Blacklisting was a career-breaker, and it came just as Dassin was just reaching success with films like Brute Force and Naked City. He went to France along with other lefty expats including Joseph Losey, who had a second career working with Harold Pinter. But no one reinvented himself quite like Jules Dassin. After years of scraping along in Europe, where vindictive Americans managed to lose him several jobs (Netflix interview), he got Rififi (total budget $200K) in 1954. For writing, directing and acting, he received eight thousand dollars, and he wrote it in either six or ten days depending on who you believe. He shot as fast as he could before the money ran out. Kept away from his work for too long, Dassin was ready. Rififi exploded him onto the international scene, And Dassin was finally beyond reach of US authorities. Soon he had a hot new wife, fiery fellow activist Melina Mercouri, with whom he made Never On Sunday and Topkapi. Then he went on to direct the classic He Who Must Die. He lived to 94, sharp and active all the way.
I’d seen Rififi a long time ago, and like The Battle of Algiers, it was etched into memory as a great black and white film. Years later it seems even better, a complete winner, and an early noir classic. It’s gets hot quick. After establishing atmospherics, it moves, and the moves are shifty. Dassin has huge style, with bold, hard cuts. He also has an unbelievable twenty-odd minutes of absolute silence during the heist itself. Unheard-of in a 1955 mass-market release, and it jumps everything up a gear. He makes the silence work with meticulous authentic detail, strong camera work and perfect editing.
It was an immediate popular and critical hit, one of the most admired films of its time. Jean Cocteau loved it and the young Truffaut called it the best film he’d ever seen. It was a trend-setter, original in style and attitude, and about as tight as a film can get. Locations are perfect (he scouted them all personally), as is the ambience provided by several sinister Citroens Traction Avante gangster cars – the French equivalent of the Ford V8s favored by Bonnie and Clyde.
Jean Servais carries the film as a Tony, an aging and unwell master criminal, hardly changing facial expression but dominating as a driving, cohering presence. Dassin’s women are varied, believable and delicious, and save the film from macho cliché. Very importantly, and there is a humanity about this film best seen in one young criminal’s family (wife and child.)
Long story short, they pull it off. There’s a great pile of diamond jewelry, and one girl-crazy fool (played by Dassin to save time and money.) The fool gives a ring to his girl, who shows it off, involving a second gang complete that makes the first one look virtuous. When the new gang has problems getting the loot, its boss kidnaps the son of the young family-man criminal. This sets off a second wave of action and character development in which Gervais tracks down the boy, saves him, recaptures the diamonds, kills the other gang leader and takes a bullet himself. He gets the boy home, where the cops are waiting for the diamonds, then bleeds out. Crime only pays if you keep your mouth shut.