In the classic 1954 French heist film “Rififi,” a motley crew of thieves plot a seemingly impossible jewelry store heist, the store equipped with motion-sensitive alarms and other state-of-the-art defenses.
That, as it turns out, is the easy part.
The extended heist sequence in the middle of Jules Dassin’s film is, naturally, what makes it one of the greatest heist films every made. But it’s what happens before and after the robbery that gives “Rififi” its bleak and bruised soul. Criterion has re-released “Rififi” in a new Blu-ray edition with a 2K digital transfer, and it looks terrific.
Dassin was a successful American director (“The Naked City”) who left Hollywood for France after being named a Communist during the Blacklist, and “Rififi” is a noir worthy of the name, full of a mordant fatalism. Tony (Jean Servais) is an exile himself, an unsmiling thief returning to Paris after five years in prison. While he was gone, his girlfriend has taken up with a vicious local crime boss with the great name of Grutter (Marco Lupovici). Tony agrees to the jewelry heist to attempt to woo Mado back, even though (and this is key) he knows she’s not really worth it.
The robbery is meticulously planned and executed — the 30-minute robbery sequence, achieved without words or music, is a master class by Dassin that filmmakers from Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s 11”) to Brian De Palma (“Mission: Impossible”) have emulated. But that’s not the end of the film; Grutter learns of the heist and makes a play for the loot, resulting in gunplay and tragedy all around. “I liked you, Macaroni,” Tony tells one confederate who ratted out the gang. “But you know the rules.” “Rififi” makes the rules for the heist film.
The supplements for this edition are a little spare by Criterion standards. Unquestionably the showpiece is a wonderful and extended 2000 interview with Dassin (also available on the DVD version) in which he speaks at length about living through the Red Scare, coming to France and turning “Rififi” from a rather unexceptional book into a classic movie. He’s a great storyteller — but of course, we knew that from watching “Rififi.”