Rififi is all about process. I first watched it in the same weekend I watched High Sierra, which promises a central crime and then peters out into a quiet melodrama and a love triangle, making it a pretty good movie overall but one of the worst cases of narrative blue-balling in cinematic history. Rififi was the cure for what ailed me. A full quarter of it is devoted to a painstaking jewel heist that we see the criminals exactingly testing beforehand–what vibrations will be small enough to slip under the security system’s radar? How can they disarm the system before they’re able to open it? How much time will they have? We watch as a man not only chisels through the room’s ceiling but does so in small, careful bursts, the better to minimize the reverberations. In a crowning touch, when they need something to catch the bits of ceiling so they don’t fall down below, the thieves stick an umbrella through the hole they’re making and expand it on the other side: the pieces of debris now tumble neatly into the underside of the umbrella.
The movie gets all the details right in part because the crime is based off a real burglary, and they can pull information out of the professionals. No good showman would neglect a feature like that umbrella. But director Jules Dassin is also careful about the touches that are almost invisible, making sure there all the men take off their shoes to lessen the noise. There are knots in the rope they use to climb down, a labor-saving technique that feels like it grounds the whole movie in the physical reality of four guys doing a job. It’s not about stunts. It’s about process.
But even if the theft takes place in a hermetically sealed environment, where everything has been tested and is under control, and where even unexpected threats can be dealt with promptly and safely, eventually the professionals have to go out into a world that’s larger than their work. And that’s when you run into problems. Rififi gives us men worthy of a kind of admiration and then takes them to a place where their best is no longer good enough, and that transition from thrill to tragedy makes it not only a great heist movie but a great film in general.
Rififi is streaming on Hulu with LiveTV.