The infamous blacklist of the 1950s and 1960s forced many artists to go underground. For their refusal to rat out people they knew to be Communists, members of the Communist Party, or Communist sympathizers, these creative talents went through a forced silence. Most of these artists were involved in some way with the written word. For example, novelist Howard Fast (he wrote the novel "Spartacus," on which the film was based) was blacklisted, and American publishers weren't supposed to release his books.
However, Hollywood, being the kind of town that it is, still employed the services of talented screenwriters who worked under under pseudonyms or anonymously. The blacklisted screenwriters were contacted through unofficial channels, and they weren't allowed to go anywhere near the studio lots. The hypocrisy of the situation lead to Dalton Trumbo winning an Oscar for a screenplay written under another name ("The Brave One," as Robert Rich) that he could not publicly accept even though everyone knew that he wrote the script. Another black eye for Hollywood occurred when the blacklisted screenwriters of "Bridge on the River Kwai" won an Oscar for their adpated screenplay of a novel written by Frenchmen Pierre Boulle. Since Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson could not accept the award, Monsieur Boulle, who spoke no word of English, was credited for the script and with the award. (Happily, albeit rather late, Academy historians and Columbia Pictures have since given credit back to Foreman and Wilson, and most work done by blacklisted filmmakers have been appropriately credited as well.)
Jules Dassin took a route that other artists followed: exile. Dassin went to Europe following his appearance on the blacklist, and after a few years of desperately looking for work (the blacklist affected him even on the Continent), ended up in France adapting and directing the 1955 film "Du rififi chez les hommes," known States-side as "Rififi" (slang for "trouble"). Before we proceed further, let it be known that Dassin, though his names sounds French, is an American (born in 1911, he's still alive), and he hated the source novel for the film. Indeed, he made rather drastic changes to the story, cutting or shortening most passages in the book, lightening up on what he felt were "racist" elements, and expanding the famous heist sequence to fill up about a quarter of the movie's running time.
In "Rififi," Jean Servais plays Tony le Stephanois, a bank robber who masterminds a heist so precise in execution and daring that the character must've known that somebody was making a movie about him. The said heist takes up more than half an hour of screentime, and the first and third acts of the film deal with the planning and the aftermath of the job, of course. Along the way, Dassin examines the psychological motivations and work habits of each of the thieves, creating a portrait of a violent gangster world that is ultimately the most romantic of dooms (of course!).
"Rififi" reminded me of 1995's "Heat," Michael Mann's epic look at cops and robbers. While the cops have been shoved aside in "Rififi," it shares "Heat's" preoccupation with the male work ethic, of how a group of men work together and trust each other not because they have no choice or because they choose to do so but because it is the most logical thing for them to do. The world can be awfully confusing and even overwhelming, but dedication to work can give one a feeling of satisfaction and professional joy in technical proficiency. (Somehow, I sense that Dassin also must've thrown himself fully into the production of "Rififi" in order to get his mind off of a lot of things.)
Dassin won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. At the very least, living abroad, he could take credit for what he did. Perhaps his greatest triumph was when he returned to the US to make "Topkapi" (1964), another heist film that inspired the "Mission: Impossible" TV series. In 1996, the Tom Cruise-starrer "Mission: Impossible" basically lifted its CIA break-in sequence, sans music and all, from "Rififi" and "Topkapi." "Rififi" and "Topkapi" may be little known to today's audiences, but Dassin's masterful direction still influences filmmaking. While I can't say that "Rififi" heralded anything groundbreaking, it is certainly a film that has made its mark on the way action films/thrillers are made.
I just graduated from college, and I took a course on French Films during my last semester at Cornell. The professor presented a survey of works that marked significant changes that occurred in French cinematic history. In the class, we discussed thematic identites, and that discussion ultimately led to our questioning "Is this a French film?" when we arrived at the relatively recent "Irma Vep." The same could be asked of "Rififi." Admittedly, everything in the film is French, but the director was a product of the Hollywood studio system (Dassin basically grew up in Hollywood as an actor, writer, and director before he was unceremoniously thrown out of town). Is "Rififi" a French film, or is it an American film? Perhaps it is informed by the sensibilities of both France and America?
On a side note, a film was made in 1959 to capitalize on the success of "Du rififi chez les hommes." It's title? "Du rififi chez les femmes."
The people at Criterion have been in the business for much, much longer than I have, so I'll just copy the "About the Transfer" paragraph from the DVD's booklet:
"'Rififi' is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. This new digital transfer was created from a 35mm composite fine-grain master. 23,235 instances of dirt, scratches and debris were removed using the Mathematical Technologies Digital Restoration System. Telecine colorist: Heidi Nakaa/Eclair Labs, Epinay-sur-Seine."
Given its age, the print looks every bit as good as the booklet says.
Don't let my "six" rating deceive you into thinking that the audio on the "Rififi" DVD is not up to par. On the contrary, the Dolby Digital 1.0 (center channel only) is quite possibly the best single speaker mono soundtrack that I've ever heard. The balance of volumes of the audio elements is well done, and the wordless heist sequence deserves special mention--thirty-three minutes of near silence and hushed breathing will really set you on edge!!!
The only reason why I did not rate the audio on this disc higher is because the best mono mix will never be as powerful as the best 5.1 or 6.1 presentations. Dynamic range is simply not there, and with everything coming from one channel (dialogue, music, effects), there's just very little spatial sense or immersion. Nevertheless, the "Rififi" DVD is a shining example of Criterion's commitment to quality. Talk about contributions to film preservation!
You can watch "Rififi" in either French or English. The dub avoids the cheesy quality of the majority of dubs. Undoubtedly, had the dub caused unintentional waves of laughter (as I'm sure the "Crouching Tiger" dub will do), Criterion would've left it off the disc. Only English subtitles are available.
While Jules Dassin did not record an audio commentary for this edition of "Rififi," he provides an extensive video interview. Althought he does talk about the difficulties that he faced at the time that he made "Rififi," Dassin recalls fondly many details that will fascinate film buffs. It's just as well that the interview was not edited into an audio commentary. Seeing the person speaking is much more preferable to me than it is watching a film with someone talking all the time. :-)
Also on the DVD are production stills, set design drawings, production notes (mostly about Dassin), and the American theatrical trailer.
As usual, Criterion has provided "color bars" for viewers in order to adjust the color settings on their TV sets.
All in all, "Rififi" is yet another fine effort from Criterion. While I understand that their market is rather small when compared to sales of, say, "Gladiator," if only the company could find some profitable way of lowering their prices, more viewers would have a chance to own some genuinely great films.
Here's to hoping that the DVD buyers of today will not skip over "Rififi" when browsing through the racks at Best Buy. :-)