HERE'S HOW to dress for a heist: First, don a dark, pinstriped suit. It better have ridiculously broad shoulders, too--keeps you fast and loose. Then you top it with an insouciant porkpie-style hat. For color, you add your best silk tie--pink, perhaps, or silver. None of this makes sense for what you have to do, of course. But if you get a little cement dust on your sleeve while drilling through a floor, you just brush it off. The important thing is to look good. It's all about how you wear your hat.

That's how Mario dresses for a heist. But Mario (Robert Manuel) is just one member of the crew. Each man in the quartet has his own distinguishing manner of dress. There's Joe the Swede (Carl Mohner). He's the working class guy, usually in T-shirts. Then there's Cesar (director Jules Dassin, using the pseudonym Perlo Vita), the safecracker. He's usually sporting a bow tie, with modest little wings. But it works: he has a way with the ladies. And then there's Tony (Jean Servais). He's the most traditionally noir-ish of this paquet lacheur: broad-brimmed hat, dark great coat. There's usually a cigarette in his gloved hand, which elicits a little cough from the top of his lungs, a Camille moment to remind you that he's the tragic, existential figurehead in this film.

It's Rififi, known originally as Du Rififi chez les Hommes, which could translate roughly as something like "Rumble Among the Hoods."

Rififi was directed by Jules Dassin in Paris in 1954 while the filmmaker was in flight from McCarthy's red scare-ridden America. He'd already directed two key crime films, the quintessential police procedural The Naked City, and one of the best, most hopeless noirs, Night and the City, set in England. Rififi was also influential. Its streetwise grittiness inspired the corps of French new wave directors who emerged from the pages of film magazines in the late '50s to revolutionize world cinema. More immediately, the movie legitimized the heist film, leading to numerous immediate successors. But what the film is really about is clothes.

Does anyone doubt that crime movies are really fashion statements? Like consultants at Nordstrom, or like some kind of urban finishing school, crime movies teach us how to act cool, walk, light a cigarette, and plant a hat on our heads. You'd think that criminals would prefer to move through society anonymously. But instead, they flaunt their wealth, their dangerousness, their style. It's a way of saying hello. In Rififi, when Tony and Cesar first meet, they size each other up quickly through each other's garb. Mocking another's sartorial excess is just a way to break the ice.

Oh--the plot. Rififi, based on a crime novel by a master of underworld jargon named Auguste LeBreton, it's about Tony, just out of prison. He took a five-year fall for his friend Joe, who has a young family. To help Tony out, Joe tells him about a jewel heist a friend of his, Mario, is on to. At first Tony wants no part of it, but an encounter with his ex-girlfriend, Mado (Marie Sabouret), who's taken up with a sleazy club owner named Pierre (Marcel Lupovici), makes him change his mind. Soon, the crew makes off with several million dollars in jewels, Cesar's carelessness leads to discovery, and the quartet's success is soon mired in betrayal and violence.

There's a certain beauty in Rififi's existential deathtrap. It's a film about honor among thieves and what happens when their black code of ethics is violated (cops barely figure in this tale). The rules are fairly clear: live fast, die young, and wear a beautiful suit to your funeral.