The Best Heist Put on Film…and the rest (Review of Rififi)

Please note that there is a part of the review in blue text and grey text. The blue text is a warning that a significant portion of the movie will be spoiled in the accompanied grey text

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One of the most entertaining types of action films is the heist film. They are also one of the most rigid when it comes to their fundamental structure. If you count heist movies in the past 20 – 30 years, the three acts go something like this:

  1. The person who makes the plan sets it in motion, starts recruiting his team. Maybe it’s his “last job” or it’s an overzealous mafioso type, doesn’t matter. Think Danny Ocean in Ocean’s Eleven and Cobb in Inception.
  2. The plan is discussed and the place is cased out. In some cases, they recreate some parts of the plan. In other cases, they befriend a person on the inside. Either way, this is the setup time of the heist.
  3. The execution of the plan happens. The moving parts are in place, some things don’t go quite as expected. The excitement of will they or won’t they make it (most times, they will) is spread through this last part.

Of course, there are exceptions: Heat, for example, makes the heist part of the second act of the film. Reservoir Dogs forgoes the entire heist sequence. Inside Man is all about the heist and is more about misdirection.

Yet, despite it not being part of the typical heist narrative, one of the most influential heist films is the 1955 French crime film Du rififi chez les hommes. Otherwise known as Rififi.

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Rififi centers around four career criminals, a recently out of jail Tony the Stephanois (Jean Servais), family man and thug Jo the Swede (Carl Mohner), boisterous and outgoing Mario the Italian (Robert Manuel) and the safecracker Cesar the Milan (Jules Dassin, who also directed the film).

Originally set to smash and stash a jewelry store, Tony proposes to go to full blown heist by breaking into the safe of said jewelry store instead.

Let me be clear about this from the get-go: if the description of the movie given so far interests you, don’t look up anything else on the film. Go watch it. Don’t watch the trailer, don’t look at the IMDb page. Don’t look at anything that tells the plot of the story, because they literally spoil the entire film for you.

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With that out of the way, Rififi is, in many ways, an atypical heist movie than most are used to. If your type of heist movie is the last 4 Fast and Furious movies and the Ocean’s Eleven remake and subsequent sequels, there is a crucial difference that may surprise most.

Unlike the aforementioned, Rififi is deliberate, quiet and subdued. It’s a stark difference to the flash, color and stunts of current heist films which want you to go “holy shit!” just by how crazy everything has become, yet how in control the main players are.

Yet, even without the color or the spectacle, one of the best heists ever depicted on screen is in Rififi, to this very day. 

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There have been reviews, essays, commentaries and analysis papers all over the internet about how important this heist scene is, but for it to not only meet expectations of someone whose read into the hype, but also surprises it is nothing short of incredible.

Why is this heist scene so mesmerizing? The heist is mapped out meticulously throughout the first act of the film. The entire first 40 minutes of the movie is pure setup. They go through each detail of the heist, from important minutiae all the way down to the smallest detail (they even map out a timed response when certain cops or cars are coming).

Literally, they tell you the entire heist from its start to finish. The setup parts are equal parts interesting and intelligently mechanical. In these parts, you don’t feel like an entertained bystander: you feel like your watching masterminds at work. 

Heist movies, now at least, leave certain details off or have a surprise element to it that adds a interesting kink or an exciting bend to the proceedings. Not Rififi: the film is so confident in its work that it lets you just experience it.

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And even with knowing every single detail, the heist is simply one of the best heist sequences in film. Even with every detail given to you, the execution of the heist is superb.

It’s tense, executed with precision, and finished with a dry, sensible feel of confidence. Each step taken is shot masterfully and lit exquisitely for maximum tension and impact. It’s like Jules Dassin was creating this movie in secret, with no one watching, and moving expert players on a strategic map to cultivate and move in precise seconds. This scene is flat out amazing.

Forgot to mention: this scene is 30 minutes long, with no talking and music accompanied with it. For something to be 3 minutes long with no talking and music can feel pretentious or boring. For something that’s a third of the movie to work so masterfully is audacious, even to this day.

Now, here’s the rub: the set-up is 40 minutes, the heist is 30 minutes. Is this one of the shortest movies ever made?

No, sadly, it isn’t. There’s 50 minutes left in the film where, to put it bluntly, puts a damper on the film after the first two spectacular acts. 

To discuss this, the ending has to be spoiled. Now, to counteract this, I’ll go ahead and color these details in this color and if you want to read them, you can mouse through the area and read it. 

OK, here we go:

Rififi‘s third act involves them successfully pulling off a heist that would net them quite a sizable amount of money. The problem is, the authorities are after them and shortly thereafter, a crime boss finds out and wants to take out the group. 

In its conclusion, Jo’s kid gets kidnapped by the crime boss and ransoms the kid for the jewels or the money from getting the jewels. 

This leads to an admittedly good sequence of Toni seeking out his sources to find out where they live, while Jo frantically decides whether to give in to the demands or hold on for Toni.

The put the ending short and not spoiling EVERYTHING, every single person involved in the crime boss’s ring and the heist group die, particularly Toni who is bleeding out while driving the car frantically to Jo’s house to take his son back to his mother. 

He makes it, dies immediately after and Jo’s wife takes her son and runs away, leaving the money for the police. 

Here’s the thing: aside from one scene, the film does nothing to paint these men in a bad light. Nothing to show that they must redeem themselves. So why, all of a sudden, do we need to create this sudden antagonism?

Yes, there should be some more tension with 50 minutes to go. But, turning this film noir into a sudden morality tale at the very end is a left field twist that doesn’t fit with the first hour plus. 

And as much as this ending isn’t a great one, nor is the last act great, there is this feeling of “Oh yeah, of course this had to happen.” 

To discuss this is to dive right into the Hays Code. 

What is the Hays Code? Here’s a brief synopsis:

Otherwise known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was a set of rules that films had to abide by in order to get made or released in Hollywood from the 1930s all the way to the 1970s. The code didn’t really get enforced until 1934, but was strictly enforced until the late 60’s and early 70’s. 

The Hays Code has many rules, some of which are obvious in nature (no pornography, bestiality, snuff), but the one part to talk about involving Rififi is this part of the code:

Crime and immorality could never be portrayed in a positive light. If someone performed an immoral act, they had to be punished on screen.

Now, some of you may say, “But Wiz, it’s a French film, it didn’t have to abide by an American code.” True, but if it were to make good money, it had to be released in the States, where films were doing great business around the time. 

So, it’s not wonder that the film ends the way it does. 

Could it have ended differently? Sure, but as the code states, they either die or they are in prison. Both are counter effective in the way the first 70 minutes portray these guys. 

Then again, with the first 70 minutes used for set-up and heist, there was very little involved when it came to character development. Any female character is either a homemaker wife or treated like a side-piece to a central character.

The men in the film are essentially one adjective: Toni is serious, Jo is tough, Mario is humorous and Cesar is suave. That’s four descriptors for each character. That’s it.

So, it’s not like there’s a cheating feeling of having a great character given the wrong type of conclusion: there wasn’t much of a character to have a conclusion feel satisfying unless the movie ended shortly after the heist.

Some may excuse the film for it’s ending due to the aformention,  which is fine. But, watching the film now, the ending feels disingenuous and out of left field.

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Does Rififi deserve a watch? If you are a die hard crime and/or heist film enthusiast, absolutely yes. The first two acts are brilliant and there really isn’t anything else to compare it to. It was exciting watching these two acts.

For the rest? Well, you’ll know if you like crime or heist movies or not. But as a full film, it’s a film that felt finished but added more merely because “it had to”. Maybe you’ll disagree (top critics definitely do), but for all the film does so right, it’s disappointing for what it does wrong.

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