Like a long-buried cache of jewels, 1955's Rififi has been dug up, cleaned off and placed back in movie theaters, where it belongs. One of the first examples--if not the first example--of French film noir, Rififi is an existential heist movie in which Jean Servais, looking cadaverously handsome, does his best to impersonate Humphrey Bogart or Jean Gabin. He's supposed to be Tony le Stephanois, a respected hood--respected by other hoods, anyway--who just spent five years in the can. Now, Tony's ready to take care of business, which involves 1) slapping his girlfriend around for having taken up with another hood while he was away and 2) setting up his next big score. That turns out to be a jewelry store on the Rue de Rivoli, and a great deal of Rififi concerns itself with the jewelry job--planning, execution, aftermath. Mostly execution. In a 35-minute sequence that, according to what I've read, was subsequently used as an instruction manual by criminal gangs everywhere--including one gang that used the information provided by the movie to rob the theater where the movie was being shown--Tony and three accomplices slip into the apartment above the jewelry store, drill their way through the floor, disarm the alarm, crack the safe and make off with the contents. And they do it while hardly making a sound, the movie turning quiet as a cat burglar. What Mission: Impossible was to high-tech, Rififi is to low-tech. The drill is muffled by wrapping a cloth around it. The alarm is disarmed by spraying it with a fire extinguisher. And the chips of plaster are kept from falling to the floor below by an open umbrella suspended from a rope.
Like Tony, director Jules Dassin may have been a little stir-crazy. An American holed up in Paris, he'd just spent five years dodging the studio blacklist, and the burglary sequence in Rififi was perhaps his way of showing Hollywood that he still knew how to deliver the goods. The rest of the movie is a little stringent, so hard-boiled that it sticks to the roof of your mouth, keeps you from caring about anybody, which is one of the reasons even the burglary sequence doesn't have the tension it might otherwise have. But the movie has some nice details--Tony's tubercular cough, for example. And at least one great line: "Sit your moneymaker down," a guy says to a gal in a nightclub called L'Age D'or. Finally, the movie looks smashing--'50s Paris done up in black and white and gray. The cars are huge, and so, strangely enough, are the telephones.