Out of the worst crime novels I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I have ever seen.1

For the record, Dassin’s most famous films, The Naked City and Rififi, are among his lesser works.2


Jules Dassin, director of crime dramas like Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Night and the City (1950), was blacklisted in Hollywood due to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Leaving the United States to work in France and Greece, he ended up making one of his most notable features, Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955).3 The film opens with ex-convict Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais) losing at cards and desperate for cash. He meets with Jo le Suédois (Carl Möhner) and Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel), the latter outlining a plan to rob a Paris jewellery store. With help of a fourth man, expert safe cracker César le Milanais (played by Dassin), the gang succeed in their plan, but fate intervenes afterward, leading to tragedy. 

The scenario of Rififi sounds like any number of generic crime dramas: the aging gangster returning for one last score, a gang of thieves executing a daring crime, a twist that wrecks the plan. Writing about Rififi in 1954 at the Cannes Film Festival, François Truffaut noted that the film “…is structured like a classical tragedy. Act I: Preparation for a holdup; Act II: ‘Consummation’ of the holdup; Act III: Punishment, vengeance, death.”4 These annotations will loosely follow Truffaut’s three act summary of Rififi, showing how and why the film works so well.

Act I: Preparation for a holdup

Before any crime is committed, we are introduced to the four main characters: Tony, Jo, Mario, and César. Jo and Mario have spouses – Jo is married to Louise (Janine Darcey), and they have a high-spirited young boy Tonio (Dominique Maurin). Mario is with Ida (Claude Sylvain), both of whom act like giggling teenagers around each other. Tony, on the other hand, has nobody. His former flame, Mado (Marie Sabouret), is now with the mobster Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici), owner of the nightclub L’Âge d’Or, which is where César becomes infatuated with Viviane (Magali Noël), a sultry chanteuse that sings a number explaining the meaning of ‘Rififi’. 

An embittered Tony takes out his anger on Mado, brutally whipping her in his apartment, but the camera averts its gaze to focus on a photo of them in happier – and presumably richer – times. This shot may exist to mollify the censors, but it is also an example of visual storytelling motivated by character. Perhaps Dassin chose to film this act of violence discreetly, regardless of potential censorship issues. As Truffaut noted: “The characters in Le Rififi are not despicable. The relative permissiveness of the French censors allowed Dassin to make a film without compromises, immoral perhaps, but profoundly noble, tragic, warm, human.”5 There are moments showing the characters’ humane side, such as Tony visiting Jo and Louise, and gifting Tonio a toy penguin. Before the heist, Dassin deftly establishes the characters, showing what they have, what they want and what they stand to lose.

Act II: “Consummation” of the holdup 

The heist in Rififi is expertly choreographed and executed by the filmmakers and characters. Dan Georgakas notes that the film “…is justly famed for the marvelous [sic] thirty-three minute sequence in which the gang carries out the robbery by drilling through the floor of an apartment above the jewelry [sic] store. The sequence, which has sound but no dialog [sic], is a masterful demonstration of how to advance a story solely with images. Not surprisingly, it has become one of the most imitated sequences in the gangster genre.”6 As well as being a suspenseful sequence, the heist also demonstrates the group’s professionalism. Before the robbery, the gang discuss potential obstacles to their plan and devise solutions, and then we are shown this in action during the heist, marvelling at their skill. 

Other moments are just as impactful as the heist, such as the four men leaving for the robbery. Each member of the gang – bar Tony – departs from a comfortable space, leaving behind the women they care about to carry out their crime. Tony, however, has only a small, cell-like apartment, a reminder of his incarceration and evidence of his impoverished life, both financial and personal: or so it seems, because Mado remains loyal to Tony. In fact, the women play key roles in the third act: as events worsen, we see Louise be the voice of conscience, while Ida and Mado display their deep devotion. Vivian, meanwhile, is ignorant of events: it is César’s passion for her, and an impulsive decision he makes to please her, that leads to events unravelling.

Act III: Punishment, vengeance, death

While the first two acts primarily focused on the homes of the gang, Pierre’s nightclub, and the jewellery shop, the third act widens the scope as Tony prowls the city, hunting Pierre. During these moments, memorable details are captured at the edge of the frame, and by a wandering camera. For instance, as Tony searches for the missing Tonio, he descends some stairs and passes a group of children playing cards, a reminder of Tony’s predicament at the film’s start, maybe, or possibly foreshadowing that one of these children may eventually walk the path taken by Tony. 

Then there are ironic moments, like Tonio being costumed as a cowboy when he is abducted, with toy pistols in his possession: tellingly, Tonio loses a more innocent plaything, a balloon, when he and Louise are kidnapped by Pierre and his hoodlums. While Andrew Sarris includes Dassin among a group of “Strained Seriousness” directors that he chides for committing “…the mortal sin of pretentiousness”,7 Dassin’s deft cinematic touches, his empathy with the characters and the authenticity of the milieu elevates what could have been an unremarkable crime film. 


Echoing Sarris’s classification of Dassin as a filmmaker of “Strained Seriousness”, Andrew C. Mayar criticises the morality in Rififi: “The end of the picture is quite disappointing… in that it pursues the criminals to their untimely deaths for the sole purpose of demonstrating once again that crime does not pay. One of the criminals accidentally betrays the rest through a passing affair with a woman, and is speedily shot for his mistake; another becomes involved in gang warfare because of his love for his son; and a third is fatally wounded when he comes to the aid of one of his companions. Each of them… is eventually killed because of his need for human companionship – a point rather mawkishly made, and has little relevance to the rest of the film.”.8

In fact, the “need for human companionship” feels like a natural part of Rififi that Dassin has carefully woven throughout: for instance, what initially seems like a superficial relationship between Mario and Ida is later shown as anything but that, both in terms of their love for one another and their loyalty to their friends. There is a keen sense of family, both literally and in the fraternal criminal bonds. While the central heist is an iconic sequence and the environments are striking, the characters involved in this plot and inhabiting this world leave an equally vivid impression. 9

Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi 1955 France 115 mins)

Prod Co: Pathé (France) Scr: Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin, René Wheeler (Based on the novel of the same name by Auguste Le Breton) Prod: Henri Bérard, Pierre Cabaud, René Bézard Dir: Jules Dassin Phot: Philippe Agostini Prod Des: Alexandre Trauner (as Trauner) Mus: Georges Auric

Cast: Jean Servais, Robert Hossein, Magali Noël, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Marcel Lupovici


  1. François Truffaut (Author), Leonard Mayhew (Translator), The Films in my Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978), p. 209.
  2. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (Place of publication not identified: Da Capo Press, 1996), p. 191.
  3. The version of Rififi viewed for these annotations was the 2017 UK Arrow Academy PAL Region 2 DVD release.
  4. François Truffaut (Author), Leonard Mayhew (Translator), The Films in my Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978), p. 209.
  5. Ibid, p. 210.
  6. Dan Georgakas, “DVD Reviews: Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway, Night and the City and Rififi,” Cinéaste, Volume 32, Number 2 (Spring 2007): p. 73.
  7. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (Place of publication not identified: Da Capo Press, 1996), p. 189.
  8. Andrew C. Mayer, “Films from Abroad: Crime Wave,” The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television, Volume 11, Number 2 (Winter, 1956): p. 167.
  9. For further information, the Criterion Collection have some pieces on Rififi, including a video interview with Jules Dassin and essays by J. Hoberman and Jamie Hook (Last accessed: 3 August 2023). Also, for a detailed study of the film (explored in four chapters titled ‘The Route to Rififi’, ‘Reading Rififi’, ‘Reviewing Rififi’ and ‘Reviving Rififi’), see: Alastair Phillips, Rififi (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009).

About The Author

Martyn Bamber has previously written for Senses of Cinema and is a contributor to the book: Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium: 1964–1999.

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