Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Jules Dassin

Jules Dassin may have been the best American director you've never heard of. His obscurity in this country was due mainly to his having been blacklisted in the McCarthy era, which forced him into exile in Europe. He died yesterday, at age 96, in Athens, his home for many years.

There were several substantial obituaries today in The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Los Angeles Times, who went as far as to call him "one of the leading American filmmakers of the postwar era."

Here's part of the L.A. Times obit:

"Greece mourns the loss of a rare human being, a significant artist and true friend," Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said in a statement. "His passion, his relentless creative energy, his fighting spirit and his nobility will remain unforgettable."

Dassin, considered one of the leading American filmmakers of the postwar era, directed his most influential film, "Rififi," while living in France after being blacklisted as a communist in the early 1950s. "Rififi" earned him a best director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955.

"Rififi" is the "benchmark all succeeding heist films have been measured against," Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote in 2000 when it was re-released in the United States.

The film was widely considered the prototype for films like "Ocean's Eleven" and "Mission: Impossible." Dassin himself made another film based on "Rififi," 1964's "Topkapi," which starred Melina Mercouri, whom he had worked with on the popular English-language film "Never on Sunday," in which she played a good-hearted prostitute. Dassin and Mercouri later married.

Turan said the influence of "Rififi" "is hard to overstate." The critic wrote that one section of the film is "a model of tension and precision." In the sequence, Dassin spends "a full 30 minutes on the actual robbery, a completely wordless half-hour (though it makes good use of sound effects) that racks the nerves and provides a master class in breaking and entering as well as filmmaking."

Dassin was born on Dec. 18, 1911, in Middletown, Conn., one of eight children of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, a barber, moved the family to New York City. Dassin graduated from high school in the Bronx.

He got into show business as an actor in New York's Yiddish theater in the mid-1930s. But upon discovering "that an actor I was not," he switched to directing, first on the New York stage and then in films.

In the early 1940s, Dassin went to Hollywood, eventually working for MGM, Universal and 20th Century Fox. His first feature film for MGM was "The Tell-Tale Heart" which was followed by "Nazi Agent," released in 1942. He did several other average films for MGM, including "The Canterville Ghost" (1944) and "A Letter for Evie" (1946).

But "Brute Force" (1947), the violent prison film starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn, marked a striking change in direction to grittier fare. That was followed by "Naked City" (1948), one of the first police dramas shot on the streets of New York; "Thieves' Highway" (1949), a gritty film about independent truckers battling a crooked produce wholesaler; and "Night and the City" (1950), a film noir starring Richard Widmark as a hustler in London who is caught up in his own schemes. Widmark died last week at 93.
From the N.Y. Times:

He joined the Communist Party in 1930s, a decision he recalled in 2002 in an interview with The Guardian in London. “You grow up in Harlem where there’s trouble getting fed and keeping families warm, and live very close to Fifth Avenue, which is elegant,” he told the newspaper. “You fret, you get ideas, seeing a lot of poverty around you, and it’s a very natural process.”

He left the party in 1939, he said, disillusioned after the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler.

Mr. Dassin left the United States for France in 1953 because, he said, he was “unemployable” in Hollywood. In Paris, unable to speak much more than restaurant French when he arrived, he encountered hard times and remained largely unemployed for five years. In need of money, he agreed to direct “Rififi,” a low-budget production about a jewelry heist.

I highly recommend Rififi, truly one of the great film noirs of all time. Alsoworth watching are The Naked City, with Barry Fitzgerald playing a New York City detective, Night and the City, with Richard Widmark, and La Legge (AKA La Loi or The Law), with Marcello Mastoiani, Yves Montand, and Gina Lollobrigida.

Dassin led a fascinating life, especially after he left the United States. Read more about him in the obituaries listed above. I love these two bits from The Guardian article:
[Dassin] claimed that after the screening of his film He Who Must Die at Cannes in 1957, Jean Cocteau, who was on the jury, fainted with admiration, exclaiming: "To think this beautiful film was made by a Frenchman." Dassin added laconically: "They set the record straight after they brought him round."

He will be remembered as a master of the craft of location filming. How much of a master is nicely illustrated by an anecdote from Marvin Wald, one of the writers of The Naked City. He recalled attending a preview and commenting to the director on the effectiveness of a shot during the climax on the Williamsburg bridge, in which a high-angle view looks down past the fugitive murderer to a spread of tennis matches in progress on courts far below. It was, Wald suggested, quite a stroke of luck that the tennis players should have been there at the right time. At this, Dassin snorted. "Lucky?" he said. "Those tennis players were all extras. I put 'em there."


Liam said...

Wow, RIP -- though I didn't know he was still alive. The Naked City is a great film.

Didn't he also direct that bizarre movie with Richard Burton as Trotsky?

cowboyangel said...

No, you're getting your exiled American Communist directors mixed up. And your obscure Richard Burton films directed by exiled American Communist directors mixed up. The Assassination of Leon Trotsky (1972) was by Joseph Losey, who also did Monsieur Klein, with Delon, and Routes du sud, with Montand.

That's an irony about Dassin - unlike Losey, who did "political" films at times, Dassin's films don't seem political at all, at least the ones I've seen. Perhaps in a subtle way, but he wasn't tackling Trotsky.

Dassin's last film, Circle of Two (1980) featured Richard Burton. I've never read anything good about it. According to IMDB, it has a rating of 4.8 and features a topless Tatum O'Neal. Make of that what you will.

I take that back - Dassin did direct a film about the Greek military junta, The Rehearsal, with Olivier, Olympia Dukakis, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Mikis Theodorakis, Maximilian Schell and Mercouri, but IMDB says "The film was never shown in cinemas as the junta fell a few days after the shooting was finished."

If you don't watch Rififi, I'm going to have to kick your ass. (After I buy all that damn Brooklyn Lager for you!)