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Remembering Jules Dassin

dassin.jpgFor me, the films of Jules Dassin are ones that leap off the screen at you. Dassin involves you deeply in the plights of his characters and his locations are co-stars. Seemingly undaunted by the Hollywood blacklist, Dassin, after a period of inactivity of 5 years, returned to work stronger than ever.

Dassin was born in Middletown, Connecticut, one of eight children. His father was a Russian-Jewish barber. Shortly after his birth, Dassin’s family moved to Harlem. Dassin joined the Communist party in 1930, but left after the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in 1939.

In the mid-thirties, Dassin started working as a Yiddish actor, performing with the ARTEF, (Yiddish Proletarian Theater Company,) in New York. He also wrote some radio scripts.

Dassin’s break into film came in 1940 when he served as an apprentice to Alfred Hitchcock. Dassin’s first credited film as a director was 1941’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’ (The short is available on MGM’s box set of ‘Thin Man’ DVDs.)

His other early films include the prison drama ‘Brute Force,’ with Burt Lancaster, and ‘The Naked City.’ ‘The Naked City,’ is notable for its complete on-location shoot. By filming on the streets of New York, Dassin was able to capture a reality that many studio movies of that era missed. (There is a great difference between the backlot and the bowery.)

Dassin followed up ‘The Naked City,’ with ‘Thieve’s Highway,’ a road movie about a truck driver bent on revenge after his father is robbed by, as the IMDB puts it, ‘an amoral produce scofflaw.’

In 1950, Dassin went to London to shoot his next movie. Titled, ‘Night in the City,’ it was a dark, brooding story about a hustler who thinks he’s finally got all the angels figured out. Things begin to unravel as he is shown time after time that he does not. Richard Widmark, (who died last week,) played Harry Fabian, the hustler. Many critics consider ‘Night and the City’ Dassin’s masterpiece. (Richard Price wrote the re-make of the movie in 1992 with Robert DeNiro and Jessica Lange starring. Irwin Winkler directed.) Producer Daryl Zanuck assigned Dassin the movie just as the House Un-American Activities Committee was beginning to investigate the director. Since he was shooting outside of the country, Dassin was unable to testify. However, director Edward Dmtyryk and Frank Tuttle testified against Dassin. And his name was added to the blacklist. Dassin left the United States in 1953.

Things were rough in Europe for Dassin, and he didn’t direct another movie for five years. When he did, it was for the money. However, it also reestablished him as a filmmaker.

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‘Rififi,’ was a low-budget jewelry heist movie that different greatly from its source novel. Dassin said he took the job only because he was so poor. He claimed that, while shooting, he went to a casino with the producer. Dassin was forced to borrow money from him to bet. Placing all his chips on 18, (the date ‘Rififi’ started shooting,) Dassin won enough to support him and his family for a while.

The centerpiece of the movie was the heist itself, created wholly by Dassin, and not mentioned in the book. The heist is a wordless and music-less ballet that runs 32 minutes. To say that it’s impressive is an understatement. It is simply brilliant filmmaking. Dassin was awarded the best director award at Cannes that year.

In 1960, Dassin made ‘Never on Sunday,’ a romantic comedy starring himself, (as an American from Middletown, Connecticut,) and a prostitute, played by Melina Mercouri. The film won Dassin Oscar nominations for his writing and his directing. The movie, and the theme song were a huge hit. (Dassin and Mercouri would marry six years later, in 1966.)

He then went on to make ‘Topkapi,’ another heist movie. This time the jewels were in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul. The film starred Mercouri and Peter Ustinov. Ustinov won an Oscar for his role. (The first ‘Mission Impossible’ movie rips off the heist sequence from this film. If you recall Tom Cruise hovering over a weight-sensitive floor, you’ve seen the secret from ‘Topkapi.’ However, that is no reason to skip seeing the film. It’s still a worthwhile endeavor.) ‘Topkapi’ is currently being remade, (in a way,) as the basis for ‘The Thomas Crown Affair 2,’ starring Pierce Brosnan.

Dassin’s last movie was in 1980. His wife was elected a member of Greece’s parliament in the late 70s, and was later made minister of culture. She died of cancer in 1994.

Dassin spent his last years running the Melina Mercouri foundation and was working to persuade the British government to return the Eldgin Marbles, sculptures taken from the Parthenon almost 200 years ago. In September, a museum will open in Athens with plaster casts of the sculptures.

For me, what’s most impressive about Dassin is his passion and his forgiveness. If you watch interviews with him, (especially the one on the ‘Naked City,’ DVD,) he almost brushes off the Hollywood blacklist, even though it cost him five years of work and left him practically destitute. The other remarkable thing about Dassin was his love for his wife. Again, in interviews, the respect and love he had for her comes through like a train. In his films, he shows the same sort of passion. Dassin is always carefully building story and presenting the characters and their obstacles.

That said, Dassin was always demanding of himself. In a quote taken from the New York Times obituary, the Times says the following:

In 1962, with his best films largely behind him, Mr. Dassin told Cue magazine: “Of my own films, there’s only one I’ve really liked — ‘He Who Must Die.’ That is, I like what it had to say. But that doesn’t mean I’m completely satisfied with it. I’d do it all over again, if I could.”

Jules Dassin died on Monday, March 31, in Greece at the age of 96.

If you have not seen any of Dassin’s films, I highly recommend you check them out. You will not be disappointed. Dassin was a true master. One who’s work will stand the test of time. -Sam

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