Sunday, December 18, 2011
Centennial Tributes: Jules Dassin Part I
By Edward Copeland
With a name like Jules Dassin and some of his most classic films made in France, Turkey, Italy and Greece and mostly filmed in French with some Italian, Greek, Turkish and Russian thrown in, it's easy to assume that the great director himself hailed from Europe, probably France. In actuality, when Dassin was born 100 years ago today, that event occurred in Middletown, Conn., and he grew up in Harlem, N.Y., and went to school in The Bronx. Dassin was quintessentially American — until after working in the theater and making 11 features for or distributed by Hollywood studios, Dassin was one of those unfortunate artists who received the most un-American of treatments from the first round of Communist witch-hunting by the House Un-American Activities Committee (before Joe McCarthy really made blacklisting a phenomenon) and Dassin couldn't work in the U.S. so he headed to Europe where he made one of the greatest heist films ever. Eventually, he did come back to the U.S. from time to time, but his later films lacked the punch of either his early studio work or his movies made in exile. That exile also introduced him to the woman who became his second wife and the great love of his life — Melina Mercouri. So, though eventually he returned to the U.S. to make some films and direct a Broadway musical based on the couple's most famous film collaboration, Never on Sunday, Greece became his adopted home — until he and Mercouri were booted from there by a military coup led by dictators who felt they were agitators. Eventually, they were able to return to Greece as well, staying together until Mercouri's death in 1994 at the age of 73. However, Dassin lived a much longer and vibrant life, almost making it to his own centennial. He only died a little more than three years ago at the age of 96. In some of his early work in Hollywood, he directed some classic examples of film noir that also boasted elements of social consciousness, something he maintained in real life right up until the end as seen in one of the best discoveries I found preparing this piece: an interview conducted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2004 when he was 93 or 94 that Criterion included on The Naked City DVD. The invaluable Criterion Collection also includes interviews from other years with Dassin, the most recent being 2005, on DVDs of his various films, leaving us a great resource on the man, his films and the blacklist.
As was the case with many directors, Dassin's first foray into the creative arts began as a theater actor, in Dassin's case working with The Yiddish Theater called ARTEF (acronym for the Arbeter Teater Farband or Worker’s Theatrical Alliance) in New York in the mid-1930s after studying acting at the Civic Repertory Theatre Company begun by Eva Le Gallienne. It was during this time that he joined the Communist Party, though he quit in 1939 when Stalin signed the Soviet Union's nonaggression pact with Hitler. “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 Guardian newspaper in a 2002 interview. “You fret, you get ideas, seeing a lot of poverty around you, and it’s a very natural process.”
Around the same time, he quit the party. Dassin decided to take his career in another direction — both literally and geographically. He headed to Hollywood where he was hired by RKO to a six-month apprentice director contract at $250 a week where Dassin got to assist directors at work but didn't actually do much in the way of hands-on participation. At least that was the way Dassin described it in the 2004 L.A. County museum interview on The Naked City DVD. One director working on the lot at the time that Dassin who Dassin was assigned to and who particularly fascinated Dassin with his technique was Alfred Hitchcock, who was making Mr. & Mrs. Smith at the time. As Dassin tells it, his awestruck gazing at Hitch at work became very noticeable — so much so that after each take Hitchcock would turn to find Dassin and ask him if the take was OK. As the RKO contract neared its end, the studio informed Dassin that he was being let go. Fortunately, MGM hired Dassin and gave him his first film assignment making shorts. Dassin said his farewells to his friends at RKO — even working up the nerve to say goodbye to Hitchcock, who already had heard that Dassin would be making his first film. Hitchcock gave Dassin these words of advice: "Don't ever make a picture with children, animals or Charles Laughton." Of course, Dassin would end up doing films with all three.
At MGM, he made short documentaries about Arthur Rubinstein and Marian Andersen. He then made a short adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Tell-Tale Heart." Frustrated with his progress, Dassin was able to get his short of the Poe story screened theatrically and that prompted MGM to sign him to a seven-year contract. In that 2004 interview, Dassin didn't express much affection for his time at MGM, equating the contract to being a slave. While he was tied to them for seven years and had to make what they told him to make, they had the option of dumping him every six months. Dassin had tried to get time off to direct a play on Broadway, but MGM wouldn't even let him do that. (He had directed one play that ran a month in 1940 called Medicine Show.) Of the seven features and the Poe short (I have no idea if the other shorts still exist) that he made at MGM, I've only managed to see the short and two of the features. While none come close to what Dassin made later of the ones I saw, they weren't complete embarrassments.
This 20-minute adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story proves to be quite a stylish film debut for Jules Dassin. The short opens with a biblical quote, specifically Romans II.15: "The law is written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness." It stars Joseph Schildkraut, the second person to ever win an Oscar for best supporting actor playing Captain Dreyfus in 1937's The Life of Emile Zola, as the young man who finally snaps at the abuse inflicted upon him by his tyrannical boss and kills the old man (Roman Bohnen). Dassin really pulls out the attention-getting stops: Focusing on Schildkraut's ear from the short's beginning before the killing even takes place. The boss slaps him on it and he threatens to quit, but the boss tells him he's too much of a coward to do that. He's worked for the old man since he was 14 and he's almost 30 now. Murder will out and the young killer slowly goes mad as he becomes convinced that he still hears the boss's beating heart below the floorboards where he hid his body. In his limited amount of time, Dassin creates a very atmospheric tale, helped immeasurably by cinematographer Paul Vogel, who later won an Oscar for his black & white photography in Battleground. The short's only negative is a somewhat obvious and overbearing musical score by Sol Kaplan. For some reason, The Tell-Tale Heart is included as a bonus feature on the Shadow of The Thin Man DVD in The Thin Man series box set.
Didn't get to see this one which starred Conrad Veidt (best known as Nazi Major Strasser in Casablanca) as identical twins: one a stamp collector and rare bookshop owner, the other a ruthless Nazi. On one of the many interviews included on Criterion DVDs, Dassin said of Veidt on the French TV program Ciné Parade in 1972, "At the time, he was the big European star. He was a big actor with a personality to match." When Veidt realized he would be directed by a first-timer, he objected. Dassin sought advice and one of the crew suggested setting up dolly tracks so when Veidt returned to the set, he asked what they were for and Dassin explained that they were doing a shot that started back at one point and then zoomed up to him for a close-up. Veidt thought it sounded great and was satisfied after that.
Dassin's next film was a comedy I also haven't seen, so here's the IMDb summary by Les Adams, though I've added performers' names. "The town gossips are reporting that a household servant in exclusive Rocky Point is writing an expose of the colony. Mrs. Sophia Sommerfield (Spring Byington) is convinced it can't be either one of her maids, Martha Lindstrom (Marsha Hunt) or Mrs. McKessic (Marjorie Main), although, unknown to Sophia, she is totally unaware that her son, Jeff (Richard Carlson), is married to Martha."
Of Dassin's MGM features, this Joan Crawford vehicle happens to be the earliest one I've seen. Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Reunion in France opens telling us it's May 9, 1940, in Paris and then adds these words: The Ninth Night of the Ninth Month Too Uneventful to Be Taken Seriously and Too Far Away to Worry About. Crawford plays Michele de la Becque, a Parisian society figure with a high-profile beau Robert Cortot (Philip Dorn), trying to pretend that the Nazi threat isn't knocking on France's door. As Michele heads off on a train trip, an announcement at the station tells everyone to get into shelters. When Michele returns, she finds that the Nazis have not only occupied Paris — they've taken over her house as their headquarters as well, leaving her servants' quarters for use as her new home. More disturbing, she finds that Robert seems awfully cozy with the Nazi high command. Meanwhile, she stumbles across American pilot Pat Talbot working with the British (John Wayne) and hides him out, even though he's out to stop Cortot from supplying the Nazis with war machinery he's producing. It does lead to one nice dialogue exchange between Michele and Pat where Pat speaks negatively about Michele's love. "You hardly know Cortot," Michele tells Pat, defending her boyfriend's character. "I hardly know Hitler either," Pat replies. The story unfolds in a by-the-numbers fashion, but Dassin does add some nice touches. Old TV sitcom fans will spot Natalie Schafer aka Lovey on Gilligan's Island as the top Nazi's wife. On his appearance on Ciné Parade, Dassin told the interviewer about working with a huge star like Crawford and the star system in general in that era. "To explain the attitude of the time, I was young and I seemed even younger," Dassin told the interviewer in 1972. "While shooting the first scene, at a certain point I said, 'Cut.' An icy silence fell over the set. She (Joan Crawford) turned as if to say, 'Who dared to say cut?' Immediately, the assistant director shouted, 'Why all this noise?' She said to me, 'Never say cut to Joan Crawford. Never.' I said, 'But it wasn't any good.' She said, 'What?' I said, 'It wasn't any good,'" the director shared with the audience. Two minutes later, Dassin found himself in Louis B. Mayer's office. "It's over," Mayer told him. "I thought I'd been fired on my very first scene, but no, she'd invited me to dinner. Joan Crawford. At her house. That was quite something," Dassin said. He went on to elaborate on what dinner at Joan Crawford's house was like, including being greeted by her three adopted children who all wore white gloves. Eventually, she asked him about why he had called cut during that scene. "Because the scene wasn't any good," Dassin told her. Crawford asked him if he thought she was a bad actress but he assured her that wasn't the case. "On the contrary. You're good," he told her "So what was wrong?" she asked. "When you're in character, and it's part of you, I love it, but when you act the grand lady, it feels fake," Dassin explained. "Really? I do that," Crawford said with surprise and Dassin confirmed it. "Fine. Let's give it another try tomorrow," Crawford agreed. Dassin got to keep his job as director on the film under the condition that he never say, "Cut." Instead, he and Crawford worked out a hand signal where he would run his finger across his forehead and then she would know.
Dassin's next film has been seen so rarely, IMDb doesn't even have a plot synopsis or summary. It's never been released on any home format, but apparently pops up on TCM now and then. I borrowed the first two grafs by Laura at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings to at least get an idea of the movie. "Young Ideas is an MGM "B" movie which starts poorly but builds to an entertaining second half, thanks largely to the talent of its fine cast. Jo (Mary Astor), a best-selling author, is swept off her feet by small-town chemistry professor Michael (Herbert Marshall), much to the dismay of Jo's college-age children Jeff and Susan (Elliott Reid, Susan Peters). Jeff and Susan don't want to leave their home in New York, and Jo's agent Adam (Allyn Joslyn) is also apoplectic. Adam conspires with Jeff and Susan to break up Jo and Michael's marriage."
When I saw The Canterville Ghost, I had no idea that it was directed by the man responsible for films such as Rififi and Night and the City. This fun little trifle teamed the charming Margaret O'Brien, the same year she stole the show in Meet Me in St. Louis as Judy Garland's little sister, and Charles Laughton, meaning Dassin ignored two-thirds of Hitchcock's advice on his fifth feature. Based on the Oscar Wilde story, Laughton plays the cowardly ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville, sealed in a wall by his father in the 17th century after running away from a duel and doomed to haunt the halls of his family's castle until some Canterville descendant commits an act of bravery while wearing the family ring. Alas, all subsequent Cantervilles have proved to be cowards as well. The charming young O'Brien plays Lady Jessica de Canterville, the 6-year-old who currently owns the castle, though she lives nearby with an aunt because Sir Simon's ghost scares her. A bunch of American soldiers take refuge in the empty castle and have first-hand experiences with the ghost when young Jessica discovers that one of the fighting men, Cuffy Williams (Robert Young), has the Canterville birthmark. After the little girl overcomes her fear enough to introduce Cuffy to Sir Simon, they decide that perhaps Cuffy is a Canterville and he might lift Sir Simon's curse. The Canterville Ghost isn't a masterpiece by any means, but it's likable enough.
Again, I must rely on the plot summary provided by an IMDb user, this time by Kathy Li. Again, I've inserted the performers' names. "Evie's co-workers at the uniform shirt factory, and her almost-fiancée's inability to kiss, inspire Evie (Marsha Hunt) to slip a letter into a size 16½ shirt for some anonymous soldier. It's received by 'Wolf' Larson (John Carroll), who immediately throws it away, but his sensitive, dreaming — and short — buddy John McPherson (Hume Cronyn) snags it, and begins a correspondence with Evie, pretending to be Wolf. But things get complicated when Evie wants to meet her tall, handsome soldier. And even more complicated when Wolf sees Evie and likes what he sees."
Dassin finally finished his MGM contract with this film that IMDb also lacks a synopsis or summary to describe. TCM's website does, but I had to insert the performers' names there as well. "Carrying $500,000 in stolen government certificates, which are stashed in the binding of his favorite cookbook, master confidence artist Ace Connors (John Hodiak) meets with businessman Dwight Chadwick (Lloyd Corrigan) at a posh Beverly Hills hotel to discuss an oil investment deal. Chadwick's sultry friend, Ricki Woodner (Lucille Ball), a confidence artist working a phony art racket, joins the men at their poolside rendezvous and tries to sell Chadwick on some paintings she claims were smuggled out of Europe. Ricki wastes little time in souring Chadwick on his deal with Ace, to which Ace responds by identifying one of her paintings as a fake. Following the meeting, Ace receives word that detectives in New York are closing in on his bond scheme, and that a deal is being made in which he is to serve a five-year sentence in Sing Sing penitentiary in exchange for his voluntary return to New York to face trial. Assigned to escort Ace back to New York is detective Bob Simms (Lloyd Nolan), Ace's inept but persistent nemesis of many years. Ace accepts the terms of the Sing Sing deal after a menacing visit from Fly Feletti (Elisha Cook Jr.), his former partner, who is seeking his share of the half million-dollar bond deal."
With MGM's shackles removed from Dassin, you almost can say that it was at this point that his film career truly began and he began to direct the classic films that earned him his reputation. Mark Hellinger, who had achieved national fame as a New York columnist after starting out as a theater critic before trying his luck in Hollywood, spending several years at Warner Bros., where he worked on films such as They Drive By Night and High Sierra. Frustrated by the lack of social realism in films and being under the thumb of Jack Warner, Hellinger leaped at the opportunity to set himself up as an independent producer at Universal-International. The first film to come out of his new deal was The Killers starring Burt Lancaster. For his second film, he hired Lancaster again to star and Dassin to direct the prison noir Brute Force, Dassin's first great film. It also reunited the director with Cronyn from A Letter to Evie, but though I've only read the description of Cronyn's Evie character, that comedy's John McPherson bears little resemblance to Brute Force's Captain Munsey, head of the prison guards at Westgate Penitentiary and one of the all-time hissable screen villains. The film also had a screenplay by Richard Brooks, who would go on to write and direct films such as The Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry, The Professionals and In Cold Blood. The opening credits for Brute Force show an imaginative flair, first listing Lancaster, Cronyn and Charles Bickford "As The Men Inside." After that, it ticks off the names Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines and Anita Colby "As The Women On The Outside." That hardly accounts for the entire ensemble as the credits announce that Brute Force is "Introducing Howard Duff, 'Radio's Sam Spade' as Soldier."
Though the film was made in 1947, Brute Force maintains a lot of intensity in its scenes today. Early on, there's a scene where inmates use blowtorches to drive another prisoner into a press to his death. Watch Brute Force and try to imagine The Shawshank Redemption being made without it. Granted, there isn't any shower rape in Brute Force and the warden (Roman Bohnen, the old man in Dassin's Tell-Tale Heart short) isn't corrupt as much as ineffective but the guards, led by Cronyn's Munsey are a different story. The overcrowded penitentiary has been facing political pressures from outside over a series of incidents, the most recent being a prisoner's suicide that Munsey provoked, so harsher discipline is demanded, including revoking all privileges, including paroles, and making all the men on the cell block where the suicide took place work on the prison's drain pipe. Of the prison staff, only the alcoholic Doc Walters (Art Smith) argues against a harder line doing any good. "He doesn't know that kindness is actually a weakness and weakness is an infection that makes a man a follower instead of a leader," the evil and ambitious Munsey says in the meeting. "You're worse than the worst inmates in this prison," the doctor tells Munsey.
The suspension of parole hearings even angers the generally genial Gallagher (Bickford), who runs the prison paper, The Westgate News, and is nearing release. Before Gallagher always urged the hot-head de facto inmate leader Joe Collins (Lancaster) to calm his rage, telling him, "Those gates only open three times. When you come in, when you've served your time, or when you're dead." Gallagher always has served as a peacemaker, even breaking up inmate fights, pissing off Munsey in the process. "I understand you're responsible for settling that little feud over in cell block J. We appreciate your assistance, of course, but…," Munsey tells Gallagher as he passes his table at breakfast. "The boys and I were only trying to help," Gallagher replies. "Gallagher, when are you gonna' remember that you're not back home, running a gang of hoodlums? Let me be the policeman. You just serve your time. And that way we'll both get paid off," Munsey warns him. "Like the good book says to us, Captain, we all get what's coming to us — all of us," Gallagher smiles at the guard. With the crackdown, Gallagher's attitude changes when Joe once again concocts an escape plan. "Look, Gallagher, I know this drum's full of crackpots. One convict's gonna' buy his way out, another knows the governor's cousin. A third guy's even gonna' float out in a homemade balloon. But I'm not buyin' any pipe dreams. It can be done. It's been done before, and it'll be done again. It can be done here — by us," Collins insists. "Collins, if I ever put in with anybody, it'll be with you," Gallagher pledges.
Brooks' dialogue overflows with memorable lines from the talented cast. Brute Force gets around the pure prison scenes when the various inmates share tales of their lives in the outside world, some touching, some funny. One of the best gets told by the inmate Spencer (John Hoyt, who decades later would play the grandfather on the Nell Carter sitcom Gimme a Break). His story becomes a first-person film noir parody within a tough prison noir drama. Spencer talks about the woman he still dreams about named Flossie (Anita Colby) back when he was a gambling fool. He delivers his voiceover monologue in the pitch-perfect style of the genre while the flashbacks play as a pantomime. Here's just the punchline excerpt: "Flossie had looks, brains and all the accessories. She was better than a deck with six aces. I regret to report that she also knew how to handle a gun — my gun…She wanted all the money I'd won and I never refused a lady — especially when she's armed." Spencer also gets one of the film's other most memorable lines when he says, "You know, I was just thinking. An insurance company could go flat broke in this prison." Brute Force really introduced Jules Dassin to the world as a director to watch. The great cast, daring producer and solid screenplay helped make Brute Force a classic, but the pulsating score by Miklos Rozsa, the crisp, stark cinematography by William H. Daniels and Edward Curtiss' film editing all contributed as well. Dassin's earlier works had shown hints of what he could do, but Brute Force was the first film where he could really show his stuff which he'd be able to do even more in his next three American-financed films.
Unfortunately, these would come just as he became a victim of the blacklist and headed to Europe so he could continue to work in film. When I started to delve into Dassin and discovered so many of the DVDS of his best films contained interviews with him, this tribute began to morph into something larger than usual. I hope to keep it two parts and I hope the second part comes today, but to do his life and work justice may end up taking three parts and two days.