career in New York's Yiddish Proletarian Theater company. He also worked in radio for a time before joining RKO and later MGM in Hollywood. With the support of the maverick producer Mark Hellinger, he moved to Universal where he directed the American films noir for which he is best known today: Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948). When Hellinger died suddenly, Dassin moved to Fox where he directed the ill-fated Thieves' Highway (1949) and Night and the City (1950).
Because of his former membership in the Communist Party and his refusal to name names, Dassin was blacklisted after the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations. He decided to move to Europe in order to continue making films, but his troubles followed him overseas. In 1953, Dassin was slated to direct the Fernandel comedy Public Enemy No. 1 and later an Italian film entitled Mastro don Gesualdo, but the long arms of Hollywood and the U.S. government intimidated the films' producers into removing Dassin from both projects. It wasn't until Rififi that Dassin was able to complete another film.
Aware of Dassin's accomplishments as a director of American noir and sympathetic to his plight, the French producer Henri Bérard approached him with the adaptation of Auguste Le Breton's 1953 novel Du Rififi chez les hommes. Although Dassin knew French, he found the novel almost unreadable due to its abundant Parisian underworld slang. Initially Dassin was put off by the book's lurid content, including its stereotyped representation of North Africans. Besides making the gangsters French rather than specifically North African, Dassin expanded the novel's relatively brief episode of the jewelry store heist into the centerpiece of the film's plot. In a 2000 interview Dassin recalled that when he, Bérard and Le Breton met to discuss the screenplay draft, Le Breton strutted in, aping gangster mannerisms. The pulp fiction writer even laid a gun on the table, demanding "Where is my book?" in response to the changes Dassin had made. However, Dassin stood his ground and the two soon became friends. Le Breton later wrote a sequel entitled Du Rififi chez les femmes, which was filmed in 1959; he also wrote the screenplay for Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur (1956).
The film's low budget meant that Dassin wasn't able to work with major stars such as Jean Gabin. The lead role of Tony le Stéphanois, the tubercular ex-con, went instead to Jean Servais, a Belgian actor whose career had stagnated somewhat due to a drinking problem. Regardless, his well-worn face and voice serve the character beautifully. When the Italian actor chosen for the role of César backed out shortly before shooting, Dassin decided to play the role himself, under the screen name of "Perlo Vita." The Mappin & Webb jewelry store depicted in the film was an actual location in Paris; with the owners' permission, Dassin and his crew used both the name and the store's exterior.
In the same interview Dassin stated that the production designer Alexandre Trauner and the cinematographer Philippe Agostini had not worked for a while before Bérard engaged them for the film, though they had earned a reputation as leading figures in French cinema. Trauner had worked regularly with Marcel Carné during the Thirties and Forties and had even designed the sets for Orson Welles' Othello (1952). Agostini had worked with Trauner on Le Jour se leve (1939) and had also made films with notable directors such as Robert Bresson and Jean Grémillon. Actually, both Trauner and Agostini had continued to work more or less regularly during the Fifties, though perhaps not always on the same kind of high-profile projects that made their respective reputations during the Thirties and Forties.
Rififi opened in April 1955 and quickly became one of the top box office draws in France for that year, earning a handsome profit both for its producer and for Dassin, who had agreed to accept a percentage of the box office receipts as compensation for a reduced salary. In his review for the French newspaper Arts, Truffaut wrote: "Jules Dassin has made the best 'noir' film I have ever seen from the worst roman noir I have ever read." The film's international reputation was bolstered by Dassin winning Best Director at Cannes that year. When the film was released in the U.S. the following year, Bosley Crowther described it as "perhaps the keenest crime film that ever came from France" in his review for the New York Times. In addition to the heist sequence and the film's vivid treatment of its seedy milieu, Crowther praised Dassin's "poetic" depiction of "the tender beauty of Paris at dawn." Indeed, the tragic poetry underlying the film's gangster plot has continued to resonate with viewers today.
Producer: René Gaston Vuattoux; associate producers Henri Bérard, René Bezard, Pierre Cabaud
Director: Jules Dassin
Screenwriters: Jules Dassin, René Wheeler, Auguste Le Breton
Director of Photography: Philippe Agostini
Film Editor: Roger Dwyre
Production designers: Alexandre Trauner, Auguste Capelier
Musical score: Georges Auric; song "Rififi" by Jacques Larue and M. Philippe-Gérard
Principal Cast: Jean Servais (Tony le Stéphanois); Carl Möhner (Jo le Suedois); Robert Manuel (Mario Ferrati); Perlo Vita/Jules Dassin (César le Milanais); Marie Sabouret (Mado); Janine Darcey (Louise); Claude Sylvain (Ida Ferrati); Marcel Lupovici (Pierre Grutter); Robert Hossein (Rémi Grutter); Pierre Grasset (Louis Grutter); Magali Noël (Viviane); Dominique Maurin (Tonio).
by James Steffen
Crowther, Bosley. "Screen: Tough Paris Crime Story." New York Times, June 6, 1956, p.37.
Phillips, Alastair. Rififi. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2009.
Interview with Jules Dassin (filmed in 2000), Criterion Collection DVD edition of Rififi.