Film Diary: Du rififi chez les hommes (Jules Dassin, 1955)

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Rififi

It’s enough to give the film distributors apoplexy. A whole half hour? With no dialogue? No background music? No bangs? Boooooooring! But there is music and drama in silence, and for all that three-quarters of Rififi is full of rich and fruity dialogue, noir dialogue and a fine score by Georges Auric, it’s that 32 minutes that the film is known for. But it shouldn’t be supposed that the rest isn’t damned good too.

Rififi isn’t the first heist film – that would surely be Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery of 1903 – but it’s the one that defined the genre for modern audiences. It’s also, I would argue, the best. Not only because of its originality, but because the whole thing, made on a shoestring with unknown actors and beautifully shot in a rainy, cold Paris with the grainy intensity of a Cartier-Bresson photograph. But it’s not only, or even mainly, about the daring robbery of a high-class jewellers; it’s about the way greed and jealousy can poison even the best-laid schemes. In this it resembles The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and if you have read my piece on that, you’ll see that I have compared that to Macbeth. Certainly the goes back a lot further than that, no doubt to Euripides and I dare say somebody who has studied Greek tragedy will confirm that.

In the original novel, the central underworld characters were Algerian, and that was as incendiary a notion in 1955 as it would be today. Perhaps it took the American Dassin to make them true Frenchmen!

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