It's not surprising that Jules Dassin's 1955 crime thriller about a jewel heist--recently re-released in a 35mm print with new subtitles--should emphasize symbols of protection. Dassin made Rififi as an American expatriate. The House on Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted him in 1952, and to continue working he was forced to relocate to Europe. Initially, he had difficulty organizing production, particularly in France, where he struggled with the language, but he went on to make several more films after Rififi's success. Indeed, watching the film, one gets the impression of a nationless movie at the brink of historical change.
The movie begins with a high-angle shot of a poker table and a composition like many of the later compositions we see: angled into space, bare in the middle (save for the ante), with details pushed to the periphery of the frame (pairs of men's hands, cards, ashtrays, port glasses). Money is at the center, while dismembered masculinity and bourgeois vice are on the edges, with an emphasis on acts of exchange. One of the poker players--an older man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Lemmy Caution in Alphaville--leaves the table to make a phone call. On the other end of the line is a younger, married man (we see his wife carrying a vacuum cleaner, and his child playing with a clothes hanger). In the following scene, the second man meets the first. This is typical of the way the film constructs itself arithmetically: one thug plus one equals two, plus one equals three, plus one equals four. Eventually, the movie counts backward when the gang's luck runs out.
Dassin funnels all of the story elements into a single line of action. The heist plot is so linear, so eminently logical, as to appear abstract. At the same time, the dominant movement of the staging is vertical, from spaces above (the jewelry store owner's apartment, the city overpasses and railway platforms) to spaces below (subterranean spaces, like the basement where the gangsters meet to rehearse their crime). Everyday details of character and setting take on a mythological presence, defamiliarizing them. At the same time, the film has a strong sense of place--mid-century Paris, where the sky, strangely enough, is seldom seen, except for one lyrical traveling shot at the end. This City of Lights is really the City of Darkness.
The structure of the film is neatly divided into the plotting of the heist (and the heist itself), and the violent aftermath that takes its logic from the first half, perverting it through a series of inversions and reversals. Many of the events, characters and objects in the film seem to repeat themselves; doppelgangers, mirrors, and mirror images abound. Studio sets are used to create most of the interior spaces, from the low-rent apartments that the gangsters inhabit, to an ornate yet seedy nightclub named L'Age d'Or, to the apartment above the jewelry story, which perfectly communicates bourgeois taste. A poetic tension arises between the use of these artificial sets and the location photography on Paris streets. There's a marked contrast between different kinds of shapes (blocky versus filigreed), styles of lighting (hard versus diffused), and camera movements (static versus mobile), and the real sets have the aspect of fiction, while the studio sets take on a documentary feel.
For the most part, the cast of characters is predictable, made up of a gang's aging ringleader, a tortured father figure recently released from prison; his accomplices, each endowed with one asset and one liability apiece; the wives and lovers, who appear as mere half-sketches; and finally, the gang's counterpart--a rival group of thugs, who figure as antagonists in the second half of the film. The rival gang is lead by the owner of L'Age d'Or, who wears oversized pinstripe suits that make his head appear wildly disproportionate to his body. He shares most of his scenes with a younger man, a dope-addicted pretty boy alleged to be his brother. The scenes between them stand out for their sadomasochistic creepiness; they perform a pas de deux of control and dependency that is basic to the rest of the film, but submerged elsewhere.
While the roles may seem flat as cardboard, this is used to sometimes startling effect, particularly in the case of the jewel thieves. The physical aspect of their bodies takes on a highly visceral dimension: in the slightness of the ring leader's tell-tale cough, the way his thin lips quiver, the way the actor moves only the uppermost part of his chest and how he shifts his eyes to register indignity. Similarly, in the other men's performances there's a discrepancy between brute stylization (a way of mugging that derives from silent gangster movies) and the barest hint of femininity. Performance as a basic human activity is of central concern here, so it's no surprise that the actors bring a degree of self-consciousness to their portrayal of these stock types: the milk-fed Swede, the libidinous Milanese, the femme fatale Mado. There's even a little boy, always dressed up in some costume, who mimics the adults mimicking movie stars. In one particularly unnerving scene, placed after a series of grim killings, we see the boy dressed as a cowboy, riding shotgun with his godfather down the Champs-Elyses--joyfully, the boy waves his toy pistol around, indiscriminately, pretending to shoot in every direction.
The movie's main set piece, the heist itself, is renowned for its expressive use of sound. It evolves mostly in silence, but not completely, as some critics have suggested. Rather, the hushed quality of the scene is motivated quite literally by the action--the gangsters have to work in quiet to keep from setting off the store alarm or attracting attention from passers-by. But we do hear things: their footsteps, the motor of a bus outside, a piano key accidentally struck, the sound of their tools as they ply on a parquet floor or drill into a metal safe. The starkness of the soundtrack has the effect of distilling the action of the crime into a concentrated idea of labor--physical, emotional, intellectual labor. With each obstacle skillfully mastered, there's a sense of the gangsters' hard-won satisfaction and shared pride, each man contributing for the benefit of all, according to his own abilities. The scene also plays like a dream in which the gangsters' preternatural dexterity fulfills their collective wish to not be clumsy, which is a fear that they're anxious about the rest of the time. The jewels themselves may be seen as a symbol of lost masculinity, which the gangsters are seeking to recover. The act of obtaining the jewels is imagined as a trial, locked away as they are in a dark vault symbolizing the feminine--although the safe could also symbolize the state or the ruling class.
The heist scene fascinates in an unusual way because of these multiple layers--Hollywood suspense, combined with Marxist fantasy, rife with Freudian overtones. The scene's brilliance lies in the connections it makes between these layers.
The style of the film is unsteadily poised somewhere between French poetic realism and the French New Wave. Consider that five years after Rififi's original release, Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless transformed the cinema landscape forever; and while Godard's film, like Rififi, derives much of its tough-guy attitude and pulp iconography from classical Hollywood crime thrillers, it's an altogether different animal.
One way of thinking about the difference between Rififi and Breathless is to see them both as representative of film noir, as examples of a cinema style and a period in cinema history. Rififi is best described as late film noir, however, though still part of the period, and its use of the conventions--severe separation of light and dark, with emphasis on the latter; depiction of the city as an all-absorbing locus of decay; themes of alienation and dehumanization--is more acrid, and simultaneously more steeped in a nostalgia for some lost utopian ideal. Breathless, on the other hand, is post-innocence. As a movie, it's not part of the film noir period (when you consider 1959 as a jumping-off point in cinema history), and while it employs some of the conventions of noir style, they are treated broadly, comically, ahistorically.
The re-release of Rififi in a restored print has not met with the same fanfare that has greeted similar re-releases of Touch of Evil and Rear Window in recent years. Certainly, this has to do with the fact that Jules Dassin is not a certified auteur in the way Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock are (consider how this relates to Dassin's exile from Hollywood at the same time critics in Paris--at Cahiers du Cinema--are turning to American genre directors to establish their politiques des auteurs). But the modest reception given to Rififi's re-release may also have to do with the movie's built-in resistance to labels like "masterpiece" through an intricate process of building, then nullifying, its own greatness--which makes the film's piercing aesthetic and sociological ideas more, not less, vital for today's audience.