…cordially invites you to a champagne reception to view our new fine jewellery collection and celebrate the relaunch of this iconic British brand.
So reads the invitation on my desk. I am thrilled to be asked, not because I shop regularly, or at all, for fine jewellery but because the iconic British brand in question is Mappin & Webb. In 1955 the American filmmaker Jules Dassin released the film Rififi, an adaptation of Du rififi chez les hommes, a 1953 novel by Auguste Le Breton. The novel is some 250 pages long, and the scene which made the film version so famous, so iconic and so groundbreaking, lasts for barely ten pages. The film version is 113 minutes long and fully thirty minutes of this are shot without dialogue or music. For half an hour you watch wide-eyed as four men pull off, in complete silence, an incredible, heart-stopping burglary of the Mappin & Webb store in Paris.
Le Breton published over 70 novels about crime, gangsters, gambling and underground life. Du rififi chez les hommes is about two gangs, one European, the other a mix of Arabs and North Africans. Its film adaption changed this so that both gangs were European, and whilst Dassin stripped out a good deal of the violence in the novel (the word rififi is French slang for fight, or bust-up), the film still contained enough to shock. Its early critical reception, which included a Best Director award at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, was extremely positive. It is still cited as one of the best all time examples of film noir. However, Rififi was actually banned in a number of countries following its initial release because the film sparked a series of copycat burglaries.
It wasn’t just thieves who borrowed from the film though. The French film director François Truffaut famously said …out of the worst crime novel I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen. Both sides of that opinion are debatable, as opinions always are, but I’m on the side of Auguste Le Breton here. In a body of work that runs to over 70 novels, he wrote a ten-page burglary scene that changed the genre in terms of how heist films were made. If you watch Rififi today you’ll appreciate its seminal nature. You’ll recognise Reservoir Dogs and the Mission: Impossible and Ocean’s Eleven franchises in terms of the burglary and the relationship between the gang. What will strike you though is how Dassin achieves the same effect without dialogue, music or special effects. Imagine trying to do that today? No film studio would dare be that brave.
Storytelling, at its best, inspires us and gets our imagination running. That’s what Le Breton did to Jules Dassin. The heist scene in Rififi is a stunning masterclass in filmmaking and burglary, but whilst it dominates the middle of the film, it is the characters who shine through. Rififi is not about a burglary, it is about relationships, about honour amongst thieves and the unwritten rules of togetherness that means if you get caught you take your punishment in silence and don’t give up your friends.
Auguste Le Breton had a well-developed sense of the French underworld. He spoke its language and he understood its characters. Jules Dassin was, at the time, the black sheep of Hollywood but he understood how to tell a story, and how to let the action and the characters speak for themselves.
Rififi is storytelling at its very best and that is why I am so excited by my invitation. I’m sure the jewels will be well protected. What’s the worst that could happen?