I did yoga once. A friend of mine convinced me to take this introduction to yoga course through one of those extended learning programs. It was good, however, when it came to the meditation time at the end of the session I always fell asleep. Meditation didn’t suit me. Okay, meditation laying on my back in a dark room that is air conditioned after a long day at work didn’t suit me. But meditation doesn’t always have to involve lying on a yoga mat and breathing deeply. Meditation is really a focused state. To meditate is to engage in contemplation or reflection. To focus one’s thoughts on; reflect or ponder over.
So what does this have to do with one of my favorite scenes in film? I chose the heist scene from Jules Dassin’s criminal masterpiece Rififi (1955). In watching this scene multiple times I began to notice some things. Both in the nature of the characters and the direction, as well as what the scene can mean for the audience, i.e. me.
Additionally, this has already given the audience time to learn about some of the planning that went into the job. As the case with any heist film, planning is essential. This gives the audience a bit of insight as to what is going to happen during the actual heist. Like most heist films, each character has a job to do. Usually a safe guy, bag man, fence, and brains of the operation, etc. Also, there is always one of those crew members that messes up the job for everyone. Rififi is no different. In this scene we get to see all the members performing at their peak. Each person has a job and they do it or the heist doesn’t happen.
After stealing a car, Tony picks up the other three men and they make there way to an alley near the jewelry store Mappin and Webb. Carrying two suitcases and an umbrella, they make their way to an adjacent entrance near the store. The soundtrack plays as they gag and blindfold the concierge and his wife. They make their way up the elevator, not saying a word. There is this beautiful shot of the elevator rising in the darkness. The light from the box making shadows dance along the walls. They enter a room on the second floor. Once the door shuts, the score also cuts out. The only sound the audience hears is that of breathing and movement. The camera follows the light of the flashlight as it scans the dark room, letting the audience get a layout of the room. They bring the two into a room and tie them to chairs. Blocking out the windows with blankets, they can now turn on the lights and begin to make their way through the floor. Everything is on a schedule, timed, and planned out. Each move is as if it was planned. Tony moves the rug as the other three pick up the piano. Jo pulls out the handle to the crowbar, and Mario inserts the proper piece. While Jo and Mario break away the floorboards, Tony and Cesar break out the tools. Tools which have all been packaged in the suitcase related to the respective uses. The rope pre-knotted lies in wait. A hammer comes out along with a sock to cover it. Jo begins to chisel at the floor, the camera pulls in tight on this action. After cutting the re-bar in the floor, Jo breaches the ceiling of Mappin & Webb. There is excitement.
Cesar uses that umbrella from earlier in a rather clever way. Doesn’t he know it’s bad luck to open an umbrella inside? Foreshadowing, maybe. As they break open more of the floor, shots cut from above the men to below them. With some editing we fast forward a little. They’ve created a man size hole. Now that rope can be put to use. Tony is the first to go down, disabling the alarm system. This gives the others clearance to come down.
What is created in this scene is a meditation on the art of cinema. A reflection on showing rather than telling. At 30+ minutes in length, Dassin doesn’t really leave much to the imagination of the audience. He is telling us everything we need to know about the heist through visual descriptiveness. From the way in which he shoots each action, to the items he chooses to place in the frame. The lack of a musical score in the scene adds an elongated element to it,almost as if we are watching it in real time. Everything about this scene puts the audience right there with the men involved. Focused on the story. Which is exactly what film should do.
This is the scene I tell people to shut up when watching. To silence their phones, and stop crunching chips. If you haven't seen this scene or the others that go with it to make up Rififi, I would highly recommend it.
I watched this scene on Criterion's Blu-Ray of Rfifi. As always, they do an amazing job putting this together. Check it out here.