Sometimes all you need is one terrific scene in a movie to make it truly memorable or worth-noting. “Rififi” is one such film, one of the few French film noirs (even though the term “film noir” is French in origin, it’s more of a Hollywood phrase) that is highlighted by one of the greatest heists in film history and is otherwise are rather unremarkable movie. That being said, it is still worth checking out “Rififi” due to this thrilling heist, even if the rest of the film is fairly standard.
The film follows a group of gangsters, including one who just got out of prison after several years when his girlfriend ratted him out, as the four plot and plan an impossible jewelry heist on one of the most protected and secure vaults in all of France. The entire building is built around its sophisticated security system, to the point where even the slightest bit of noise will set off the alarm. Thus, the men come up with a convoluted and well-choreographed plan to dupe the system, and break into a heavily guarded vault without ever making any noise.
The heist itself takes up nearly half an hour, and it is one of the most heart-pounding, nerve-wracking scenes that literally had me chewing my finger nails. This entire sequence has no dialogue, music and very few sound effects, but each time a noise is made, your heart rate is guaranteed to pick up as you wonder if this is the one that’ll set off the alarm. In this film, sound becomes the enemy of both our characters and the audience, growing attune to how sensitive and deadly it can be, with that fear of sound growing as the film progresses. This also makes the planning stage of their heist just as valuable the job itself, like the start of a roller coaster before the inevitable drop and the twists and turns that are sure to follow.
However, outside of these thrilling sequences, “Rififi” doesn’t have much else going for it. Before they start planning the heist, the film moves as slowly as molasses and has about as much urgency as a Sunday driver. And once the heist is over, it feels like its retreading the same ground has any other heist movie, like “The Asphalt Jungle” or “Heat” when the chase to be free following their crimes begins. It makes the rest of the film feel uninspired and average, as it goes about its usual business without any flavor to any of it.
Overall though, “Rififi” is still worth your time because of its one-of-a-kind heist and one of the most tense 30 minutes in all of cinema. This film pays close attention to detail to help make its great idea stand out even more, pushing it far passed any other crime thriller in this regard. It is both brutal and stunning in a way that American films at the time couldn’t be and takes a lot of chances Hollywood wouldn’t dare, so at least “Rififi” never plays it safe.
Final Grade: B+