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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/10/01

(a.k.a. Du rififi chez les hommes)
1955 (2001) - Gaumont (The Criterion Collection)

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Rififi Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/A

Specs and Features

118 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 47:07 in chapter 13), Amaray keep case packaging, Jules Dassin video interview, stills archive, production notes, American theatrical release trailer, color bars, film-themed menu screens, scene access (24 chapters), languages: French and English (DD Mono), subtitles: English

"It's getting harder to make a living."

You wanna see one of the greatest films you never saw? Well... this is it. I'm so excited by the release of Rififi on DVD that I'm shaking as I write this. For years, I've done everything in my power to get this film released on video in America. Back in my laserdisc reviewing days, I championed this film to anyone who would listen. 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," so don't tell my wife) 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, late last year, Rialto (the distributor behind the recent resuscitation of The Third Man) put Rififi into theaters. I knew about Rialto's relationship with Criterion and I made the call. 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 my favorite video format of all-time from my favorite DVD company of all-time. So now, FINALLY, Rififi is on DVD. And you know what? I'm probably the one person in the whole world Criterion needed to please... and I'm not disappointed.

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 lately. 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 (that will keep the group alive and hopefully prevent him from ending back up 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.

Actually, the heist is a beautiful piece of cinema in and of itself. It'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 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 construct an exact duplicate of the store's "state-of-the-art" alarm system, 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.

Once again, Criterion did us all proud. The film is gorgeous on DVD. Luscious in all its original black and white glory, Rififi practically sparkles on DVD. I kid you not. I really can't gush enough, especially after having to suffer for years with horrible video transfers of this film with crappy subtitles. Here, the video is presented in full frame, with deep dark blacks, nice solid grays and edible whites. There's nary a digital artifact to be found. Just check out the detail in the opening credits alone. This is a "wow" transfer. The sound is also pretty flawless. We get the choice between an English dub, which sounds fine, and the original French, which is equally well presented. Both are mono. Just trust me here... you need to see this film in French.

The extras included on this disc 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. 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. There are also some production notes, a stills archive of production photos and the American release trailer.

When I gush over a movie like this, all I really want to do is have everyone see it. If we all went to see more films like Rififi, instead of giving $130 million to brain-dead, summer shoot-'em-ups, then I think the world would be a better place. Will everyone who sees this film make it their Number One favorite like me? Of course not. But Rififi IS a great film, made even better with the love and care given to it for this DVD release. Criterion hasn't failed me yet and, just because they took such good care of MY Number One favorite film, my world really IS a better place. At least for now.

Todd Doogan
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