Although John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle laid the groundwork five years earlier, 1955's Rififi remains the quintessential heist film, largely on the strength of a bravura 35-minute robbery sequence presented with no music and not a whisper of dialogue. Aside from the ambient pops of dust on the optical track, the only sounds are the muted chisels and drills manned by four thieves as they gingerly chip their way through the ceiling of a jewelry shop. Having specialized in hard-nosed B-pictures such as Brute Force and The Naked City before landing on Hollywood's blacklist, director Jules Dassin heightens the realism and suspense by focusing intently on the delicate task at hand. After more than four decades and many imitators—from Thief to Mission: Impossible to Dassin's own Topkapi—his stark minimalism still whitens knuckles, but that's only part of what makes Rififi so powerful and enduring. Working in France, well outside the reach of the Hays Code and the Legion Of Decency, Dassin was free to revel in an amoral universe that frequently edges into misogyny and sadism. The worst of it comes early, when the ostensible hero, a grizzled ex-con played by Jean Servais, makes it his first order of business to punish his old girlfriend for shacking up with a sleazy nightclub owner and police informer. In a harrowing scene, he drags her back to his apartment, orders her to strip off her expensive clothes and jewelry, and whips her savagely with a belt (off-screen). From there, it's a very long road to redemption for Servais, who's convinced by his naïve protégé (Carl Möhner) and an Italian pimp (Robert Manuel) to team up with an expert safecracker (Dassin) in looting Paris' version of Tiffany's. Save for an inserted song-and-dance number explaining the meaning of its title, Rififi moves at an efficient and methodical pace, never wasting a minute as it barrels through the robbery and its bloody aftermath. But beyond the taut mechanics of Dassin's suspense thriller, the underworld backdrop seeps through with documentary-like clarity, as does the faint but irrepressible glint of compassion that Servais' brutality never quite snuffs out. Rififi doesn't stop to languish in its dingy atmosphere or its hero's existential ennui. It doesn't need to, because Dassin pipes most of his truly unsettling material into the subconscious.
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