Blacklisted by the post-war anti-Communist witch-hunt in Hollywood, director Jules Dassin fled to Europe where he made this low-budget French thriller. A young critic at the time, François Truffaut, described it as "the best film noir I've ever seen."
Adapted from Auguste Le Breton's pulp novel "Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes" - the word rififi is underworld slang, approximately translating as pitched conflict - it's one of cinema's seminal heist movies, its central robbery sequence influencing the likes of "Mission: Impossible" and "Ocean's Eleven".
Whilst Dassin swiftly introduces us to his characters, he also takes the time to include telling details about their private lives. Tony (Servais) is an ageing thief, recently released from a five-year stretch in prison, and now seeking revenge on an old girlfriend Mado (Sabouret), who's transferred her allegiances to nightclub-owner and police-informant Grutter.
Tony's protege, the young father Joe the Swede (Möhner) and his pal Mario (Manuel), have a plan for a smash-and-grab raid on a heavily-alarmed jewellery store. Initially reluctant, the veteran agrees to join them, provided they target the shop's supposedly impregnable safe. That means recruiting the dapper Milanese (Dassin himself), an expert safe-cracker with a weakness for women...
The heist in "Rififi" is a dazzling and suspenseful set-piece. It's nearly 30 minutes of action, without dialogue or soundtrack music, that demonstrates step-by-step the professionalism and ingenuity of the thieves. However, it's not just the fascination with the work of being a criminal that makes "Rififi" feel ahead of its time. There's a shocking scene where Tony inflicts a punishment beating on Mado and the film's frank depiction of Grutter's heroin addict brother. Plus, Philippe Agostini's black and white photography of the streets, bars and clubs of Paris predates the New Wave preference for location shooting.
Although Dassin may not have had the budget for big-name actors, the Belgian Jean Servais is perfect as the embittered and physically ailing Tony, clinging to his criminal code as he and his gang are hunted down.