The best of all heist movies, Jules Dassin's tough-minded clockwork thriller Rififi, from 1955, is also one of the great films about process, about prepping for and grinding through small challenges, about improvisational teamwork within the framework of a plan, about the satisfaction of the last few cranks of a wrench at the end of a complex project.
The sublime break-in and safe-cracking sequence bests its 60 years worth of imitators in its rigor and cleverness and attention to detail, the very qualities it celebrates. The film turns grim by the end, and even before the heist we see the lead hood (Jean Servais) go after his ex with a belt, but the centerpiece caper is light and inviting. As a crew of four hack their way into a Parisian jewelry shop, we're shown their tools and their problems and given plenty of silent time to consider how the former might be set to the latter. Viewers become something like collaborators, invested in working out what, say, that umbrella is going to be used for -- and then pleased to discover whether we've gotten it right or not.
The rest of Rififi is almost as strong, but it's the opposite of inviting. Despite Dassin's interest in balloons, kids' toys, shadow play cabaret numbers, and just barely covered breasts, this is tough-guy noir of the highest proof, the kind of movie where the putative hero has to put down a much more likable character because of the Code of Thieves or whatever. Rififi mirrors the arcs of the criminal lives it examines: It seduces you in, and then won't let you out cleanly.