Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Nut Job has us thinking back on our favorite heist movies.
One of the all-time greatest heist films, Rififi helped American director Jules Dassin reclaim his career as an exile in France after having been named a communist during the Hollywood blacklist. Adapted from an Auguste Le Breton novel that the director found to be both lousy and racist, Dassin’s 1955 film is a masterful noir drenched in the genre’s trademark romantic fatalism. The gray skies that hang over Paris spell nothing but doom for Tony Le Stéphanois (Jean Servais), a dapper thief who, after serving a five-year prison stint, finds that his luck at cards has gone south. Additionally, his woman, Mado (Marie Sabouret), has shacked up with local club owner and crime boss Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), who’s busy keeping his junkie brother (Robert Hossein) on a short leash. Disgusted by her betrayal—and her fur coat and jewelry, which are symbols of her base materialism—Tony beats her with a belt (the violence no more blistering for being kept just offscreen) and then, in a decision driven by his unspoken desire to win her back with riches, agrees to partake in a seemingly impossible jewelry store heist.
That caper is preceded by sharply written and staged scenes that detail Tony and his crew’s precise preparations, and is then dramatized by Dassin in a dazzling 30-minute sequence that boasts no dialogue or music. A virtuoso example of visual storytelling, Rififi’s centerpiece is as taut as it is meticulous, and is in keeping with the film’s celebration of its “rififi” (read: “rough ’n’ tumble”) protagonists, whose adherence to a code of honor most explicitly comes to the fore when Tony is compelled to murder a compatriot (played by Dassin) for ratting out the gang. But despite its love of cigarette-smoking, suit-wearing, women-slapping hoods, Dassin’s film is nothing if not a prototypically bleak noir. The dourness culminates in an under-construction country house where the characters, visually boxed in by architectural frames, find that the only reward for their toil is a bullet.
Availability: Rififi is brand new to Criterion Blu-ray; the DVD can be obtained through Netflix.