[Pic Courtesy IMDb]
Based solely on recommendations from readers Vijays and Victor(both of whom seemed very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the heist genre) in the comments section of the After the Sunset review, I rented Rififi from Netflix. The movie is a cross between a heist movie and a film noir and zoomed right to the top of my list of favorite heist movies.
The four participants in the heist are Tony, Jo, Mario and Cesar. The last mentioned, a safe-cracker, has a weakness for women and that eventually leads to Pierre, a club owner, learning about the men behind the robbery. So he kidnaps Jo's son, promising to return him in exchange for the loot.
The first half of Rififi proceeds like a regular heist movie with the 3 standard story arc components - the participants getting together, planning the crime and executing it. The planning is meticulous and detailed and covers the biggest and most important items(the alarm and the motion detectors) but leaves the smaller details out. The blanks are ofcourse filled in during the heist, allowing us to be surprised the way small things are taken care of. The heist itself qualifies as probably the best picturized heist sequence I have ever seen on film. It is painstaking and hard and those aspects are conveyed very well. Most stunning is the fact that there no background music for the entire half hour. We get to hear every sound that is made by the thieves and their instruments and this gives us the feeling of being actual witnesses to a robbery in progress.
But the heist is not the climax as in most movies in the heist genre but just the midpoint. The movie then shifts into noir as Jo's son is kidnapped. We are completely hooked as Tony tries to track down the boy while Jo is caught between ensuring the safety of his son and parting with the money. The suspense is kept at an incredibly high level throughout and we are never sure how the movie will eventually play out. The climax proves the old adage that crime never pays but also manages to be poignant.
Rififi is an old movie(it was released in 1955), it is in a foreign language(French) with subtitles and is filmed in black and white. These would have probably kept me from watching it if not for the strong recommendations. But at the end, it was exactly those elements that made the movie work. It is precisely because it is set in those days that the movie is realistic and believable. The obstacles the thieves have to surmount(a persistent alarm, motion-sensitive ceiling, etc.) are believable and not complicated and obviously cinematic. Similarly, the props they use(I loved the way they use the umbrella) and the way they use them(hammer wrapped in a towel) in the heist are everyday items and not complicated gadgets that are obviously artificial (Ebert mentioned in his After the Sunset review that the gadgets used are so expensive that there would be no ROI on the heist!). Every step of the heist is logical and well-thought out without any inconsistencies or contrivances. The B&W cinematography enhances the serious nature of the crimes and eventually, of the film itself.
Movies in the heist genre have become fantasies of late. They have protagonists who lead romantic lifestyles, embark upon unrealistically complicated heists to meet challenges, emerge victorious over predictable double and triple crosses and eventually, redeem themselves. Rififi is a stark film where even the main characters have their positives and negatives and we are never sure if they will eventually win. That makes it stand out from the crowd.
Rififi is definitely Terrifific!
PS: Ebert's review in his Great Movies section has some fascinating behind-the-scene details about the film. Most intriguing is the fact that a ban was considered on the film since the incredibly detailed heist sequence would have served as a guide for aspiring crooks!