Wednesday, December 21, 2011

 

Centennial Tributes: Jules Dassin Part III


By Edward Copeland
Between the years 1949-54, any opportunity Jules Dassin had to make a movie anywhere failed to materialize. Following his work on Night and the City in London, he returned to the United States only to find that people he once considered friends did their best not to be seen with him. In 1951, while Dassin attended the Cannes Film Festival he learned that he had been named by a cooperating witness during the second round of hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Before he had been an unofficial blacklistee because he'd been called to testify and hadn't — being named by a friendly witness was another matter. This wasn't just any friendly witness who had named him either — it was director Edward Dmytryk, the only member of The Hollywood Ten, the 10 artists who had lost their court fight claiming that they had the constitutional right NOT to testify before HUAC. The 10 lost their appeals and received six- to 12-month jail sentences. Dmytryk served six months in jail, but still turned friendly witness anyway so he could work again, something for which most of the other nine men never forgave him. Dmytryk, whose best known films include Crossfire, The Caine Mutiny and Raintree County, said in his defense, "I had long been convinced that the fight of the Ten was political…I believed that I was being forced to sacrifice my family and my career in defense of the Communist Party, from which I had long been separated and which I had grown to dislike and distrust.…I would have to name names, and I knew the problems this would cause…my decision was made easier by the fact that…I couldn't name anybody who hadn't already been identified as a Party member. Weighing everything — pro and con, I knew I had to testify.…I did not want to remain a martyr to something that I absolutely believed was immoral and wrong." The Criterion DVD for Rififi contains the 2000 interview with Dassin which discusses in the most detail what the blacklist did to him and how the atmosphere affected others as well, especially the pressure families could put on the artists. "Your wife would say, 'What do you want us to do? What about raising your children? We don't care about your principles — think of your family.' A lot of that happened," Dassin said. That's one thing I've always thought about when the subject comes up now. It's easy for people like us who are discussing that era in theoretical terms to say we'd act with principles and fight against the forces of evil, but we might behave differently if we actually were in the situation and had families to support. Look how few people raise their voices against governmental abuses now. The Occupy protests have been heartening, but they've still been rather small in number and struck down by the establishment rather easily while the majority getting screwed today, as always, keep quiet. If you missed either Part I or Part II of this tribute, click on the appropriate link.


Dmytryk's main motivation was to keep working while other members of The Hollywood Ten went straight from jail to the blacklist though many, such as Dalton Trumbo, wrote screenplays using pseudonyms. Several Oscars during the 1950s went to people who either didn't exist or were fronts. In the 2000 interview, Dassin admitted that Darryl Zanuck would buy story ideas from him during this xperiod. Dassin also told, "one particular story that was really so painful." Dassin went on to discuss Robert Rossen, writer-director of All the King's Men and The Hustler and director of Body and Soul. Like so many in the creative community, Rossen found the witchhunt deplorable, the politicians behind it despicable and the studio chiefs who caved to them cowards. At first, Dassin said in the interview, Rossen declared, "You can't do this to people. I will not cooperate with these committees and questions." Dassin told of vandalism that occurred at the homes of people whose names were mentioned in passing during the hearings, a detail I'd never heard before. Rossen had kids at the time to worry about but, "He explained to them why it was wrong to name friends and betray people and made the kids understand that and they handled it well," Dassin said. Unfortunately, the pressure got to Rossen and he broke down and named names. Rossen "named all kinds of people. Now he had to explain that to his kids. Those kids — I don't know how they are now — but they were in bad shape for many years," Dassin shared with the interviewer.

For the many like him who were denied employment because in their youth, they joined a party they soon renounced and had had no part of for years, it was frustrating. Dassin said they always waited for some kind of hero who could stand against them and when the natural choices to fill that role such as Elia Kazan or Clifford Odets instead broke down and named names, "It was heartbreaking," Dassin said. The director also told of how people such as him got so use to old friends trying to avoid them that he would try to spare them the embarrassment by hiding if he saw them first. In the same 2000 interview, Dassin told of attending the Cannes Film Festival once, though he couldn't recall the year — he was 89 then; I think he'd earned the right to forget some Cannes Film Festivals — and spotting Gene Kelly, Dassin went and hid around the corner when he felt this strong grip on this arm. "What do you think you are doing?" Kelly asked and led Dassin into the party where most of the Americans were hanging out. Not everyone was as gracious as Kelly though — Dassin described one former friend who hid under a table to avoid being seen with him.

Moviemaking opportunities seemed closed to Dassin. An American producer had arranged for him to film a movie called Public Enemy No. 1 in France featuring Zsa Zsa Gabor as one of its stars. Gabor called Dassin in tears to tell him that she'd been warned that if she made a film with him, her career would be through so she was forced to back out. Soon after, the producer told him that unions had delivered the message that if he made the film, no film of his would ever receive distribution again. The film fell apart, though the French got angry and declared him a member of the French Director’s Union. His U.S. passport was revoked, but the French gave him papers which allowed him to travel He went to Rome with plans to make a film of the novel Mastro-don Gesualdo by Giovanni Vergan but Italy asked him to leave the country, ruling that he was an "undesirable." Dassin went to the U.S. Embassy for help, but they wouldn't even receive him. The U.S. Ambassador to Italy at the time was Clare Booth Luce who refused to see him. Dassin returned to the states and Broadway. Theater didn't recognize the blacklist and he directed Two's Company: Charles Sherman's Musical Revue starring Bette Davis. During the show's pre-Broadway tour of many U.S. cities, Dassin again received notice to appear before HUAC, but he declined because of the show's tour. By the time it opened in New York, he received a telegram informing him that his hearings had been canceled. Sherman wrote the sketches with Peter DeVries while among the various contributors to the songs in the show were Vernon Duke, Ogden Nash, Sammy Cahn and Sheldon Harnick. The dances were staged by Jerome Robbins, another person caught up in HUAC who was forced to name names by Ed Sullivan who threatened to expose his homosexuality if he didn't. One of the other members of the cast was Tina Louise aka Ginger on Gilligan's Island. It opened Dec. 15, 1952 and ran through March 8, 1953 at The Alvin Theatre before going on a road tour. Hiram Sherman won the Tony for best featured actor in a musical. Despite the musical's success, enough was enough and an offer to make a movie there combined with the warm treatment her received from the country led Dassin to move his family to France in 1953 where he was about to make his other masterpiece, Rififi.

The 2004 L.A. County Museum of Art interview on the Criterion Naked City DVD took place after a screening of Rififi, part of a retrospective on the films of Dassin, so the bulk of the conversation concerned that movie. The person asking the questions was Bruce Goldstein, founder of Rialto Pictures and repertory director at New York's Film Forum. This was four years after his long interview where he spoke about the blacklist in detail, but it did show that he still kept abreast of current issues involving civil liberties well into his 90s.
GOLDSTEIN: How did you come to make a film in France?
DASSIN: A man was producing a film called Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes and he told me I was the only man who could make this film. Now this was after five years of nada, no work at all, but he still couldn't say why he needed me. He said he had a problem with Rififi — "All the bad guys are North Africans and at this time, France is having such problems with Algerians, you can make the bad guys Americans. When I said to him, "Have you thought of making them French?", he hadn't. Well, anyhow, I got that job for the same reason I was blacklisted.
GOLDSTEIN: That's all you wish to say about the blacklist?
DASSIN: Enough. We've got other things to worry about these days. I was thinking about The Patriot Act.

In his book The Films in My Life, François Truffaut wrote about Rififi, "Out of the worst crime novels I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I've ever seen." I haven't read the Auguste Le Breton novel, but I don't doubt Truffaut's word. Many people have said one of the elements Dassin didn't transfer to the movie from the novel were acts of necrophilia, so I think Dassin made the right choices in his adaptation of what might be the greatest heist film ever made. Dassin structures the film like a solid three-act play. Act I: Planning the heist. Act II: Carrying it out. Act III: The aftermath. As has been the case since Brute Force, the technical aspects reach the highest levels of excellence from Alexandre Trauner's production design to Auguste Capelier's set decoration, from Roger Dwyre's editing (he'd go on to edit most of Dassin's films and had cut Rene Clement's Forbidden Games) to the evocative cinematography of Philippe Agostini. Much credit for the look belongs to Dassin, who admits in the 2000 interview on the Rififi DVD that he drove the producer crazy by refusing to shoot in sunlight because he wanted the film to be gray. Truffaut also wrote in his book that "Dassin revealed Paris to Frenchmen just as he revealed London to the English (Night and the City) and New York to the Americans (The Naked City)." Bosley Crowther was The New York Times film critic for 27 years until 1968. He tended to be a stick-in-the-mud who got off on meanness and dumping as many 10-cent words into a single sentence until it could hold no more, but he even managed a nice turn of praise phrase for Rififi: It has a flavor of crooks and kept women and Montmartre "boites" that you can just about smell. As great looking as Rififi is, a limited budget hampered what Dassin could do in terms of casting so for the part of Cesar the Milanese, the safecracking expert from Italy ("There's not a safe that can resist Cesar and not a woman that Cesar can resist."), he had to employ the actor Perlo Vita, which was the screen name used by a man known as Jules Dassin. In many of his later films, Dassin would end up playing a role because he'd run out of money to hire an actor with more experience.

Having "Perlo Vita" play Cesar play a significant role didn't really cause a problem because for the most part, none of the performers were known outside of France and the one who was best known there — Jean Servais, who played Tony, the leader of the jewel thieves — hadn't made a film in France in a couple of years. Servais gives the film's performance as the stoic Tony, newly released from prison after five years and mad as hell that his girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) has taken up with Louis Grutter (Pierre Grasset), the sleazy owner of the night club L'Âge d'Or, named after the famous Buñuel film on which Trauner also served as production designer. When Tony first gets out, his old pals Jo (Carl Möhner) and Mario (Robert Manuel) try to talk Tony into cutting out the display window of the jeweler Mappin & Webb (a real jewelry store who agreed to let their name and store be used in the movie. Tony opts out until he learns about Mado's betrayal and sees all the gifts that Grutter lavishes on her, so he contacts Jo and Mario with plans to go for the safe instead. They enlist Cesar the safecracker for the heist which will net them about 240 million francs worth of jewels. Ahh, but nothing comes easy, does it? In a way, Servais delivers the only performance, but Dassin fine-tunes each of the film's element to the point that Rififi practically runs as a machine all its own, rendering the quality of the acting nearly irrelevant. The various characters behave more as chess pieces to be moved around as the story's game requires than as representatives of people.

Dassin holds on to this material tightly, yet he still allows for some flourishes. At the club, a singer named Viviane (Magali Noël) performs a dance and sings the song "La chanson 'Le Rififi'" while a silhouette of a man with a gun dances behind a screen behind her. Among the lyrics: "It's the lingo of the streetwise/the battle cry of real tough guys/Rififi" followed by the sound of a gun punctuating the beat. By the way, Rififi is French slang for tough guy posturing by criminal elements in Paris. (If you haven't seen Rififi — and shame on you if you haven't — spoilers will abound from here on out, so I'd look away for the rest of this paragraph.) Grutter realizes that Tony and his cohorts were behind the robbery when Cesar pockets a ring from the loot and shows it off to one of the girls who works at his club. First, Grutter gets rough with Cesar to get the address of Mario out of him. When Mario refuses to tell Grutter and his men where the jewels are, they demand he call Tony. Mario refuses, but his wife gives in and does it, only she warns Tony on the phone and Grutter's men kill them both. When Tony discovers the scene, he finds Cesar tied up at L'Âge d'Or, Cesar apologizes for giving up the address. In a departure from the novel, Tony tells Cesar he knows the rules for turning in your friends and kills him. Dassin admits in one of the interviews he added that because he was thinking of all those who betrayed friends by naming them to HUAC. Later, Grutter's gang kidnaps Jo's son and demand the jewels. When two of Grutter's men grab the little boy while he's in a park with his mom and push him in a car, his balloon floating aimlessly away, a passenger on a bus who witnesses the abduction warns his child, "Hold your balloon tight — see what can happen."


One single sequence though makes Rififi a landmark both in films and particularly in heist movies: the robbery itself. The way Tony and the guys steal the gems from Mappin & Webb is by breaking in to the apartment above the store and going in from above to do the rest of the safecracking, etc. Dassin films this in a 32-minute long silent sequence. No one speaks. Keeping everything as quiet as possible becomes the thieves' No. 1 priority. It's absolutely riveting. You'll be holding your breath as if you were involved in the crime yourself. Composer Georges Auric wrote Rififi's musical score.


Auric provided music for films from around the world including, up to this point in his career, Roman Holiday, The Wages of Fear, The Lavender Hill Mob, Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast and Blood of a Poet (the last three for Jean Cocteau) and Auric's first film score, Rene Clair's À Nous la Liberté. When Auric heard that Dassin had a 32-minute robbery sequence planned, he got excited and told him he was going to compose a huge piece of music for it. Dassin told him he didn't need to do this because he wanted it to play in silence, but Auric insisted and wrote the music anyway. When both the sequence and Auric's composition were done, Dassin asked Auric to come watch it with him — once with music, once without. Auric did as Dassin asked. Afterward, Auric turned to Dassin and told him to play the heist in silence.


Before Rififi began to be screened for public or professional consumption, Dassin showed it to his friend director Lewis Milestone, who won the Oscar for comedy direction the only time it was ever given for Two Arabian Knights as well as a second prize for All Quiet on the Western Front, and happened to be in Paris. His other credits included 1931's The Front Page and 1939's Of Mice and Men. Rififi wowed Milestone who advised Dassin that he should "make this film all your life and you'll be like Hitchcock." With the exception of one film in about a decade that was more or less a comic takeoff on the heist genre, Dassin did not follow Milestone's advice, compiling a quite eclectic filmography. Once Rififi began to be seen, critics kept saying Dassin owed a debt to John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, a film that Dassin had never seen. Several years later, Dassin did see The Asphalt Jungle, but he failed to see specific comparisons except slightly in that an attractive woman becomes a character's undoing. One of the funniest revelations that Dassin made in one of the DVD interviews was that, though he is referred to as one of the masters of film noir, he had never even heard the term until he moved to France. Rififi received such good word-of-mouth that it was accepted into the official competition at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. Dassin himself was so broke he could barely go. When one of the film's producers gambled at a casino, he begged for a little cash so he could play. He asked what date they started shooting the movie. "The eighteenth," he was told. Dassin put all he was given down on the number 18 on a roulette table and it hit, providing his family with funds to live on for awhile. As for the festival, the perceived front-runner was the film Stella directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis (who would soon change his name to Michael Cacoyannis before he got around to directing Zorba the Greek) and featuring the film debut of actress Melina Mercouri. The Palme d'Or ended up going to the American film Marty while best director was shared between Dassin and Sergei Vasilyev for Heroes of Shipka. Six actress from the Russian film Bolshaya semya (A Big Family) shared best actress, leaving Mercouri empty-handed but she and Dassin met and soon became lifelong collaborators in every sense of the word, though he didn't divorce his first wife until 1962 and wed Mercouri until 1966. Ironically, the 1955 Cannes jury also awarded a prize for best dramatic film to Elia Kazan for East of Eden. I don't know if he and Dassin ran into each other. Of course, Dassin couldn't avoid controversy. There were complaints that Rififi could be viewed as a how-to film for would-be thieves. Dassin said his response always was that, if anything, the film showed that the price was too high and usually ended badly for those who attempted such adventures. When they captured the culprits behind a robbery spree in Mexico, they cited the movie as an inspiration. Critics of the film accused Dassin of making the core group of thieves too sympathetic (never mind that when Tony learns that Mado took on a new lover while he was in prison, he removes his belt and beats her savagely, though offscreen). Dassin admitted in one of the interviews that he couldn't help himself. "It's what's left of the old rebel in me — I always want my guys to succeed," he said.

HE WHO MUST DIE (1957)

Dassin's next film went in an entirely different direction from anything he had made before. According to Truffaut's book, Dassin considered the movie, "'the film of my life,' the first film he really chose to make, and made with complete freedom, a film in which he succeeded in expressing totally." Based on Nikos Kazantzakis' 1948 novel The Greek Passion (which was published in England as Christ Recrucified) took place in Lycovrissi, a Greek village in the 1920s held under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Despite being Muslim, the Agha (Grégoire Aslan) who controls the village for the Turks allows the Greeks to stage the passion play they hold every seven years, even though in private the Turks comment that "Allah is a cheerful artist, Jesus a melancholy god." Father Grigoris (Fernand Ledoux) picks who will play all the various roles and upsets some when he selects a stuttering shepherd named Manolios (Pierre Vaneck) to play Jesus. As you'd expect, the village's prostitute, Katerina, (Melina Mercouri, in her first film with her future husband) is cast as Mary Magdalene, An angry blacksmith Panagiotaros (Roger Hanin) who holds lots of grudges, including being passed over for the role of Christ, gets picked for the role of Judas. Outside the casting, there are other interesting characters such as the village's now figurehead of a leader, Archon Patriarcheas, who the Turks still allow to live well and for his own pleasure (played by Gert Frobe, who would go on to play Bond's best villain in the best 007 film, the title role of Goldfinger). The conflict comes when Greeks uprooted by Turks from another village arrive, starving and looking for shelter. They're led by their own priest, Father Fotis (Jean Servais from Rififi) but Father Grigoris suspects these new people aren't looking for charity but for land and spreads rumors of cholera about the newcomers, quarantining them to a mountainous area. It's all the reason the richer citizens of Lycovrissi need to ostracize them but, as you might expect, those involved in the passion play, start to take their roles seriously and Manolios dares to reach out to help the refugees. Georges Auric composed a boisterous score for the film and He Who Must Die contains many positive attributes, but I think Truffaut nailed the film's problems in his review in The Films in My Life:

"This time there is nothing but nobility, nobility, and more nobility — too much nobility for a film that displays an intellectual confusion seldom displayed in the history of cinema.…I must admit that this kind of subject, in which everyday people must transcend themselves by identifying with characters they personify, irritates me because it is so theatrical and so obvious. Knowing in advance that Judas will betray Christ, we pay attention only to how the blacksmith will betray the shepherd.…During the film, which I saw twice, I noted this sentence in the dialogue: 'The human brain is a fragile machine; one turn too many and it breaks down.' Jules Dassin gave one turn too many to his film; he has everything mixed up, tangled it all together, preaching and plasticity, reflections in mirrors, the lack of bread, rejected lovers, and children who die of cold."

He Who Must Die was in competition for the Palme d'Or at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, but lost to Friendly Persuasion. It did receive the OCIC (The International Catholic Organization for Cinema) Award — Special Mention.

THE LAW (1959)

Dassin went from the all-too-literal to the all-too-obscure with his next film, which didn't open in the U.S. until 1960 (and when it did, it was called Where the Hot Wind Blows!). Though Italy kicked Dassin out the last time he tried to make a movie there, the country allowed him to film there for his adaptation of French author Roger Vailland's 1957 La loi, which won France's highest literary prize, The Prix Goncourt. Though the novel was written in French and Dassin would film the movie in French, it took place in a southern Italian fishing village on the Adriatic called Porto Manacore and starred Italian acting icons Gina Lollabrigida and Marcello Mastroianni and took its name from a game native to that part of Italy. Some non-Italians made the cast as well including French stars Yves Montand (The Wages of Fear) and Pierre Brasseur (Frédérick Lemaître in Children of Paradise) and, of course, Melina Mercouri. Brasseur plays Don Cesare, the aging, de facto leader of Porto Manacore. Lollabrigida is Marietta, one of the don's housekeepers, the object of lust for most of the village's men, and the object of scorn for others, especially Don Cesare's other female servants who torture Marietta when they can since no one dreams of them. Montand, who gives the best performance of the film, plays Matteo Brigante, the local crime boss who loves to throw his weight around, but does it in a most charming way since he wants to assume Don Cesare's place of respect and wouldn't mind Marietta as well. He has his own personal problem in that his young son Franceso (Raf Mattioli, who died of a heart attack the next year at the young age of 24) has been having an affair with the judge's wife (Mercouri) and plans to run off with her. Mastroianni is Enrico Tosso, an agronomist from morthern Italy visiting the village who falls for Marietta (and she for him) but lacks the funds for a dowry. Marietta sets out to steal cash from a Swiss tourist so they can be together while Don Cesare advises that Enrico should go observe a session of The Law to see what it's all about, since it's such a regional phenomenon he's unfamiliar with the game. Almost nightly, men gather in a town tavern to play the game, but when Enrico shows up to be a spectator, Brigante forces him to participate even though he doesn't know the rules. Explaining The Law (the movie) proves less complicated than describing the game it's based on. Author Vailland appeared on the French talk show Lectures pour tous on Dec. 4, 1957, where host Michel Butor interviewed him about the game. The two-disc Oscilloscope DVD set of The Law includes the interview.
VAILLAND: First off, it's a card game (that only exists) in southern Italy.
BUTOR: It's a card game that shows the feudal system still strong in this region…Let's say first the rules…and who plays…
VAILLAND: The rules are very simple. First, you need a winner, like in any game, but the game only starts when the winner has been designated by luck — by a card game or a dice roll — and The Law becomes an exciting and cruel game because the winner can impose The Law on the loser.
BUTOR: What does that mean?
VAILLAND: It means asking questions that they must answer which insult them in a more or less subtle way and they must endure it, even if it wounds their honor.
BUTOR: Is it the game of Truth?
VAILLAND: In the sense of honor, which is very strong in southern Italy. The same insult in real life would provoke a violent response, but in the game of Law, it's in the rules. The loser must lay his hands on the table and be subjected to The Law.

Did that clear things up? Didn't think so. It doesn't really match the movie's depictions of the game either. (He doesn't bring up the winner being given the title of "the boss," picking a deputy boss, naming an idiot, etc.) In the end, it hardly matters. I imagine if you hail from southern Italy, it's conceivable that additional layers of meaning might be found in The Law that escapes viewers from the rest of the world. Since that includes the overwhelming majority of us, let's just forget about the game's relevance to the plot. They might as well be playing Quintet. In spite of The Law lacking a truly coherent story, Dassin does have a great, fluid sequence toward the opening of the film that begins with the release of a pigeon from the first scene landing on a building. From there, in seemingly one take, the camera moves along the windows of the building, catching the various goings-on in the apartments as if we're Jeff in Rear Window gazing through our telephoto lens as the people in the different rooms strain to see the source of a siren's song that turns out, of course, to be Marietta warbling while she washes the don's boots on a balcony of his nearby villa. Nearly the entire cast make the effort watchable, especially the great Montand who revels in Brigante's sleaze, even if you're unsure at the end what the hell you just watched.

NEVER ON SUNDAY (1960)

I didn't get a chance to re-watch this one, but when I first saw this a few years back, I was underwhelmed, but it may be Dassin's most important post-blacklist film, not in terms of quality but in what it represented. First of all, it was a huge hit. Second, 1960 more or less brought an official end to the blacklist on several fronts. Kirk Douglas released Spartacus and defied the list by allowing screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's credit to appear. When the Oscar nominations came out, Dassin was nominated for both best director and best story and screenplay for Never on Sunday, the only two Oscar nominations Dassin ever received. The movie as a whole received five nominations, including best actress for Melina Mercouri and won best original song for the title track. Mercouri had won best actress at Cannes, tying with Jeanne Moreau for her work in Peter Brook's Seven Days…Seven Nights (known as Moderato cantabile in France). Not everything was perfect: Nedrick Young who co-wrote Inherit the Wind was nominated under the pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas, though the Academy restored Young's name to the records in 1993. In one of the DVD interviews, Dassin told another funny anecdote. When he was making Never on Sunday, he ran short on financing and again had to cast himself, this time as the lead. Before the film had been released outside of Greece (where it was a huge hit anyway), Jack Lemmon happened to be Athens and Dassin showed it to him, hoping somehow that he could come up with money to re-shoot his scenes with Lemmon playing his part. After watching it, Lemmon told Dassin, "You're terrible in this film, but it's charming." He advised him to leave it the way it was. With Dassin's terrible performance intact, the movie was a hit everywhere, grossing an estimated $8 million as of January 1962 off a $151,000 budget.

He returned to New York briefly in early 1962 to direct a new play on Broadway by Robert L. Joseph about a dying child called Isle of Children. It starred Patty Duke, the same year she would repeat her stage success as Helen Keller in movie of The Miracle Worker. The cast also included Bonnie Bedelia. The play got mixed reviews and ran for a mere 11 performances.

PHAEDRA (1962)

This attempt to do a modern twist on the ancient Greek myth of Phaedra falls into overheated melodrama and little else. Dassin manages some nice shots and the cinematography by Jacques Natteau and especially Max Douy's art direction are exceptional. Raf Vallone does what he can as the Greek shipping magnate and Melina Mercouri floats between good and bad as the title temptress, but Anthony Perkins at times almost goes as over-the-top as Vallone's son as he did as the weirdo priest in Ken Russell's Crimes of Passion.

TOPKAPI (1964)

Sometimes it can be hysterical when someone satirizes one of their most famous roles or movies (Think Marlon Brando in The Freshman). Dassin should have been more than capable to do a comic riff on Rififi, but Topkapi is not that movie. It throws Maximilian Schell (who, by coincidence, would be hysterical in The Freshman), Melina Mercouri (as always), Robert Morley and Peter Ustinov, sweating up a storm and winning his second Oscar for supporting actor as the chase begins to abscond with a jeweled dagger from a museum in Istanbul. It's meant to be funny, but the jokes fall flat. What's most notable is that 22 years after Dassin directed his first feature film, Topkapi marked the first time he filmed in color. What always has bugged me is that, as much as I love Ustinov generally, how could he win the Oscar in 1964 for this? His official competition that he beat was John Gielgud in Becket, Stanley Holloway in My Fair Lady, Edmond O'Brien in Seven Days in May and my choice of their nominees, Lee Tracy in The Best Man. This doesn't include people who didn't make the cut such as Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove, Gert Frobe in Goldfinger, Richard Attenborough (Seance on a Wet Afternoon) — that's just a handful that come to mind.

I haven't seen Dassin's next film, 1966's 10:30 P.M. Summer, based on Marguerite Duras' novel Dix heures et demie du soir en été. Duras and Dassin co-wrote the screenplay. I borrowed part of a post that Roderick Heath wrote at Ferdy on Films
10:30 P.M. Summer looks to me like a transitional film. Today, spare, cryptic portraits of the psychic and sexual life are more common; how to create psychologically and emotionally penetrating works of film was a major question for earlier directors. This film, like Losey and Pinter’s Accident (1967), which possibly had an easier time of it for centering more happily on male sexual transgressions, or Tony Richardson’s Mademoiselle (1966), stand somewhere between the stylistics of the “alienation” films of the early ’60s and the playfulness of the new wave, and the approaching full-bore works of Bertolucci, Breillat, Eustache and others.

Whilst no masterpiece, it’s far better than its reputation reflects, and it’s a film worth finding.


Dassin and Mercouri decided for their next project to return to the material that gave them their greatest success and they turned Never on Sunday into the Broadway musical Illya Darling. Mercouri repeated her role, but Dassin was glad to stick to directing and writing the musical's book. He let Orson Bean play his part from the movie. This might have been a sign that they were making a good move: the musical was booked into The Mark Hellinger Theatre, named after the independent producer of his first two great films, Brute Force and The Naked City, but who had a career as a New York theater critic and columnist prior to that. It no longer exists as a theater as the Nederlanders has leased the theater to the Times Square Church since 1989. The musical's cast also included Hal Linden and had music by Manos Hadjidakis and lyrics by Joe Darion (who wrote the lyrics for Man of La Mancha). Illya Darling received six Tony nominations (best musical, best composer & lyricist, best director, best choreography, best actress for Mercouri and best featured actor for Nikos Kourkoulos). Though it didn't win any Tonys, the show ran for 320 performances.

While Dassin and Mercouri were in New York with the musical, a military coup took place in Greece. The couple were vocal in their opposition and accused of helping to finance the opposition so they were banned from returning to Greece for seven years. At first, they toured with the musical. Later, Dassin decided to make a documentary about the six-day war in the Middle East, another film I haven't seen. Titled Survival '67, it was filmed in Israel, written by Irwin Shaw and released in 1968. Here is an excerpt of Renata Adler's New York Times review:
By Renata Adler for The New York Times
"describes itself as 'a paean to Israel.' What gets lost is the brave, tragic war itself. (There is hardly any documentary war footage at all.) The film, which keeps crossing what little moving footage it has — wounded men, monuments to Babi Yar and Buchenwald — by an inability to shut up, is poor and ineffective propaganda.

It is also poor reporting — it simply does not tell us anything that we did not know already, and what it does tell — in fuzzy interviews about, for example, the Arab refugee problem — it tells unclearly. Everything about it is off."


UPTIGHT (1968)

While Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri were exiled from their home in Greece, they lived in New York. For the first time since Thieves' Highway, Dassin contracted to make a feature for an American studio (Paramount). For the first time since He Who Must Die, he also was making a feature that didn't have Mercouri in the cast because Uptight had an all-black cast. Truly a film of the moment, Uptight takes place in Cleveland four days after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. In another respect, it wasn't of the moment since Dassin was remaking The Informer, the film the won John Ford his first directing Oscar in 1935 and changing the milieu from Irish revolutionaries to black militants. It starts with a hyperactive animated credit sequence set to music by Booker T. Jones. Dassin co-wrote the screenplay with Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield, both of whom played roles in the film. As a time capsule film, Uptight remains an interesting experience and it contains some really good performances, especially by Raymond St. Jacques as a militant leader and Roscoe Lee Browne as a smooth operator who'll sell anyone out for the right price. Dassin takes a lot of flights of fancy, particularly in one drugged-out sequence involving crazy mirrors at an amusement park.

In 1970, he directed Mercouri in Promise at Dawn. Of the film, Roger Ebert wrote:
Jules Dassin's Promise at Dawn is a warmly drawn love poem in two parts, one dealing with style and the other with the story. Of the two, the first is more interesting: Dassin's treatment of his wife, Melina Mercouri, is a marriage of script, photography and performance designed to showcase her talent and beauty. The second love story — the love Melina's character has for her son — is rather static and even a little distracting in these decades after Freud.


In 1974. as described on the Melina Mercouri Foundation website, "On the occasion of the November 1974 Athens Polytechnic student revolt, Dassin, still exiled, filmed in New York The Rehearsal, a political documentary with the free participation of Olympia Dukakis, Lillian Hellman, Melina Mercouri, Sir Laurence Olivier, Manuella Pavlidou, Maximillian Schell, Mikis Theodorakis and others. Dassin considered this to have been one of his best films. It was due to be distributed on the day of the fall of the dictatorship and became untimely. Therefore it was never released. After the collapse of the junta, Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri returned to Greece where they settled for the rest of their lives. Melina was actively involved in the establishment and promotion of the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party."

Dassin's penultimate film, A Dream of Passion, came out in 1978 and told the story of an actress (Mercouri) preparing to play Medea who spends time with an imprisoned American woman (Ellen Burstyn) who, like Medea, killed her own children. I'm ashamed to admit that Dassin's final film happens to be the first film of his that I saw, It was 1981's A Circle of Two starring Tatum O'Neal as a college-age student obsessed with a famous artist played by Richard Burton. This was on either HBO or Showtime soon after we had it for the first time and I was in junior high. All I knew was the girl I had a crush on since The Bad News Bears and Little Darlings took off her top in it. I couldn't tell you anything about the movie and I didn't know who the hell Jules Dassin was. I certainly do now. Everyone should.

Dassin continued to direct plays once he stopped making movies and Mercouri turned to politics, becoming the longest-serving cultural minister in Greece's history. She made it a campaign to get the Parthenon or Elgin Marbles returned to Greece from the British Museum in England that had held them for more than 200 years. Unfortunately, the debate has continued past the deaths of both Dassin and Mercouri, though popular opinion in both countries side with returning the marbles to Greece.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Comments: Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link



<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Follow edcopeland on Twitter

 Subscribe in a reader