Release Date(s)1955 (January 14, 2014)
Studio(s)Gaumont/Pathé (Criterion - Spine #115)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
“It’s getting harder to make a living.”
Do you want to see one of the greatest heist films ever made? Well... this is it. I think every film journalist has a film they consider “theirs.” The one film they go on and on about only to learn how many people simply haven’t seen it. Then they do and like some sort of virus, it moves from host to host and eventually more and more people see it. Rififi is my film. All throughout the 1990s I talked about this film. When I was writing for TNT and eventually The Digital Bits, I did everything in my power to get this film released on video in America. I championed this film to anyone who would listen. Through my job as caretaker of the original MGM production files for Turner Broadcasting, I tracked down friends and business acquaintances of filmmaker Jules Dassin, begged film producers and distributors to somehow get this thing out. I even flew to New York (under the guise of a “honeymoon”) just so I could personally beg Criterion to find it in their hearts to track this flick down and get it on DVD. And where did that get me? Nowhere. Rififi, as it turned out, was tied up in legal red tape. The only way I would get to see it was a dirty VHS bootleg I owned with horrible unreadable subtitles. Bah!
But then, just as the 90s turned into the 2000s, film distributor Rialto put Rififi into theaters. I knew Rialto’s relationship with Criterion and I made the call. Just imagine my stuttering, panicky voice: “Hello, Criterion? I see Rialto is putting Rififi out in theaters in New York and Chicago. Would that mean that you’re releasing Rififi on DVD?” Criterion’s calming answer: “Don’t you worry Todd, we’re taking good care of this one. It’s going to be simply wonderful.” I slumped in my chair, stunned with the knowledge that my favorite film of all-time was coming to DVD, shepherded by my favorite DVD company of all-time. And it didn’t disappoint. That was a top notch disc – and now it’s on Blu-ray.
Rififi is a tried and true American heist film, but told in the French New Wave style (in fact, it was the earliest breakout hit of the French New Wave). American expatriate Jules Dassin, (who gave us classic fare like the prison yarn Brute Force and two of the blackest noir films ever, The Naked City and Night and the City) wrote and directed Rififi, loosely based on the pulp novel by Auguste Le Breton. Rififi simply claws into your gut and climbs its way into your brain – where it will live forever. Set in and around Paris, France, the film follows Tony (Jean Servais), pasty and tubercular, who’s coming home after serving five years in prison for jewel robbery. Out for good behavior, Tony hooks up with his old pals Jo (Carl Möhner) and Mario (Robert Manuel). As we find out, Tony actually went to jail to take the fall for his young protégé, Jo, because the kid was a newlywed with a young son. Hoping that Jo has finally set his life straight, Tony quickly learns that Jo and Mario are still dancing on the wrong side of the law. And they have a nice little homecoming planned for Tony – a diamonds score from a nearly impenetrable jewelry store downtown. Finally deciding to go straight, Tony turns the deal down and heads to the L’age d’or club, where he’s heard that his former flame and loyal girlfriend, Mado, is now working. But Tony sees that she hasn’t been so loyal. Unwilling to wait for Tony’s release from jail, Mado (Marie Sabouret) has taken up with a vicious gangster named Grutter (Marcel Lupovici). Brokenhearted, Tony handles this the only way a grizzled ex-con knows how... he takes her jewelry and fur coat, roughs her up and kicks her out of his apartment. And, of course, he calls Jo and agrees to do the heist. After all, what’s he got to be straight for now? Tony agrees to do the job on two conditions (conditions that will keep the group alive and hopefully prevent Tony from heading back in jail). First, no guns. The game is always played by different rules when a rod is involved. And second, they have to rob the jewelers vault instead of the planned window display. That’s when a charismatic Italian ladies’ man and safecracker named Cesar joins the team (played by Jules Dassin a.k.a. Perlo Vita). And so begins the tale of a flawless heist that goes wrong about every way imaginable.
It’s the heist itself, a beautiful piece of cinema, that’s become one of the most talked about sequences in all of film, and deservedly so. The four men meticulously go over every aspect of the job. They case the shop, detailing every bit of information possible, from how long the other shops surrounding the jewelry store are open, to delivery schedules for those shops and even how long it takes to walk around the block. They also pioneer the now cliché “construct an exact duplicate of the store’s “state-of-the-art” alarm system” gag, to figure out the best way to disarm it. But all of this, grand though it may be, is nothing when compared to the actual heist – a 30-minute, dialogue-free jaw-dropper, that is so detailed, the film was actually banned in several countries because of how realistic it was. If you don’t fall in love with Rififi at this point, check your heartbeat – you’re probably dead.
The film was gorgeous on DVD, and it’s even more so on Blu. This release contains both the Blu-ray and an upgrade of the DVD in one package. Displayed at 1.37:1 with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, the image quality is wonderful. It’s got just the right amount of native film grain, while still cleaning up the image even more than the original DVD transfer. It’s a gorgeous film noir presentation. Darks are solid, whites are bright and everything in between is just right. I’ve lived with this film for so long, seeing it here is my definition of perfect, even if an outside might see a scratch or two in the transfer. It just adds to the natural presentation to me. The audio is given life by a clear and natural French LPCM (with an optional English DD 1.0 dub, but I say fie to that) with solid English subtitles. It sounds just right to me.
The extras are a direct port from the original 2001 set and are pretty simple, but when you’re done with them, you’ll find them invaluable. The first is a video interview with writer/director Jules Dassin, who tells stories about his life in Hollywood, his life on the run as an American expatriate (trying to make films in Europe with little success) and his meeting with Le Breton (who, after reading the script, wanted to know, “Where’s my book?”). It’s beautiful. Mr. Dassin is a great storyteller. Anyone who owns the Roan laserdisc of Brute Force knows this from that disc’s 3-hour commentary track (a laserdisc I still proudly own, and probably will even when my laserdisc player finally dies on me). Hell... anyone who’s seen ANY of his films knows he can tell a story. But here, instead of just going on about the film, it’s like catching up with an old family member and listening to what’s been going on since last you saw him. The interview is very personal and is well worth checking out the disc for all by itself. Onboard are also some production notes, a stills archive of production photos and set design sketches by production designer Alexandre Trauner and the American release trailer.
When I gush over a movie like this, all I really want to do is have everyone see it. My only hope is that any one of you will check this film out and fall as madly in love with it and tell everyone YOU know, capturing just one of those people who continue to do the same. Rififi is, without a doubt, one of the great films. Period. And it’s made that much better with the love and care given to it for this new release, by Criterion. For this single act, Criterion has earned my dollars for years to come.
- Todd Doogan