Sunday, December 18, 2011
Centennial Tributes: Jules Dassin Part II
By Edward Copeland
As we dive into the second half of this tribute to Jules Dassin, we're on an uphill climb artistically and a downhill slide personally as we talk about when he made his best films, including two out-and-out masterpieces, and when the witch-hunting politicians froze him out of movie work by getting Hollywood to blacklist him because of his youthful flirtation with communism. Never mind that he resigned from the Communist Party soon after joining when Stalin signed his 1939 pact with Hitler, once a commie, always a commie, right? At least that was the attitude then. We haven't reached that point yet. First, following making the great Brute Force, Dassin re-teams with producer Mark Hellinger for The Naked City, a landmark because it was the first sound film to shoot entirely in New York. Henry Hathaway had filmed some scenes of 1945's The House on 92nd Street on the streets of New York, but not the entire movie. Another film had shot partly on the streets of New York, but The Naked City became the first movie to film its entire production there. If you started here accidentally and missed Part I, click here.
Hellinger's role in The Naked City extended beyond producing — he also narrated the film which, to me at least, turns out to be a demerit at times. In his 1948 New York Times review, Bosley Crowther, mixed on the movie overall, referred to the narration as "a virtual Hellinger column on film." Not all the narration is cringeworthy (Two examples: "How many things this sky has seen that man has done to man"; "Milk! Isn't there anything else for ulcers except for milk?") Some come off fine such as when Hellinger notes, "There's a pulse to a city that never stops beating." When the narration grates the most are the times when it sounds like a talkative moviegoer asking their companion annoying questions such as, "Is Henderson the murderer? Did a taxicab take him to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station? Who is Henderson? Where does he live? Who knows him?" The movie itself starts with an overhead shot of the city skyline as Hellinger waxes on about the city as the daytime shots turn into nighttime images and he tells us, "This is the city when it's silent or asleep, as if it ever really is." After his narration introduces us to various inhabitants of the city who work nights, he also shows us people resting at home or out on the town (cleverly introducing people who will be major characters later without pointing that out) "And while some people work and most sleep, others are at the close of an evening of relaxation — " We see a night club getting ready to close and its attendees departing before the camera switches to a young woman's apartment where we see her being murdered by two men. "And still another — is at the close of her life." The killers try to fake her death as a bathtub drowning and we see the movie's destination at last. After some more wandering around the city the next morning (including one killer getting drunk and nervous about the crime and his co-conspirator offing him and dumping his body in the river), once the dead woman's maid discovers her body, they show a particularly nice sequence of the chain of calls through switchboard operators going from hospital to a police precinct to the medical examiner before finally ending up at the homicide squad.
The Naked City follows the investigation of that young lady's murder in an almost documentary style. Originally, Hellinger intended to use Homicide as the title but then decided to borrow The Naked City from the books of photographs by famous crime scene photographer Weegee, whose life was fictionalized in the 1992 film The Public Eye starring Joe Pesci, because he wanted the movie to have the feel of Weegee's photos. Playing the men leading the investigation were Barry Fitzgerald as Det. Lt. Dan Muldoon, the veteran with two decades of experience, and Don Taylor as Det. Jimmy Halloran, the greenhorn who'd only been working homicide for three months. Muldoon always has to explain to Halloran the right way to solve a case such as the one they are in, giving Fitzgerald the chance to say things like "That's the way you run a case, lad — step by step" and sound even more Irish than usual as he does it. When they determine that the murder had to be committed by two people, Muldoon pins it on "Joseph P. MacGillicuddy," his version of John Doe. Since The Naked City strives for realism, one thing sticks out that I tend not to notice in other pre-1966 police movies or TV shows: There were no such things as Miranda rights so you never hear anyone told, "You have the right to remain silent, etc." The fine cast also includes Howard Duff, reuniting with Dassin from Brute Force, as a compulsive liar who was involved with both the dead woman and her best friend (Dorothy Hart). If you look closely, the film overflows with familiar faces in brief, mostly uncredited roles including Paul Ford, John Marley, Arthur O'Connell, David Opatoshu and, making their film debuts, Kathleen Freeman, James Gregory and John Randolph. There also is a very funny scene where Halloran seeks information from a sidewalk store clerk selling soda on the whereabouts of the suspected killer and the vendor is played by the comic great Molly Picon. However, the film's true star is New York.
While The Naked City gets lumped into the noir category, personally I don't think it belongs there. While The Naked City turns out mostly fine, the film doesn't approach the greatness of Brute Force or Dassin's films that follow. What makes The Naked City stand out from other films has little to do with its story or acting, but its landmark use of New York — and I mean the real New York, not Toronto. Dassin employed several tricks to film on the streets without crowds getting in the way because word always leaked as to where they would be shooting. In one of the Criterion interviews, he tells of a fake portable newsstand they had to conceal the camera as well as a flower delivery van with a mirror on the side that they could see out of but outsiders couldn't see in. They also employed jugglers to distract onlookers so they wouldn't disrupt shooting.
On the DVD interview, Dassin said his favorite method was to place this guy a bit down the street from where they were shooting, have him climb up a pole, wave a flag and give patriotic speeches. While he mesmerized crowds, the film crew got their work done. Some of that location shooting still amazes. Taylor as Halloran does most of the running throughout the city, on and off subways and buses, past landmarks still familar today and, most especially, the climactic foot chase after the killer that leads to awesome shots on the Williamsburg Bridge. The movie ended up winning the Oscar for best black & white cinematography for William H. Daniels and best film editing for Paul Weatherwax. Now, Dassin contended that elements of the films that put more of an emphasis on class differences within the city and other social issues were cut from the film before release. In many interviews, he said that by the time filming had been completed, rumor already had begun to swirl that he might be called before HUAC to testify about his former membership in the Communist Party. He also didn't believe Hellinger would make those cuts, mainly because Universal didn't want to release The Naked City because they didn't know how to market it. However, Hellinger's contract with the studio had a clause requiring them to release it — and a good thing that it did because three months before The Naked City finally did reach theaters, Hellinger died of a heart attack at 44, another reason Dassin doubted the cuts were his. To paraphrase the film's famous closing line of Hellinger narration, "There are eight million stories from the Hollywood blacklist. This just leads to a much bigger one."
Before Dassin found a new home in Hollywood, he finally got that chance to direct some theater again, staging two Broadway productions in 1948. First, he directed the original play Joy to the World by Allan Scott, the screenwriter of six Astaire-Rogers musicals including Top Hat and Swing Time as well as other films. The comedy takes aim at Hollywood and the difficulty one has maintaining his integrity in the movie business. The play, which ran from March 18 to July 3 at the Plymouth Theatre, also has a strong plea for intellectual freedom and against censorship. Produced by John Houseman, its cast included Morris Carnovsky, who would appear in Dassin's next film and on the blacklist, being named by both Elia Kazan and Sterling Hayden; Bert Freed, TV's first Columbo; and Marsha Hunt, who starred in two of Dassin's MGM films — The Affairs of Martha and A Letter to Evie. The second production was the musical Magdalena which ran from Sept. 20 through Dec. 4. The songs were by lyricists Robert Wright and George Forrest and composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. It was John Raitt's first show following Carousel and choreographed by the most influential yet least-known dance master Jack Cole, subject of an in-development musical project with its eye on Broadway today. One of his two assistant choreographers on Magdalena was Gwen Verdon.
When Dassin headed back west, Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century Fox came calling, seeking to sign him to direct A.I. Bezzerides' adaptation of his own novel Thieves' Market, renamed Thieves' Highway. Before that project got rolling, Dassin received an urgent phone call from Zanuck with a very important question: "Are you now or were you ever familiar with the fundamentals of playing baseball?" Dassin told him yes. In an interview recorded in New York in 2000 and on the Criterion Collection DVD of Rififi, shared this fun little anecdote. It seems that the MGM vs. Fox baseball game was coming up the following weekend and Fox was short a player and Zanuck wanted to see if Dassin could be the one. According to Dassin, he turned out to be the MVP of the game as Fox beat MGM, which apparently was an unusual occurrence. Dassin's agent called him in a rush, wanting to know if Dassin had signed the contract for Thieves' Highway yet. Dassin told him that he had. The agent told him that was too bad — after his performance in the ballgame, he could have negotiated him a higher salary for the film.
While The Naked City didn't really seem like noir to me, Thieves' Highway most definitely does, though it's noir in a setting I never imagined before — crooks run amok among those who sell fresh fruit and vegetables. Richard Conte stars as Nick "Nico" Garcos, a veteran who traveled the world following the war and brings home gifts from everywhere to his proud Greek family. His father Yanko (Morris Carnovsky) is even joyfully singing a Greek song when his boy shows up unannounced, surprising him. (Interesting that as important as Greece will become in Dassin's life later that it's a distinct element of this film.) While the mood overflows with happiness in the Garcos house, Nick discovers that things haven't gone well during his absence when one of his presents turns out to be a special pair of shoes for his father and he urges him to try them on. There's a problem — Yanko can't wear shoes anymore. He rolls away from the table to reveal to his son that he no longer has legs. His father tells him the story about how he had a huge load of the season's first crop of juicy tomatoes and one of the biggest produce dealers on the San Francisco market Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) had agreed to buy them but as he asked for his money, Figlia insisted they have a drink to celebrate first. That drink turned into more drinks and the next thing Yanko knew, he was on the side of the road under his wrecked truck minus his legs. Figlia claims he paid him and someone must have taken the money from the truck. To make matters worse, since he couldn't use the truck anymore, he sold it and the man he sold it to has stiffed him on payment as well. While Nick's mom (Tamara Shayne) tries to calm things down and argues that perhaps Figlia told the truth, Nick can tell that Figlia was lying and his dad never got paid. First though, he's getting the truck back.
When he finds Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell), the man who bought the truck, Nick demands the keys to the truck or the money. Kinney complains that he can't pay right now because the truck has been giving him fits but he needs it to pick up a load of golden delicious apples. Nick makes a deal that he'll be his partner to pick up the apples and take them to San Francisco for the sale. The one hitch — Kinney already had a deal set with two guys Slob and Pete (Jack Oakie, Joseph Penney) so Kinney has to make up a story about how he can't make the run. The men go away disappointed — but they also tail him and see that he's lying and make it a point to harass them. If Mitchell looks familiar, he's probably best known for his role three years later as movie exec R.F. Simpson in Singin' in the Rain. Mitchell's career was cut short. A heavy smoker, lung cancer claimed his life at the age of 50 in 1953. Another interesting tale that comes out of the Dassin interviews on DVD is that Oakie, the longtime comic actor who scored an Oscar nod for his Mussolini spoof in Chaplin's The Great Dictator, was completely deaf when he made Thieves' Highway, something that Dassin didn't realize for weeks because Oakie was so good at picking up cues from other actors and never missed his mark or messed up a take. After Kinney and Nick team up, the first portion of the film concentrates on the long haul to San Francisco after they pick up the apples with Nick driving the decrepit truck, Kinney following in another and Slob and Pete harassing them along the way. As Dassin said, the enemy for these men is fatigue and drivers employed many tricks to stay wake on the roads at night.
After a near disaster, Kinney decides it's best if he and Nick switch trucks, letting him, the more experienced driver, try to hold it together while Nick takes the better rig with the first half of the load on to San Francisco. As in The Naked City, Dassin breaks some ground here by doing some amazing location shooting in San Francisco's market area with crowded streets and lots of activity. When we arrive there, that's when Cobb appears playing the most diabolical produce salesman in the history of film. Cobb's centennial was Dec. 8, but I got so backed up with other projects I wasn't able to do a proper salute to this towering actor. In the 2005 interview on the DVD, Dassin said that Cobb truly "enjoyed his villainy." During the work on this piece, I uncovered more and more names of actors and directors who named names before HUAC that I had never known about before. I mentioned Sterling Hayden earlier, which was news to me. I also didn't know about Cobb. It's odd how all the ire and bile aimed at people who did name names seemed to be reserved for Elia Kazan. In Cobb's case, the pressure on the actor when he was called to testify before HUAC had nearly brought his wife to a nervous breakdown so Cobb felt compelled to name names to preserve his wife's sanity. Regardless, that doesn't take away from the fact that Cobb was a great actor and not just anyone can turn a produce dealer into a plausible bad guy. Conte matches him well as the good guy without turning Nick into a bland opponent. When things heat up between Nick and Figlia and Figlia suggests they go off to his office, one man comments that Figlia will "eat that kid alive." A buyer named Midge who's seeking golden delicious apples and is played by Hope Emerson, who will be a memorable villain herself the following year as the women's prison matron in Caged, responds, "I'll take odds on the kid." One of Figlia's deceptive tricks against Nick involves utilizing a local hooker named Rica (played by Valentina Cortese, best known for her Oscar-nominated turn in Truffaut's Day for Night, in only her second English-language film and her first shot in the U.S, though her last name is spelled Cortesa). Rica keeps Nick occupied while his truck, which is stuck in front of Figlia’s stand because of flat tires, gets raided and has its apples sold off by Figlia. In the 2005 interview, Dassin told of how Zanuck was a very hands-on producer. Since Rica would inevitably turn out to be the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold who would end up aiding Nick, Zanuck insisted that they write in a part of "a bourgeois fiancée who betrays Nick" to justify the hero falling for the hooker. Barbara Lawrence played that role, Polly Faber.
In addition to Thieves' Highway's noirish elements, which basically get segregated to San Francisco once Nick arrives and Figlia and Rica join the film, the movie's other half covers Kinney's treacherous drive in the truck that's barely holding together. Dassin builds genuine suspense in these scenes, aided by Alfred Newman's score. His journey isn't helped by the constant taunting by Slob and Pete, but as he steers the truck through curvy, mountainous highways, the sequences seem to foreshadow what would come several years later in Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear. When the drive finally goes fatally wrong, the truck crashes and rolls down an embankment, apples going everywhere. Even Slob and Pete rush down, but it's too late as the truck bursts into flames. "From that angle, apples rolling down the hill into the camera. I said to myself, 'That's a good shot.' I think that's one of the shots I've enjoyed most in films I've made," Dassin said in 2005. One thing in Thieves' Highway that didn't particularly please Dassin was that Zanuck shot an entirely new ending that he didn't know about because he already was in London prepping Night and the City. When Nick finally gets his physical revenge on Figlia, Zanuck's ending added police coming in to make the point that people "shouldn't take the law into their own hands." However, given what Zanuck did for Dassin overall when the witchhunters came calling, he couldn't complain that much. When the shit really started to hit the fan, it didn't sound as if Zanuck was someone who would be as helpful as he was during Dassin's crisis. In 1949, word came down that HUAC was going to call Dassin to testify and Zanuck and other Fox executives had a meeting about "the problem." In the 2004 L.A. County Museum of Art interview, Dassin said that Zanuck told him, "He was going to step on my neck because I was a dirty red."
is to be a nice guy, but you can't make it.'" — Jules Dassin
As Dassin went on to tell in that 2004 interview, after Zanuck's "threat," he was surprised to find the producer at his front door — not something you'd expect from someone at Zanuck's level. He informed Dassin that he was flying to London the next day and handed him the novel Night and the City by Gerald Kersh. Dassin told Zanuck he couldn't rush off on a moment's notice like that — he had family problems. Zanuck disagreed with the director, saying that he also had family needs and this could end up being the last film he ever made. Zanuck advised him to get shooting on the film as fast as he could and to do the most expensive scenes first so the studio wouldn't have an excuse to shut the production down. Dassin followed Zanuck's advice and was in London readying the shoot when he learned that he'd been called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Zanuck informed the panel that he was abroad and got his scheduled hearing postponed. When Dassin was about two weeks away from the start of shooting on the film, Zanuck called. He asked Dassin if he agreed that he owed him one. Yes, he did owe him, Dassin said in the 2004 interview. Zanuck requested a favor — he wanted Dassin to cast Gene Tierney in a role. Dassin was confused, since there wasn't a role in the movie that she could really play, but Zanuck explained that a love affair had just ended very badly for the actress and she was almost suicidal. When she got in those states, Zanuck said, the only thing that snaps her out of it is work. Quickly, the role of Mary Bristol was written into the script of Night and the City and Tierney joined Richard Widmark and the rest of the talented cast in one of the two best films Dassin ever made. Kersh, the author of the novel the film was based on, did not agree. Dassin never admitted it until an interview in 2005, but Zanuck had encouraged him to everything in such a rush, he never read the book. Many years later, when he did, he could see why Kersh got mad — Night and the City the movie had no resemblance to Night and the City the novel whatsoever.
I haven't read the novel but if the godawful 1992 film with the same title starring Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange hewed closer to its narrative, I'm glad that I haven't. If, on the other hand, the 1992 Night and the City just provides more evidence that nine times out of 10, when you try to remake a classic film, you only end up with the celluloid equivalent of diarrhea, Kersh should be grateful he died in 1968. I actually saw the disaster of a remake before I ever saw the original and once I saw the original, I couldn't believe that they were supposed to have come from the same source material. When ranking Dassin's films, I'm always torn between Night and the City and Rififi as to which I think is the greatest. Preparing for this tribute, I watched the films on consecutive nights. It's such a close call, but for today anyway, I give Rififi the slight edge. However, that doesn't mean I love Night and the City any less. What a script. What a cast. Every detail done to perfection. "Night and the city. The night is tonight, tomorrow night or any night. The city is London." Those are the words that open the film then we see Widmark's Harry Fabian running like hell through a square — and running will be what he's doing for a lot of the movie when he doesn't slow down long enough to try to make his Greco-Roman wrestling scheme work or to make time for Mary or listen to offers from the likes of Francis L. Sullivan's Philip Nosseross, a nightclub owner who resembles a more genial Jabba the Hutt, or his wife Helen (the wonderful Googie Withers, who just passed away in July), who wants her own action and to escape her husband.
When Night and the City opened in 1950, it depended where you lived what music accompanied Fabian's film-opening sprint. Britain, still recovering from the damage of World War II, had laws in place to ensure that it kept a certain amount of the profits of films made there and provide workers jobs as well. As a result, there were two versions of Night and the City, and Dassin wasn't allowed to participate in the editing of either one — one because he wasn't British, the other because when he returned to the United States, he was banned from the 20th Century Fox lot. The British cut runs longer, adding some more character scenes, and contains a moodier score by Benjamin Frankel, who would go on to score John Huston's Night of the Iguana and Ken Annakin's Battle of the Bulge. The American cut, which Dassin says he prefers, has music composed by the great and prolific Franz Waxman, who composed many scores for Hitchcock including Rear Window as well as Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., and previously wrote the music for Dassin's Reunion in France. Waxman uses a variety of styles throughout Night and the City, parts with a jazz tinge, other moments matching the kinetic nature of various chase sequences. I've not seen the entire British version to know how it works, but I know that Nick De Maggio edited the American cut superbly. He also edited Thieves' Highway and would go on to cut another classic Widmark noir, Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street. Max Greene was responsible for the great cinematography. Some of the greatest movies seem as if they come into existence by accident. When you consider what a rush job Night and the City was, how Dassin didn't even read the book (though presumably the credited screenwriter Jo Eisinger had), how a role for Gene Tierney had to be created out of thin air and shoehorned into the story at the last minute, how a lot of the roles had to be cast with British actors by law and Dassin didn't know any (one of his casting directors turned out to be Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and that Zanuck, who liked to meddle with his directors' pictures, didn't reshoot anything or change the editing when he really could have since Dassin was barred from the editing room because of the blacklist, it's a fucking miracle how brilliantly Night and the City turned out. Some things are just fucking meant to be. Even with the character of the huge old Greco-Roman wrestler Gregorious. Dassin drew a picture of a wrestler he'd seen once and said that's how he envisioned the person they got to play the part. Someone recognized the drawing as Stanislaus Zbyszko, but thought he was dead. Another person knew that Zbyszko actually was not only alive but had a farm in Missouri. They contacted him and he ended up playing the part of Gregorious. At a moment of professional and personal crisis for Jules Dassin, the stars truly aligned when it came to Night and the City.
The ensemble does the best job at selling the movie, foremost Widmark as the smooth yet smarmy Fabian. You can see how some people buy into his dreams just as you easily as others see right through him. As Mary's friend Adam (Hugh Marlowe) so accurately describes him, "Harry's an artist without an art." Tierney does fine given that she's playing a role that really has no reason for being there. Herbert Lom manages to be both frightening and unctuous as a crooked wrestling promoter who still has concerns about his father, Gregorious (Zbyszko) when Fabian manages to bring him into the machinations. Above them all though are Sullivan and Withers as Philip and Helen, the husband and wife who don't quite know how they got together but can't figure out a way to split up. When Helen makes plans to pin her exit on Fabian's scheme, Philip warns, "You don't know what you're getting into." Helen knows deep down, but she doesn't care. "I know what I'm getting out of," she tells him. Night and the City, despite the turmoil going on on the outside, is by far the best film Dassin had made until that point. Some good ones will still come, but now he'll face the toughest time of the blacklist.