Arrow Video hit us with the last of the initial bunch of their Arrow Academy releases with Jules Dassin’s classic heist flick Rififi.
I think it’s fair to say that most film fans have a list of films they’ve always wanted to see but have just never got round to it. Discovering more directors and the many back catalogues of films that come with this always means that my own personal list constantly expands and so some mainstays on my list remain just that. One of the key ones for me was Jules Dassin’s Rififi and I thinkÂ one of the reasons is the dread of watching a “classic” and not liking it, and with a Metacritic score of 97 and an IMDB average of 8.2, Rififi is well up there in the “best of..” discussions for many it seems. My not getting round to the film stopped when this arrived in my mailbox a few weeks back, and what better way to watch it than in HD? ..Yes in 35mm on the big screen but.. shut up…
Tony (Jean Servais) has just been released from prison and is met by old friend Jo (Carl Mohner) who tries to convince Tony to join friend Mario (Robert Manuel) and he on a jewel heist which could potentially set them up for life. Tony is not so keen but after having his pride and manhood tested when meeting old flame Mado (Marie Sabouret) he changes his mind. Along with Italian safe cracker Cesar (Jules Dassin aka Perlo Vita), they plan out the heist and all seems well but when human feelings of pride and lust come into play, the technically perfect crime could go up in smoke.
Rififi blew me away, surprising likely no-one. Taking it’s time to get on with the heist for which the film has become timeless, I was amazed at just how thoroughly the characters are developed. Instead of using one-dimensional tropes which any number of heist films subsequently have fallen prey too, in Rififi we care about the characters despite their obvious breaking of the law and in the case of Tony in particular, certain other morally questionable acts. Tony is not the most likable of the group but as we spend the majority of time with him he becomes our protagonist, something which is rather uncomfortable when in the opening act of the film, he humiliates an old flame as a way of trying to get over issues for which he is more to blame than anyone else. Dassin does not play this scene as “right”, the prolonged shots and the length of the sequence in itself feels made to make the audience squirm in their seats, and so when Mado is barely mentioned again, Tony showing little sign of remorse or even that it happened, it paints Tony as even more of a bad guy but a determined one who now seeks some sort of redemption but in a silent way, through his treatment of his friend Jo and his family, the only people who seem to have been particularly true to Tony all this time.
While I don’t want to drag Rififi into this particular sub-genre, it is worth noting just how much of a “bromance” it is. Tony and Jo do genuinely seem to love each other, though in that icily cool French way, indeed Jo is the only one in the group Tony really shows any warmth to at all, despite the fact that Mario and Cesar are both likable characters themselves. Taking Tony out of the equation for a second though Jo, Cesar and Mario are all men who seem to have an easy laugh with each other, the heist playing off more like a caper than anything else, it allowing them to blow off some steam and treat themselves, especially in Cesar’s case as he starts a relationship with the singer who tells us what Rififi is in the first place. Rififi is trouble and trouble indeed finds all these men at some point.
From a technical stand point, Rififi is obviously exceptional. Watching Rififi and Le Cercle Rouge in close proximity as I did a couple of weeks ago was not a good idea as Rouge takes many elements from Rififi but just does not do them quite as well for me (though it’s status as a tribute is well acknowledged I admit). Rififi’s heist is more tense and is shot and lit better than Rouge’s somewhat similar sequence manages. The sheer bravura of having no dialogue for quite such a long time ago is staggering and I very much doubt it would be allowed in these more ADD times. I hadn’t ever heard of Rififi’s ending though which for me stands up to the heist also. A race against the clock to prevent a very different kind of dark ending, Dassin uses a variety of visual tricks, seemingly repeating shots, crazy angles and sped up film among them to create a sequence which is wholly pulse pounding despite there not being any outside threat other than what is actually in the car. It’s a stunning little sequence and builds to a hell of a climax.
There’s not much more that needs to be said about Rififi. All the actors are fantastic, bringing both moodiness AND a sense of fun to the table, the plot itself remains timeless in it’s themes and it just OOZES cool. What’s not to love?
The retail release itself includes some writing which I did not get with my screener but for me, it’s all about the disc anyway. Arriving on a Dual Format Blu + DVD release, the film comes with the best Arrow Academy video transfer yet. Presented in 1080p at a 1.33:1 full frame ratio, Arrow have done a fantastic job here utilising a print with barely a scratch on it. The black and white photograpy is reproduced as well as I could have hoped, the picture having little use of DNR which seemd to blight their earlier releases, instead retaining a nice layer of grain throughout. With the grain comes more detail in the image than I had expected, really showing off the detailing in the production design and also showing us all our character’s faces in vivid detail, something you don’t always get with older films. Contrast levels are also consistent, being able to show off the shadows and the lighting perfectly, all in all making a transfer that’s hard to beat. The PCM 1.0 audio is also decent, sound levels are adjusted well, the music never blowing out the dialogue and everything feels as natural as it should do.
Kicking off the extras, we have a 37 minute Q&A with Jules Dassin conducted at the NFT (and presented in 1080p HD) which is a hell of a lot of fun. Going through the beginning of his career, his problems during the “blacklisting” during the McCarthy era and also talking about Rififi specifically, Dassin has many stories to tell, has a charming and funny nature and at one point is informed of changes made by British distributors to one of his films that even he didn’t know about. It’s an endearing and hugely entertaining way to kick off the extras.
Following up from this we have a solo interview with Dassin, conducted by an unseen interviewer, which goes into many of the same things covered by the Q&A, though this interview is maybe a little more focused on Rififi itself and also goes into just why he had to take a role, and how his experience with the McCarthy witchhunts affected one of the key scenes in the film. He also discusses the adaptation of the novel and the trouble he got into with its writer in a highly entertaining story. This interview doesn’t quite have the energy of the Q&A but is decent regardless.
Ginette Vincendeau follows up her brilliant “Introduction” on the Les Diaboliques Blu with another piece here. Going into factual elements of Dassin’s own experiences prior to making Rififi before going into a meditation on just what makes this film so special, complete with a look at the location based shooting and the way the heist makes the audience fall in love with the criminals we follow, this is a highly informative piece which never threatens to bore and instead gives us a deeper understanding about the film itself and also Dassin’s own place in film at the time of shooting. Finishing up the extras is a UK trailer for the film which comes together as really a bunch of random scenes and a few press quotes.
I think I’ve already stated how essential this is but as well as being a fantastic film, Arrow have put together their best selection of extras for any of their Academy releases thus far, and coupled with the grade-A video makes this a release worthy of the film itself.