Rififi opens with an all-night poker game creeping toward dawn -- and a violation of the code of men by one who should know better. Out of money, Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) demands a marker. But it's a cash-only game, bien sur, and his underworld tablemates give him the thumbs down. Jules Dassin, the blacklisted American director who forged a career in France, turns this minor scene into a defining moment: Never again will Tony ask anyone to bend the rules for him, nor will he hesitate to mete out punishment when somebody else screws up.
Fresh out of the slammer after doing a nickel for robbery, Tony has one pal in the world. That would be the accomplice he didn't rat out, a square-jawed family man called Jo the Swede (Carl Möhner). Tony is the godfather of Jo's precocious child, Tonio, and the only time we catch Tony smiling is when the boy's around.
Jo and Mario (Robert Manuel), a friendly, energetic Italian with a highly sexed girlfriend, hatch a crude daylight scheme to snatch some rocks from a jewelry store window. Tony passes on the heist, but subsequently proposes a far more ambitious plan: Empty the jewelry store safe in the dead of night. Mario knows a safecracker in his homeland; he makes a call, and Cesar the Milanese (a dapper, mustachioed Dassin, using the moniker Perlo Vita) arrives to complete the gang of four.
These guys do their homework, discovering (and cracking) the store's security system, plotting the neighborhood like urban planning students from the Sorbonne. Tony and Jo calmly pull all-nighters while studying pre-dawn traffic patterns in the vicinity of the store -- a skill one likes to imagine they picked up while sabotaging German trains for the Resistance. Watching the meticulous preparation and immaculate robbery, a younger, more irreverent film buff might recall a different reference point: Mr. Pink's "Am I the only fucking professional here?" from Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.
The heist has acquired a legendary cachet thanks to Dassin's then-radical decision to stage a pivotal half-hour of the movie without music and dialogue. Truthfully, between the ingenuity of the break-in and the built-in suspense, one hardly notices the absence of extraneous distractions. What is unusual about the scene is the teamwork and camaraderie the four pros demonstrate; although each man has his task, the others are Johnny-on-the-spot to assist him. The collaboration goes beyond joining together in a shared purpose -- to make a fortune via illegal means -- and approaches the kind of sacred mutual respect typically found in movies about war or sports.
Speaking of other movies, part of what makes Rififi so refreshing is that we don't get the sense that the hoods learned their trade by watching American movies. Unlike the stars of contemporary gangster opuses, the actors don't tip their fedoras to Bogart or bite off their lines like Cagney. The French cinema of the mid-'50s developed its own brand of chiseled machismo, highlighted by Henri-Georges Clouzot's unrelenting The Wages of Fear and Jean-Pierre Melville's romantically fatalistic Bob Le Flambeur (also a promised Rialto revival). This is not to say that Rififi didn't leave its mark on the wave of films that followed: Watch Tony light a cigarette to relieve his prison-legacy cough and try not to think of the chain-smoking Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard's aptly titled Breathless.
For all its pleasures, Rififi is still a genre film without a whole lot to say about the straight, day-jobbing world. (We see that world exactly twice, in fact: once when Tony and Jo converse on a corner while faceless drones scurry past, and again at the end, when the shooting's over and the people rush from their apartments.) It's not a lost masterpiece or a forgotten exercise in cinematographic brilliance or a profound exploration of the dark night of the soul. It's a guy flick, a guys-against-the-world flick, which has proved a fertile and honorable arena of exploration from Hawks to Peckinpah to Scorsese to Woo to Tarantino. Surely there's no crime in that.