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‘Rififi’ helped director take away a piece of cinema history with him

When thinking of the filmmaker Jules Dassin, it is natural that «Never on Sunday» is the movie that is most associated with Greece but, probably his greatest masterpiece, the gripping heist film «Rififi,» has also had a lasting impact on the country. Rififi, a slang term in French for a quarrel or a free-for-all, has passed into the Greek language as a description of a daring break-in by robbers. In fact, rarely a week passes when the word «rififi» does not crop up on Greek television or in the newspapers. Making your mark in cinema history is one thing, but leaving an impact on a country’s everyday language is not something many directors can stake a claim to. It’s what one might expect from a film that was made 53 years ago but which is still inspiring directors today. There is hardly a crime or heist movie out there that does not draw on some element of the film noir classic that Dassin directed in Paris in 1955. The reason that «Rififi» is still such a source of inspiration is that it mixes all the elements that make a successful crime movie: tough guys, an ingenious heist and an iconic location, and blends them in just the right measures. Add to this a dash of brutal realism, cutting-edge for its day, and you have a potent mix. This 1955 cocktail cannot be matched today. Characters like Tony le Stephanois, Joe le Suedois and Cesar le Milanais are of that time alone. They simply don’t write names like that anymore. Paris has never looked more brooding, with menace lurking in its underbelly, than in Philippe Agostini’s black-and-white cinematography of the city streets and boites. As for the heist itself, crime movies have simply been paying homage to it ever since Dassin conjured up its genius. Based on Auguste Le Breton’s «Du rififi chez les hommes,» the film tells the story of a group of robbers who come to together to break into a famous Parisian jewelry store. Dassin dispensed with much of the content of the book and the film’s most famous sequence – the break-in – was the largely the director’s creation. Taking up about half an hour of the 118-minute movie, the gang’s break-in is more of a ballet, acted out in silence, rather than the smash-and-grab that modern audiences are now used to. It is no coincidence that Cesar, played by Dassin, wears ballet shoes during the heist. Dassin was insistent that this sequence, which is a true work of art, should have only natural sound. Composer George Auric insisted that such a long scene without sound would be unacceptable to the cinema-goers of the time but Dassin won him round and film history was made. «’Rififi’ contains a 30-minute stretch of wordless moviemaking that is one of the most engrossing sequences since the invention of talking pictures. [Dassin] gathers enough honors in this memorable silent sequence to satisfy most writers directors and actors for a lifetime of work,» wrote Time magazine in 1956. Dassin went on to recreate the «Rififi» feel and philosophy in other films, such as the less inspired and less successful «Topkapi» with Melina Mercouri. «I guess what’s left of the rebel in me likes to see authority conquered,» he said in a recent interview. Although the gang in «Rififi» conquer authority, their life of crime catches up with them. For Dassin, there was a much happier outcome and, today, «Rififi» remains one of the greatest films of its genre.