The film starts with aging criminal Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) being released from prison. We already know by the look in his eye and countless other films noir that he won't be able to avoid returning to his life of crime (Rififi was a 1950s French slang term meaning "trouble"). It doesn't take long for his friends Jo (Carl Mohner) and Mario (Robert Manuel) to convince him to go in on a daring but profitable heist of a jewelry store. Meanwhile (and there are a lot of meanwhiles), his ex-girlfriend is hanging around with small-time hood and nightclub owner Pierrre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici). Since it's not in his genetic makeup to just let her go, he irritates the gangster by visiting her in his club. When he gets her away from the domineering control of Grutter, though, it's not for what you'd expect.
The film is about the planning and execution of the heist, and about how it goes inevitably wrong. It is a joy to watch because it is such an intelligent story that it seems to forsee all of your questions and answers them. The planning of the heist is shown in great detail; how to open the safe, how to open the state-of-the-art security system, how to avoid the police--all are shown in ingeneous and apparently serviceable ways (the film was banned in several countries after copycats used it as a template for break-ins). The centerpiece of the film is the 30-minute long heist sequence--it is done without a single word of dialog, and it stands as the best heist ever recorded on film. You are guaranteed to be on the edge of your seat as the clock ticks down.
Of course, something goes wrong--the perfect crime is imperfect because human beings are involved. Cesar (played by director Dassin) steals a ring for his girlfriend, a singer at Grutter's club. Grutter finds it and beats the information out of Cesar, and his gang quickly tracks down everyone but Tony, who is left to exact his vengeance on everyone involved (including Cesar, his friend, for breaking the unspoken code of the criminal).
I was recently asked what I thought were the top ten films noir ever made. I forgot this one, because one doesn't often think of France as the birthplace of the genre, only as the birthplace of the first real appreciation of it. I will have to remember to add this to my list.
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