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The Criterion Collection presents
Rififi (1955)

"The job interests me afterall. A man's got to live."
- Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer   
Published: April 19, 2001

Stars: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin
Other Stars: Marie Sabouret, Janine Darcey, Claude Sylvain, Marcel Lupovici, Pierre Grasset, Robert Hossein, Magali Noël, Dominique Maurin
Director: Jules Dassin

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence; brief, thinly-veiled nudity)
Run Time: 01h:58m:27s
Release Date: April 24, 2001
UPC: 037429155622
Genre: film noir


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ B+BB C+

DVD Review

1955's Du rififi chez les hommes (re-released as Rififi) has been heralded as one of the best heist films of all time, opening in France to much acclaim, and earning Jules Dessin the award for Best Director at Cannes. Despite being born in America, and producing his noteably gritty earlier works, Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) there, at the time Rififi was made Dessin was living in exile in Europe. A victim of the McCarthy era blacklistings, he could not work in the U.S. or have his pictures shown there, which scared off even foreign film producers. Desperate for money, Dessin was given the option of directing Rififi, but only if he could make a quick decision based on reading the book by Auguste Le Breton. Unfortunately, the novel was written in a very localized French, and Dessin required his agent, who was himself desperately courting a new girlfriend, to come and translate the book for him. Dessin was going to refuse the project, as much of the content of the novel disgusted him; but he found himself accepting the job and writing the screenplay. Much of the book's plot was excised, focusing the film instead on a robbery that formed only part of Le Breton's work (Dessin reflects on this in the supplemental interview). Since the budget was nonexistent, casting was limited to lesser known actors, and when contract problems eliminated one of the players, Dessin stepped in to fill the role on camera under the pseudonym Perlo Vita.

Jean Servais stars as Tony le Stéphanois (looking not unlike Humphrey Bogart on the cover), a man who has been "inside" for the past five years after taking the fall for young kid. Returning to society, he is broke and tries to raise his stake at the card tables, but his luck has run out. He calls in a favor from the man he saved from prison, Jo le Suedois (Carl Möhner), who is more than willing to help out. Jo has arranged for them to meet Mario Farrati (Robert Manuel), another old friend, and the two have a smash-and-grab job in mind that they want Tony to join in on. He refuses, but when he realizes that his ex-girlfriend has squandered his remaining assets and is now shacked up with a night club owner, he reconsiders, though his plans are more elaborate. The new idea is a more daring robbery, breaking into the store's safe, and making off with hopefully millions in jewels. For this, they need to call in an expert safecracker, and Cesar le Milanais (Jules Dassin) is the man for the job. With a fence in place, planning becomes intense, with every detail of the scheme scrutinized to make sure it can be accomplished. The elaborate security system is studied for any possible weakness. Once they are sure their plan will work, they begin its execution; but like any plan, there are elements that can go out of control, and whether the men can get away with their deed is what the final third of the film will cover.

While the first 45 minutes seem a bit slow in their pacing, once we actually get into the robbery, the tension builds dramatically, heightened by the fact that for the next half hour there is no dialogue spoken, nor is there a musical soundtrack. We painstakingly witness the four men as they undertake their daring theft in utter silence, knowing that at any moment something could go drastically wrong. Rififi would serve as an inspiration for many later heist films, with its exposition of the details surrounding the endeavour sparking criticism that the film was a learning tool for would be thieves. In fact, there were instances where techniques used in the film evidenced themselves in real crimes after its release. Dessin also consciously chose to shoot the Parisian exteriors only when it was overcast, adding to the dark and brooding atmosphere developed by the plot. The night club of le Stéphanois' rival, (Marcel Lupovici as Pierre Grutter) is a nod to Luis Buñuel's, L'age d'or, a film that set designer Alexandre Trauner also worked on. Violence, of which there is a fair amount of, is handled discretely with cutaways, or by masking it behind objects. As he examines the character of each of the men involved, we see their strengths and weaknesses as a result of the pressure they have placed themselves under, and the consequences of their individual decisions. If much of what occurs during the film seems familiar these days, it is due to the homage paid to Rififi by innumerous later scripts including Dessin's own 1964 entry Topkapi, which in turn proved an influence on the break-in sequence for Brian DePalma's Mission:Impossible. Also note the performance of Fellini regular Magali Noël (La Dolce Vita, Satyricon, Amarcord) in an early role as the night club singer who croons the film's title song. Though perhaps better appreciated by audiences of its day, noir fans will not want to miss this film.

Criterion has released the complete original version here, which restores content that was excised for its eventual US release. The film had been condemned by the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency, who also insisted on adding a biblical quote from the Book of Proverbs at the top of the film to make it acceptable for U.S. audiences.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The black&white image is relatively free of print defects. Unfortunately, it is slightly oversharpened, with grain fairly evident, made worse by the harder appearance. While fine in the lighter tones, the greyscale loses much of the darker shades to black, which is disappointing when comparing the scenes shown during the Dessin interview: those have great tonal range and do not look oversharpened. A fair amount of aliasing is also present throughout, which seems to be a result of an interlaced source. It's too bad the film couldn't look like the excerpts used in the supplements. This look does not appear to come as a result of bit economy, as for the time I was checking they were solidly locked at full bitrate. This still looks quite good, but compared to the interview footage is definitely a grade below its potential.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoFrench, Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The French soundtrack tends to be heavy on the upper midrange and a bit edgy during loud passages, especially when the score is dominated by brass. The mix tends to distort somewhat during loud dialogue, and is fairly present accentuating sibilance slightly, having a hard presentation. I would attribute most of this to the film's budget and source material. An English dub track is also available, which has more even frequency response.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 00h:47m:07s

Extra Extras:
  1. Interview with director Jules Dassin
  2. Still gallery
Extras Review: The primary supplement is a recent interview with director Jules Dassin. Running 28m:37s, Dassin covers many aspects of his career around the time Rififi was shot: his blacklisting, and the effect the McCarthy hearings had on the industry, the development of the film, as well as his own role as an actor. It is great to have this kind of historical perspective, and documentation available for those like myself just now discovering the work.

The theatrical trailer and Criterion's standard color bars are included, along with a production notes section detailing many of the origins of the film, and concluded with a Dessin filmography.

A stills gallery containing just under 70 images completes the supplements, including numerous on location, behind-the-scenes shots, and a collection of color conceptual drawings by set designer Alexandre Trauner.

Extras Grade: C+

 

Final Comments

Perhaps the foundation for the modern heist film, its familiarity is generated by the countless pictures borrowing the methodical planning detailed in the script, which actually went against the U.S. Production Code Administration's guidelines for what could be shown in a film at the time of its production. Once it gets going the tension keeps building, but I found the slightly subpar presentation here detracted from a complete enjoyment of the film. The supplemental interview was quite interesting, and I hope we can see more interviews of this nature included, as they do add, for me, a significant value to the release. Perhaps not my highest recommendation, but worth a look for its historical relevance.

 


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