‘Rififi’ is essential viewing for heist movie fans

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Before there was “Mission: Impossible” or “Reservoir Dogs,” there was “Rififi.” Director Jules Dassin’s 1955 crime thriller — based on Auguste Le Breton’s novel of the same name — is an endlessly rewatchable master class in suspense, and remains the definitive blueprint for the modern heist movie as we know it. “Rififi” recounts the plight of a crew of Parisian burglars led by ex-convict Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais), from perpetrating a one-of-a-kind jewelry heist to its messy aftermath. As the plot unfolds, the film highlights the collision of meticulously laid plans with the mistakes of inevitable human vulnerability, to thrilling effect. 

The film’s centerpiece and most noteworthy moment is its jaw-dropping, 28-minute wordless heist sequence — a set piece so detailed and precise that the film was banned in some countries in fear that it would be used as a guidebook for committing burglary. The suspense of the sequence is fueled by the silence, amplifying the impact of any noise. Rather than serving as the climax, however, the sequence sets off a chain of events that spirals the central characters into disarray. The violence of “Rififi” is often left off-screen, highlighting the motivations and characters behind the acts rather than glorifying them. The film shines not only as a compelling thriller but also as a documentary-like study of human fallibility, setting up tense stakes only to revel in the heart-racing chaos that ensues.

Take it from legendary film critic and filmmaker François Truffaut, who said of “Rififi”: “Out of the worst crime novel I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen.” 

Contact Vincent Tran at [email protected].