13th April 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the initial 1955 French release of Jules Dassin’s Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes) which, now regarded by many as a film noir classic, has continued to serve as an inspiration for filmmakers from François Truffaut and Stanley Kubrick through to contemporary directors such as Quentin Tarantino.
Renowned for its 28-minute heist sequence free from both dialogue and music and its innovative parabolic structure which places the heist at the heart of the film, Rififi is a seminal work in the film noir genre.
However, Jules Dassin remains anything but a household name; blacklisted by the American government in the late 40s and early 50s and with Rififi banned in several countries, Dassin both threatened the Hollywood superpowers and provided a shining example for the Nouvelle Vague, the film noir genre and numerous directors from all over the globe.
Born in the USA in 1911 to a Russian Jewish family, Dassin joined the Communist Party USA in his early 20s, only to leave after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, a non-aggression pact made between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Following WWII, Dassin began to make a name for himself as one of the principal figures in the film noir genre, yet his career in American cinema was soon to be cut short. His leftist political stance led to his being blacklisted under the McCarthyite policies of the American State Department, his denouncers were fellow filmmakers Ed Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle. Dassin then struggled to find employment as a director, the US distribution companies preventing the distribution of any film associated with blacklisted artists.
But, upon his return to Paris, Dassin was to have a remarkable change in fortune. Already recognised in France as one of the important figures in American film noir, the continuous rejection of Dassin by the figureheads of American cinema helped Dassin to find work; he was supported by the French directors’ guild thanks to French director Jacques Becker.
In 1954, Dassin was offered the chance to direct a film adaptation of Auguste Le Breton’s novel Du rififi chez les hommes. Although disgusted by the cruelty of the novel and its inherent racism, Dassin accepted the job as he was in need of employment. Dassin wrote the screenplay in six days, changing much of the novel’s content, using the plot and its characters more as a starting point from which he could depart and create a film noir classic.
The distinction between the novel and the film could not be starker; a young François Truffaut, the now famous film critic and filmmaker, claimed that ‘out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen’.
He changed the nationality of the rival gangsters not to American, as the producers had hoped, but to French, albeit with the German name of Grutter.
Disliking the cruelty of the novel, Dassin placed an emphasis on the humanity of his characters; thus the film does not end with the heist but with its fallout, focussing on the relationships and fates of the gangsters after their betrayal by Cesar ‘le Milanais’ (played by Dassin himself).
Such an emphasis has influenced filmmakers ever since, most evidently the first feature film of Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs (1992), which neglects to show the heist scene altogether, focussing rather on its aftermath.
Dassin also focussed heavily upon the heist itself, which in fact played a minor role in the novel, splitting the narrative into three main parts: the build-up to and planning of the heist, the heist itself, and its aftermath.
In fact, it is impossible to discuss Rififi without mentioning that sequence: those 28 minutes sans dialogue or music in which Tony’s gang (Tony being the protagonist) carries out a meticulously planned theft from a Parisian jewellers. The tension is extraordinarily palpable. The music stops, not a word is spoken, the spectator desperately craves some form of sound to break the silence. Yet any sound is just as intolerable as the silence which it shatters: a stray note cast on a piano; the infrequent thud of hammer on chisel; the restrained wheezy cough of the sickly Tony; the prolonged outburst of a power-drill; the scratching, screeching and scraping of metal upon metal; the final, solid thump of a mallet.
The film can, to some extent, be read as an allegorical account of Dassin’s own exile: we learn that Tony has served five years in prison for theft, around the same amount of time that Dassin had been out of work; Tony’s betrayal by Cesar ‘le Milanais’ resembles the betrayal of Dassin by Dmytryk and Tuttle; the death of Cesar comes with Tony’s admission that he rather liked the Italian, echoing Dassin’s sentiments towards his fellow filmmakers; and Tony’s final heroic act is perhaps a symbol of Dassin’s accomplishment of having finally directed again, despite the attempts of the US State Department.
The parabolic structure of Rififi and, it must be added, Robert Huston’s Asphalt Jungle, changed the approach not only to film noir but to the art of filmmaking as a whole but it was Rififi‘s focus on the humanity and heroism of its underdog protagonist which served as an inspiration for the Nouvelle Vague and marked a distinction between the traditional film noir of the USA and that of France.
Nouvelle Vague critics such as François Truffaut used Dassin as a shining example of their politique des Auteurs, championing directors who used cinematic apparatus in the same way a novelist was able to use a pen.
Although reportedly banned in a number of countries (such as Finland and Mexico) for fear it provided a detailed and accurate account of how to plan and carry out the perfect heist, Rififi, along with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 masterpiece Les Diaboliques opened up the American market to European film.
Despite Hollywood’s previous attempts to quash Dassin’s involvement in the world of cinema, Rififi was released in the USA in 1956 and was loved by the critics. The film won Dassin the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955 and, despite attempts to lure him back to the USA (on the condition that he would renounce his communist past), Dassin stayed in Europe for the majority of his life thereafter, continuing to direct films until his last release, Circle of Two, in 1981.
Dassin died in Greece, where he had lived for over 30 years, at the age of 96 in March 2008.