Theater Thoughts

Reviewer: John Carpenter

Released by: Arrow Academy
Blu-Ray Release date: 5/9/2011
Region B
118 Mins/Not Rated
Aspect Ratio 1.33:1

Sometimes I wonder if good heist movies are locked in a safe somewhere and I need to collect a team of experts in their respective fields to get the cinematic loot.  It is the type of film that seems to be made in some form or fashion every year with mixed results.  At the end of the day, bad or good, they all trickle back to 1955 French Crime Drama “Rififi.”  As a film fan, I worked my way backwards in this genre.  I started with the likes of “Sneakers” and Steven Soderbergh’s version of “Ocean’s Eleven,” both of which were enjoyable in their own way.  They felt fresh with grand ideas and a different way of telling the same type of story.  Then I took a step back to Stanley Kubrick’s outstanding noir, “The Killing,” which is rumored to hit Criterion Blu-ray later this year.  It is outstanding and one of the lesser known titles in Kubrick’s illustrious career.  The genre seemed to get stronger the farther back I went, showing just how much today’s filmmakers tip their respective hats to the classics.  When “Rififi” started and I saw Jules Dassin’s name pop up, I knew I was in for a good time.  His 1964 underrated classic “Topkapi” is one of my favorites and there are certainly similarities between his two films.  There is a very different in tone though.  “Topkapi” is playful and has plenty of comic relief in Peter Ustinov’s Academy Award nominated performance.  “Rififi” is the gritty older brother, cloaked with noir and classy henchmen.  Jean Servais, who many may have laughed with in “The Man From Rio,” is focused and intense as Tony Le Stephanois.  A few years in the clink will take its toll on any man, but Tony can’t help but be interested in a plan to rob a jewelry store which is proposed by former partners Mario (Robert Manuel) and Jo (Carl Möhner).  Naturally, it would be the ‘big score’ where they will be set for life.  After importing and securing Cesar (Jules Dassin himself) to crack the safe, the men are ready to begin their planning.  Though their strategy seems foolproof, love and rival gangsters have a funny way of causing problems for those looking for a ride off into the sunset.

With most heist films, the crime is the centerpiece.  Every once in a while that isn’t the case.  In “Reservoir Dogs,” we never actually see the crime.  “Rififi” lays all of the cards on the table, but this film does not build up to a tremendous robbery scene and go away.  With a plan that is both clever in execution and shot VERY well by Dassin, it would be easy to let the story fizzle out with whether or not the four men actually pull off this tough assignment.  There is more to this tale.  Dassin took time to invest viewers in the characters, leaving a few extra plot points that need to be settled after the heist.  It allows the film to feel more whole, giving the audience a payoff after setting up the characters.  Tony Le Stephanois would just be some dirty dog if we didn’t know about his love interest Mado (Marie Sabouret) or his relationship with Mario’s family.  Even with such a tough exterior, Tony is humanized by the relationships he builds.  It is little touches like this that give “Rififi” great replay value and make it a classic in the genre.

This 1955 classic must have a great plastic surgeon since it doesn’t look like it is fifty-seven years old.  Arrow Academy delivers the film with a Full Frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  This Blu-ray is reference quality for classic cinema.  The black & white image has great detail and depth.  There is no issue with edge enhancement and the soft grain adds to the film like presentation.   Even with “Bicycle Thieves” great presentation there were some specs and scratches. “Rififi” is even better.

The French LCPM 1.0 track is great as well.  As with the video transfer, this soundtrack doesn’t sound as old as it is.  The dialogue levels are balanced well and the score booms as it should.  Effects are at an exceptional level, not overly loud as some older titles tend to be.  Coupled with the optional English subtitles, this release is begging to be seen and heard.

Along with this stellar presentation area few bonus features.  A rather lengthy “Ginette Vincendeau Introduction” (24:08) is similar to a film school lecture by the French cinema scholar.  Her knowledge is deep and information vast, making this more of a watch for those who have already seen the film.  The “Jules Dassin Interview” (29:55) is similar to listening to your grandpa telling old war stories, only if he were a cool film director back in the day.  Dassin discusses how “Rififi” went from a book to a film and some of the blacklisting done in America.  Hearing how Dassin worked some of his own emotions and experiences into the movie makes for a great half hour of storytelling.  Also included is a “Q&A With Jules Dassin” (37:10) done after a theatrical screening of “Rififi.”  While he may be a bit older in this feature, there are still glimpses of energy as Dassin talks about all aspects of his career.  Listening to these ‘old days’ of filmmaking really drives home how much the cast and crew really struggled to bring movies to life.  This feature couples with the interview very well.  Also included is the trailer for “Rififi” (2:51).   

With two titles under their belt, Arrow Academy has hit home runs with both.  As much as I enjoyed their “Bicycle Thieves” release, “Rififi” is even better.  With top quality audio, video and some solid extra features, it will be tough for anyone to top this presentation.  The only downside for fans in the U.S.A. is that this disc is Region B locked.  Fans of repertory cinema may want to save their pennies and get a region free Blu-ray player.  Interested viewers with a multi-region DVD player can import the film in the meantime as this release includes a DVD version of the “Rififi” as well.  Arrow Academy is for real!

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