Easing the Pain of Betrayal: On Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955)

In this black and white still from Jules Dassin's RIFIFI, five men sit around a table, playing cards, drinking. One has a cigarette in his mouth. All wear fedoras, suit jackets, ties. They look at each other with suspicion.
The Criterion Collection

The modern heist genre owes a sizable debt to Jules Dassin and his masterful 1955 thriller Rififi. The film was made on a shoestring budget, and yet it vastly improved upon John Huston’s innovations in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), rendering its characters more dynamic and sympathetic than Hollywood’s Production Code would ever allow. By emphasizing (and showing) the technical side of the heist—its planning, rehearsal, and execution—Rififi thereby compelled all heist pictures henceforth to either emulate its structure or attempt to usurp it. And what an elegant heist scene it is—half an hour without a single uttered word, no musical score, only grunts and strained breaths, the muffled shuffle of furniture and tools. Furthermore, and this is crucial: Dassin dared to portray the relationships among crewmembers as not merely transactional. The four hardened men at the center of the film genuinely like one another. Their camaraderie is palpable. Theirs is the kind of bond one imagines on a picket line: workers who find a kind of solaceful love for one another as they commit to a dangerous but salvational task.

I’m thinking of a moment in Rififi that perfectly represents this brotherly love. (Though I might as easily mention half a dozen others.) We arrive there about halfway through the film, just after the crew has chiseled through the ceiling above the jeweler Mappin & Webb. The man who wields the chisel is the youngest one there—a family man named Jo (played by Carl Möhner)—who, after a long time chiseling, collapses into an armchair, triggering Mario (Robert Manuel), the jokey Italian gangster in the bunch, to fetch a water bottle for Jo and affectionately watch him gulp it down, as though watching a lover or child. It’s a strangely tender gesture, and compliments numerous scenes in the film in which Mario playfully demonstrates love for his wife. Clearly, Mario deeply cares about Jo. He is there to ease his pain. These unspoken gestures pop up all over the film. The men move through scenes with the grace and timing of ballet dancers, all while flashing smiles to one another, offering helping hands.        

Friendship mattered a great deal to Dassin, and perhaps more so after his friends sold him out. Dassin’s name was offered up time and again during the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that ran from October 1947 until the early 1950s, a mockery of justice perpetrated by the federal government to root out an alleged “communist threat” in the entertainment industry. In that paranoid atmosphere, Hollywood became inflamed in treachery. Actors, directors, screenwriters and other industry personnel with ties to communist organizations and far less were imagined to be carrying out Stalin’s will. In 1949, Dassin, a known leftist, wound up “unofficially” blacklisted after filming Night and the City, and was barred from the studio before he could even finish the film’s edits. After more accusations, Dassin’s name was officially added to the list of one-time members of the Communist Party, and he remained out of work. Many decades later, Film Comment asked him why he thought so many Hollywood people betrayed their friends, and Dassin said, “I think they simply placed career over honor…their betrayal is a continuing pain, because these are the guys you loved. Lee Cobb was one of my closest friends. I loved [Elia] Kazan. I loved [Clifford] Odets. And this still hurts.”   

Kazan apparently hurt the most. “What he did was diabolical,” Dassin said. What he did—specifically—was testify before the HUAC and name eight friends from his theater days, all former members of the American Communist Party. Dassin wasn’t on that particular list, but that hardly mattered. Solidarity, for Dassin, was an end in itself. When Kazan, the director of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and A Face in the Crowd (1957), was slated to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1999 Oscars, Dassin took out an impassioned full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter, denouncing Kazan as a “traitor.” “Some of those betrayed were his close friends,” the ad read. “Their lives and futures were destroyed. He became an ally and accomplice to an infamous committee which shamed his country…if there were any decency left in him he should have refused the award so as not to once again sow discord and bitterness among those whose lives and devotion are given to cinema.”

***

Julius Moses Dassin (later changed to Jules) was born in Connecticut in 1911. Three years later, Dassin’s parents, Jewish émigrés from Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine), moved the family to Harlem. At age six, Dassin started to notice the haves and have nots living within close proximity to another. That was all it took to radicalize him. “You fret,” he said, “you get ideas, seeing a lot of poverty around you—it’s a very natural process.” This sensitivity to injustice would guide him into theater work, and later to Marxist ideology. At fourteen, he joined the Yiddish Art Theater as an actor, and he would go from there to study drama in Europe for three years. He returned to New York in his twenties to work for the Children’s Theater, a division within the Federal Theater Project, where he adapted Nicolai Gogol’s story “The Overcoat” into a radio play. Soon he found himself in Hollywood, where, after a brief stint as an assistant director at RKO Radio Pictures, he went looking for a job at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The studio took him on as a director, and Dassin made a string of pictures that embarrassed him enough to beg Louis B. Mayer to cancel the contract. Eventually, Mayer relented, and Dassin went on to work with various producers and studios to make the sort of art he wanted to make at the time: socially conscious crime films.

Like so many idealists, Dassin held an abiding interest in loyalty—to ethics, to community—and to its opposite. Some of his best films from the post-MGM era revolved around those themes: Brute Force (1947), for example, and Night and the City (1950), the first begun at the beginning of HUAC repression and the latter shot on location in London when repression stateside had come full swing. Desperate to chase down work, Dassin headed for Europe once again and settled in France, where he was welcomed with open arms. But even there, he wasn’t safe from Hollywood’s reach. Dassin alleged that after he finally snagged a directing gig in France—a crime comedy called The Most Wanted Man, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor—the IATSE (trade union) head in Hollywood, Roy Brewer, a virulent anti-communist, intimidated the film’s producer, resulting in Dassin’s replacement mere days before shooting. All told, Dassin didn’t direct a film for five years. It was a period of hardship and doubt. “We lived on each other’s money, which we didn’t have,” he said. “We played cards but nobody had any money to lose, so we just redistributed the pot all over again. It’s called exile magic.” We understand exile to mean the act of being forced from one’s homeland, but it can also describe a forced separation of one’s personhood from the object of its creation, an estrangement in Marxist terms: alienation. The worker must be resilient to endure such conditions, and ideally band with others, to restore her humanity. The interviewer asked, “What rescued you from that period?” Dassin answer: Rififi.

It helps to see the film in this context. Rififi was Dassin’s comeback film, his revenge fantasy film, a revenge not only on foes across the pond but on capitalism itself. And what better way to represent militant class struggle than by depicting a team effort to expropriate the ruling class’s most ostentatious emblem: diamonds? The men in the film are engaged in a kind of protest—a silent protest, if you will, though crucially not a passive one. But it wouldn’t be realistic if treachery didn’t rear its ugly head.  

The film opens with one of those nocturnal card games you see in gangster flicks: a windowless room above a bar, humorless men in suits and fedoras, chain-smoking and playing well into the daylight hours. The camera focuses on a ragged, tubercular man named Tony “le Stéphanois” (Jean Servais) who is always coughing into his handkerchief. He’s one of the losers on this night—and in life, generally—but he has something like integrity. Sort of. We soon learn that he is fresh out of a five-year prison stretch after taking the fall (a noble thing) for his friend and accomplice Jo. When Tony runs out of money at the card game, it’s Jo who he calls for help. In that short exchange, we learn that Jo’s son is named after Tony, and that he is the boy’s godfather, which already indicates this is more than a business relationship. Jo drives over immediately and picks up Tony, puts cash in his pocket, and takes him to meet Mario, presumably an old crime partner, who proposes a little smash-and-grab at the display window of a jewelry store, to which Tony politely declines. He’s too old, he says, and it certainly appears that way. We could be forgiven for thinking that Tony has gone straight. 

The feeling is reinforced when he shows up later to Jo’s house for dinner. He charms Jo’s wife, Louise (Jenine Darcey), and he and the giggling boy play with a toy penguin. Later, after the boy has gone to bed, Tony says to Jo, “I hit the bulls-eye with that penguin.” He puts a puppet over his hand and admires it, still enjoying this domestic bliss, and perhaps lamenting that he doesn’t have a family of his own. Nothing about Tony’s or Jo’s behavior seems duplicitous or inauthentic. It’s the sort of domestic scene you might see in some 1950s media concoction in the Leave it to Beaver vein, a projection of wholesomeness that doesn’t belong anywhere near a crime underworld. 

But it all crumbles in an instant. Jo tells Tony that his ex, Mado (Marie Sabouret), has taken up with a nightclub owner named Pierre Grutter, a rival gangster, who becomes pivotal in the second half of the film. All of this is established within the first ten minutes of the film. Still holding the puppet, Tony pours a cup of coffee, but he’s no longer in the mood for such indulgences. He tells Jo to kiss Louise goodnight for him and leaves without even taking a sip. From there, Tony catches up with Mado at the club, lures her back to his flat, and beats her savagely with a belt offscreen. The scene is difficult to watch, and it proves decisive for Tony, prompting him to reverse course on Mario’s offer. Not only is he game, but now he wants it all: the entire contents of the safe. Perhaps he thinks he has nothing to lose, or maybe he thinks this job will propel him into a second chance at a conventional life. This type of dissonance, a man who loves his godson and friends, a man who can play with puppets and beat a woman senseless in the same evening, would become popularized by Tony Soprano half a century later, but in 1955 it was rare and bold.

The last to join the crew is a safecracker from Italy, a friend of Mario’s named César “le Milanais.” Notably, César is played by Dassin himself, as another actor bowed out after a scheduling conflict. Dassin inhabits the role perfectly, an infinitely charming dandy who loves beautiful women and fine clothes, who also comports himself affectionately to his comrades onscreen, a real pleasure to watch. He insists the men “stick together on everything,” and that is what they do as they plan the logistics, case the jewelry store, gather materials, and engineer how to disarm the alarm. It’s all shown with impeccable detail, a tutorial for committing burglary, as the press later charged. The heist itself unfolds as planned. 

The day after the heist, the crew reconvenes at Mario’s flat to assess their gains. The men are visibly elated. They have just pulled off the impossible, and seemingly without a hitch. Everyone is beaming, everyone but Tony, who always wears a funereal expression on his face. Mario passes him the bag of diamonds and he pours them out onto the table. They all silently gaze upon the sparkling rocks, dreaming of a better future, the sort of future that allows you to forget about a turbulent past. It’s the same fantasy we indulge in when we buy a lottery ticket, or hope to land a good job. If only, if only… In this case, they have won the lottery, so to speak, and they inevitably share with one another what they plan to do with the money. Mario is simply excited to stay in “chic hotels” with his adoring wife. César says he plans to “buy husbands” for his four unattractive sisters, which garners a round of laughs. Jo says the money is for “[his] kid,” but he says it so tenderly, and the others are clearly touched. Only Tony doesn’t have a good motive for all this dangerous work. “J’ai pas,” he mumbles. I don’t know. 

If capitalism forces us to extinguish our pride and do almost anything to survive, it also pushes some of us to the brink of madness. Within the demands of the system, Jo is doing what must be done: earning money to provide for his family, legality be damned. Mario and César seem to get a thrill from the venture, and they want a taste of luxury reserved only for the upper crust. But Tony is another case altogether. He’s desperate, sure. He’s broke and lonely. But he’s also been broken by a legal system that put him behind bars. Now it’s nearly impossible to imagine him going straight, working behind a counter or on an assembly line. He’s too far gone. He’s staring down a tubular death or worse, and he seems to sense it with every grimace and winces. 

If anything, we might assume Tony to be the weak link, the cause of their collective failure. But he’s too loyal for that. Even his abuse of his ex-girlfriend is understood in those terms, however perversely: to him, she betrayed him. No, the culprit will be our charming César. Not on purpose, but out of greed and carelessness, and for no other reason than to save his own skin. Here’s what happens. After the heist, César gives a dancer he fancies a diamond ring. She takes it for a fake, but wears it anyway. The only problem is that she works for Grutter, and he recognizes the ring as the real article, discovers where it came from, and deduces how César got it (the heist, of course, made all the papers). Here was an opportunity to steal stolen property from a band of thieves.

It is easy to see which gang has scruples, and which doesn’t, and Grutter’s gang certainly shows no sign of good will. Grutter tracks down César, tortures him, and manages to get the truth out of him, along with names of his accomplices and their whereabouts. Everything falls apart in quick succession: Grutter has Mario and his wife murdered; he kidnaps Joe’s son and holds him for ransom for the loot. With vengeance in his eyes, Tony breaks into Grutter’s club, looking for him and the boy, hoping to make things right, only to discover César backstage, where Grutter left him tied to a post. It’s a superb scene, arguably the most intimate and powerful in the film. César asks Tony about Mario, how he’s doing. Worry is all over his face. Tony ignores the question, but César presses, and Tony relays that Mario is dead. The camera is close on Dassin’s face. Sweat covers his brow, his cheeks, and his hands, tied up with a rope, hover level with his bulging eyes. He stares into nothing. It’s the face of regret more than terror, of knowing an unforgivable line has been crossed.

         Tony (calmly): “It was you. You ratted on him.”

         César (barely audible): “Forgive me…I was afraid.”

         Tony: “I liked you… I really liked you, Macaroni. But you know the rules.”

César nods and flatly repeats the phrase: “the rules.” His voice carries the weight of a mountain of shame. Tony backs away, and César wordlessly awaits his execution. He knows he’s earned it. He doesn’t protest or beg.  

The final act is an explosive display of the logical conclusion of double crossing and opportunism within an organized crime milieu. Violence nearly always catches up with those who play the game. After César’s death, the fence arrives with a suitcase of cash, and it proves as volatile as a suitcase bomb. What follows is a dizzyingly quick string of deaths: Tony murders Grutter’s junky brother at a half-built villa outside of Paris and steals back the kidnapped boy; Grutter murders Jo, who had no idea that the boy was already safe; Tony returns to the villa and murders Grutter, but not before he takes a bullet in the belly. He drives the car furiously back to Paris, bleeding out and nodding off, and ultimately dying as he comes to a stop outside the boy’s mother’s home. She comes out and scoops up her son, leaves behind the cash, and manages to evade the police. All they care about is retrieving the money and saving a little face by solving the heist of the century. At the cost of many lives, and a fair amount of dignity, some semblance of order has been restored.

***

Rififi (original title: Du rififi chez les hommes) was written in just six days, according to Dassin, adapted from a novel of the same name. Dassin never read the novel per se: a friend summarized the slang-filled prose aloud to him, scene by scene, and Dassin fashioned something entirely different from the source material, leaving out all the “cruel things” that repelled him, shaping the entire film around a minor burglary, the story that he wanted the world to see. The safecracker’s betrayal, too, was Dassin’s invention.

“I was just thinking of all my friends,” he said, “who in a bad moment during the McCarthy era betrayed other friends. That was what I was writing and thinking about.”

It’s as though Dassin needed to inhabit the role of a rat to imagine how one arrives at such a damnable decision. 

Dassin possessed a Houdini-like ability to render precarious situations into admirable outcomes for himself, and he put his characters into similar situations. In this way, his art and films mirrored one another. That Rififi was even made at all can be attributed to one of those rare confluences of good fortune, hard work, and trusting connections, not unlike a heist. “A group of friends,” he said in a 1978 interview with Cinéaste (“A Dream of Passion”), “formed a syndicate to finance it. The studios in America would have nothing to do with it.” As in a heist, Dassin and his crew put their heads together and improvised. Dassin scouted the locations around Paris himself. He only shot on gray days, to the chagrin of the producer. The outcome was a realistic, gritty portrait of a certain kind of precarious life. And the French loved the film. Truffaut called it “the best crime film I’ve ever seen.” It is befitting from a poetic justice angle that Dassin won the coveted Best Director prize at Cannes, putting Hollywood in a public relations bind: should they claim this blacklisted American, or not? In the end, France won bragging rights. After all, the film was shot in Paris in the French language with a French crew and mostly French actors. It was Breathless before Breathless, cityscapes and stifling interiors, nihilism and hope; less abstract perhaps, but no less romantic, and certainly just as dark. 

At Cannes that year, Dassin met Melina Mercouri, the Greek actress who would star in a number of his films and who became his second wife. Dassin joined his wife in Greece, and was embraced there as well, until the military junta sent the couple away for several years. Dassin returned to Hollywood in 1968 for one last film, a remake of John Ford’s The Informer (1935) titled Up Tight, another film about struggle and betrayal—only this time a story about the Irish struggle for independence repackaged into a film about Black Liberation in the US. The film flopped, and Dassin considered it a failure, but he kept moving forward, exploring new ideas, resisting the dictatorship from exile with his wife, and settling in Greece permanently, in 1974, after the junta fell.

In 2000, eight years before his death, Dassin sat for an interview with the Criterion Collection and recounted the tumultuous blacklist years and how he managed to lift himself out of the muck. He never compromised his ideals and in old age he remained feisty. He looked fondly on how he managed to “invent” crime in his heist films, Rififi and Topkapi (1964), and to the “guys” who carried out those fantastical crimes. “I guess what’s left of the old rebel in me,” he said, “is that I like authority being conquered. I always want my guys to succeed.”

I’ve long thought about the widespread appeal of the heist film. Certainly we enjoy watching someone adeptly practice his trade—just ask any sports fan—but it’s more than that. Some of us, especially those opposed to the mandates of capital, love to root for a crime that seems almost justifiable. Call it the Robin Hood principle: stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, or to one’s poor self and friends. It’s a harmless bit of vicarious wish fulfillment, an imaginary revenge for all the ways that capital dictates nearly every aspect of our lives. That too is a bit of exile magic.