Coming on the heels of our Jean-Pierre Melville Essentials from last week, we’re dedicating this installment of the series to another master of noir who’s often relegated to the sidelines on big-name director lists. Despite how his name might look on paper, Jules Dassin was born in Middletown, Connecticut to Russian Jewish parents (and for the record, his name is pronounced ‘Jewels DASS-in’). After a short acting stint with a Yiddish troupe, he turned his attention to directing. With a few MGM pictures under his belt before WWII, it wasn’t until the late ’40s that Dassin was recognized as one of the foremost talents of the era. But his leftist political leanings surfaced during the House of Un-American Activities Committee hearings, and he was among the many American filmmakers blacklisted from Hollywood.
Dassin was thus forced to move to Europe, and after a short period of unemployment, he regained his status as a furiously creative director. Not only did he shoot his films on location, but he was something of a cinematic philosopher, showcasing a knack for uncovering human nature through a variety of occupational hazards. Whether it’s the sun-bleached San Francisco of “Thieves’ Highway,” the seaports of “Never On Sunday” and “The Law,” or the European concrete jungles in “Rififi” and “Topkapi,” his environments are vital components in his stories and are wildly emblematic of his characters’ perils.
Celebrating the new restoration of his meditative magnum opus “Rififi” (which begins its week-long run at the Film Forum this Wednesday), we run down the very best films of this formidable master.
“Brute Force” (1947)
By the late ’40s, Dassin had already directed the likes of John Wayne and Joan Crawford (“Reunion In France“), Charles Laughton (“The Canterville Ghost“) and Lucille Ball (“Two Smart People“) but it wasn’t until this, his eighth feature, that he started to transition from good actor’s director to great director, period. “Not cleverness, not imagination. Just force. Brute force,” quips Art Smith‘s alcoholic Dr. Walters, “Force does make leaders. But.. it also destroys them.” For all his drinking, Walters is the most sober character in the prison in the film, whereas eager-to-escape convicts like Collins (Burt Lancaster, in the second role of his career), Spencer (John Hoyt) and Gallagher (Charles Bickford), as well as the passively-psychotic guard Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) slowly lose their grip on reality either through haste or hubris. The script is one of Richard Brooks‘ earliest efforts, an archaically unambiguous effort, but thanks to Dassin’s deft perception with actors, every single character is almost instantly engaging. The noir-ish tone of this early classic prison drama is accentuated by William H. Daniels‘ enveloping black-and-white photography, the off-beat structure of charming flashbacks, and the prisoners’ women “on the outside” (curiously credited as such in the opening), and Calypso (Sir Lancelot), a fellow inmate who comically croons most everything he says in soothing song form. With “Brute Force,” Dassin, a master of location-direction, creates plenty of breathing space in one of his most claustrophobic environments through careful camera movement and ingenious framing, setting a high bar for the plethora of prison escape films to come. As it successfully delves into the baser instincts of men from all sides, imprisoned either by their thirst for power or their unwillingness to give up, few films can compare.
“The Naked City” (1948)
Before getting inside the wrestling gyms of London in “Night and The City,” or taking to the lavish streets of Paris in “Rififi,” Dassin disrobed corruption on the streets of New York City. While his name might not flash the brightest amongst the most influential film noir and crime directors, Dassin’s “The Naked City” is the one and only exhibit needed to prove that he elevated the genre in his own way. Deeply impressed by the Italian neorealists, by the cinematic newsreel seen three years prior in Henry Hathaway‘s “House on 92nd Street,” and by New York photographer Weegee (nee Arthur Fellig), Dassin intertwined his film’s story with its setting in an explosive combo of styles to make the ‘Naked City’ itself a furiously compelling character. The film coaxes with its supremely effective semi-documentary approach as it peers into a handful of random lives among eight million New Yorkers, before it zeroes in on a murder of a girl. We follow Lieutenant Muldoon (a scene-stealing Barry Fitzgerald) and his unit as they search for her killer, before it ends on a thrillingly high note with a ravishing chase sequence. “The Naked City” is famous for being one of the first NY noirs shot entirely on location, but what’s even more fascinating is that Dassin filmed in public with hidden cameras in order to get the most authentic vibe possible. The birds-eye-view aerial shots, the sun setting under the Brooklyn Bridge, and those iconic Manhattan lights at night give the film a pulse “that never stops beating,” as our unnamed narrator, navigator and quasi-tour guide (Mark Hellinger) eloquently puts it. It went on to inspire a fantastically popular TV show of the same name, which ran from 1958-1963.
“Thieves’ Highway” (1949)
Say you were asked to name the first setting that comes to mind when you hear the phrase “film noir.” Metropolitan urban jungles, smoky bar rooms, dark alley ways… right? Sun-baked Fresno and its underworld of black market fruit produce would scarcely be on anyone’s mind, yet Dassin took A.I. Bezzerides‘ screenplay for “Thieves’ Highway” and made it glisten in the moonlight as a sensual film full of unexpected twists and turns, with all the allure and mercurial violence of the nittiest-grittiest film noirs. Ex-war vet Nick (Richard Conte) comes back home to a seemingly idyllic scene with his parents (Morris Carnovsky and Tamara Shayne) and soon-to-be wife Polly (Barbara Lawrence), but gets heartbroken when he learns how his father lost his legs in a trucking accident caused by shifty San Francisco produce peddler Mike Figlia (the peerless Lee J. Cobb). Forging an unlikely alliance with hardened truck-driver Ed (Millard Mitchell), who kept his father’s truck “together with spit” —a line so good, it’s used twice— Nick decides to unload an early harvest of Golden Delicious apples to Figlia, and to instill some justice. Plans are deliciously foiled once Italian vixen Rica (Dassin’s then-girlfriend Valentina Cortese) gets her “soft hands, sharp nails” on Nick. “Thieves’ Highway” provides doe-eyed Conte the perfect platform to balance melodramatic flair with short-fused temper, and the rest of the cast —Cobb, Mitchell, and Cortese especially— provide rock-solid support, but it’s really the unpredictable nature of the film that makes it one of Dassin’s most entertaining and very best. The breakdown of Nick’s truck that forms the bond between him and Ed; the exhilarating highway sequence when Ed’s truck fails him; Rica’s suspect luring of Nick; the bursts of humor from Figlia’s punchy one-liners: all these elements make “Thieves’ Highway” an immersive film that’s not unlike a gust of cool breeze on a hot summer’s day.
“Night And The City” (1950)
Made in the midst of his blacklisting ordeal (he’d been told by Darryl Zanuck that he was going to be prevented from working in the future, but that he still had time to fulfil his contractual obligation to 20th Century Fox: the director was unable to set foot on the studio property to finish the movie and didn’t oversee the scoring process), “Night & The City” aptly marks a midpoint in Dassin’s career, as both a Hollywood picture and the beginning of his European period. Based on a novel by Gerald Kersh (which Dassin confessed that he’d never read), it’s a rare example of a London-set noir, following Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), a hard-nosed American ex-pat conman who starts a scheme to run the local wrestling scene with a veteran Greek brawler (Stanislaus Zbyszko), putting him head-to-head with the man’s son (Herbert Lom). It’s a pleasingly convoluted tale, with Widmark’s frantic, always-on-the-backfoot hero dashing through a London that’s rarely felt as maze-like as it does here. As with “The Naked City,” the film is as much a portrait of a place as of its main character, and it’s this seminal version of London that lingers most in the memory. Max Greene’s gorgeous chiaroscuro photography lends a moody, woozy poetry to an unglamorous side of the city, and Jo Eisinger (“Gilda”)’s script populates it with a host of deeply compelling characters, from Harry’s tragic, good-hearted girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney, cast because Zanuck believed the actress was suicidal and would benefit from work), to part femme-fatale, part-innocent Helen (Googie Withers, star of the other great London crime pic of the period “It Always Rains On Sunday”). The noir nightmare that Dassin creates amounts to a vivid picture of post-war London, one of the toughest and most uncompromising studio films of the era, and arguably the director’s best work (Irwin Winkler’s 1992 remake isn’t bad either, featuring one of Robert De Niro’s most underrated turns).
Once the ’50s hit, Dassin found himself on the streets of Paris, barely speaking French and desperately low on funds. It took him a few years to find his footing, but once he persuaded Jean-Pierre Melville to hand him the reins of a heist film, the crown jewel of his oeuvre took form. Working on a low budget, without a starry cast and with a book he wasn’t particularly fond of, the director did some cinematic shape-shifting to make “Rififi” the unforgettable masterpiece of crime that it is, and a “paean to work” as Jamie Hook’s great Criterion essay points out. Focused on a grizzled old-time gangster fresh out of jail, Tony “le Stephanois” (Jean Servais), the film twangs with the wrought tension of piano wire as it expertly details the orchestration of a jewelry heist. Cooked up by Tony’s protege Jo (Carl Mohner) and local Italian crook Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel), and fatally assisted by Mario’s safe-cracking friend Cesar (Dassin himself, as ‘Perlo Vita’), the heist anticipated Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge” by 15 years and took up a quarter of the film’s running time in near-total silence. Servais is the spitting image of the classic weary-faced gangster, brushing off the weight of world on his shoulders in super-cool flicks, while the rest of gang get immortalized in the film’s iconic centerpiece. His string of previous films highlighted Dassin’s keen eye for detail, but the cinema gods were clearly one step ahead of everyone else. Down on his luck, Dassin made his greatest creative endeavor; a supremely influential and stirringly existential work that chiseled his cinematic legacy even while getting banned in several countries and condemned by the American Legion of Decency for its frank and realistic portrayal of thieves and drug addicts. “Rififi” is more than its infamous robbery (if it were only that, it’d be enough), with scenes like the song-and-dance number that reveals the meaning of the title, and the devastating third act when everything tragically unravels, where each scene (beautifully shot by Philippe Agostini) is a visual stamp on the fate of the tough guy. It’s a redefining genre piece that pushes conventional boundaries to make way for movie magic.
“The Law” (1959)
Buried under more prestigious titles and award contenders, “The Law” is an under-seen, undervalued picture with sordid theatrics and an odd kind of magnetism. It boasts a magnificent ensemble cast, a firecracker of a screenplay (Dassin’s own adaptation of Roger Vailland‘s novel, with assistance from Diego Fabri and Françoise Giroud) and soap-opera antics that are, from a big-picture vantage point, more operatic than soapy. Put Gina Lollobrigida, Marcello Mastroianni, Yves Montand, Melina Mercouri and Pierre Brasseur in a film, and sizzle of all kinds is guaranteed. The lust for sex, power, respect and passion are all bottled in a small Italian port-town of Porto Manacore, where gorgeous Marietta (Lollobrigida, matching her stunning beauty with some marvelous acting), who is part of a household of women under the tutelage of Don Cesare (Brasseur), fancies the newly arrived agronomist Enrico (can you imagine Mastroianni referred to as ‘farmer?’). He’s wary of her advances and claims he can’t be with her because she doesn’t have a dowry, which prompts Marietta to steal from a Swiss tourist. In parallel, corrupt crook Matteo Brigante (Montand, reveling in the despicable nature of his character like a mischievous toddler splashing around in a bathtub) enforces the law through tyranny and loves participating in the town’s game where chosen boss and deputy humiliate whomever they want (in what could be the cruelest drinking game depicted on film). Mercouri plays a depressed judge’s wife who stars in her own Russian novel and goes after Brigante’s young son, Francesco (Raf Mattioli). “The Law” has qualities of a fairytale, with Cinderella-like Marietta and the women who despise her, a perverse nature that teases rampant misogyny were it not for Lollobrigida’s iron-willed Marietta dictating events, and a volatile humor (Montand’s reaction to getting cut is brilliant; “is it deep?”). It’s not Dassin’s greatest achievement, but an essential curio for its compelling eccentricities and fiery performances, and a shining example of the director’s rollicking affair with melodrama. And if you need to track it down, its available on DVD via Oscilloscope.
“Never On Sunday” (1960)
Similar to the film discussed in the previous entry, “Never On Sunday” dwindles in comparison to Dassin’s masterpieces of corrupt and corruptible occupations —but only when judged on a purely cerebral and technical basis. This ode to the boisterous, charmingly stubborn Greek spirit is not precisely controlled with its direction, and the childish arrogance of the male lead is often blatantly exaggerated to irritate (“I, an American boy scout, will bring harmony into your life!” is an actual line in this Oscar-nominated screenplay..), but the film is Melina Mercouri’s bid for stardom. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of her: she was 40 at the time but exhibited enough sex appeal to shame all of Hollywood’s female ageist standards. She plays the free-spirited Ilya, a renowned prostitute in the Greek town of Piraeus who rejects anything ugly to the point of giving Greek tragedies happy endings (“..and then they all go to the seashore!”), and meets her stubborn match in Homer (Dassin), a traveling American writer who decides to “save” her because to him, you see, she’s more of a symbol than a woman. Mercouri’s magical and lively display —which includes dancing, singing, and the sort of temperament a bird would have once let out of its cage— earned her much deserved attention, including a Cannes acting prize and an Academy Award nomination. She single-handedly raises “Never On Sunday” to essential status and notches another kind of legacy for Dassin (who would go on to marry Mercouri and play a big part with her in Greek politics); the kind that celebrates spirit over scholarly intellectuality, and has its heart firmly beating in the right place.
Shot in a playful technicolor in obvious studio sound stages and evincing a gay tone, Dassin’s 1969 heist movie “Topkapi” is the polar opposite of the gritty, shot-on-location mood and tone of his earlier films. Like “The Happy Thieves” meets “Ocean’s Eleven,” Dassin’s mid ‘60s shift is light, silly and occasionally as delightful as it hopes to be —arguably Dassin is doing a spoof on the heist film he popularized himself with “Rififi.” The movie centers on a ex-romantic criminal pair (Maximilian Schell and Melina Mercouri) hoping to steal a jeweled dagger from an Istanbul museum, and they recruit a disreputable crew to assist, including an English rube and small time hustler (Peter Ustinov). Actually duped into their plot, Ustinov’s hapless Arthur Simpson falls into the hands of the Turkish police who assume this theft plot is a grand terrorist conspiracy to assassinate military leaders. Full of bumbling and unreliable crew members, “Topkapi” is meant to be a frothy heist bauble in the vein of “Charade.” But with Dassin still persona non grata in the U.S. and forced to use an mostly international stars, the movie compensates with some left-of-center flavor. Co-starring Robert Morley, Gilles Ségal, Jess Hahn and Akim Tamiroff, it’s Ustinov’s inept, in-over-his-head boob who strikes the perfect balance of endearing light touch, but also perfectly conveying stakes when they need to surface (he won a best supporting Oscar for his performance, and it’s well deserved). As cloying as some of the movie can be, the breathless heist set piece of the movie is terrific: it’s arguably a masterclass in silence, tension and catharsis. It feels like the B-squad movie of B-team castoffs, but for all its hand me down qualities, “Topkapi” is still a charming little trinket that’s easy to enjoy.
In a career that saw 24 features, other notable Dassin films include 1957’s “He Who Must Die” which re-teamed him with Jean Servais and marked his first ever collaboration with Mercouri. Along with “Never On Sunday,” they would have success with more Greco-inspired pictures, such as “Phaedra” (1962), where she played opposite Anthony Perkins. 1968’s solid “Uptight” saw Dassin shine more light on the disenfranchised and unravel a different kind of corruption within a team of black revolutionaries during the Civil Rights movement. And his successful 1978 collaboration with his wife came to an end in “A Dream Of Passion,” co-starring Ellen Burstyn, where the infamous tragedy of Medea is re-imagined and re-enacted. Let’s just imagine that this was Dassin’s final film, because the less said of “The Circle of Two,” the better.
Your turn, faithful readers of The Playlist, to tell us about your favorite Dassin films. Are there some lesser-known works we missed to shower with praise? Hold nothing back. Or, if you’d just like to continue the discussion of how masterful “Rififi” is, you won’t get any complaints from us. You know where to go.
— Nik Grozdanovic with Rodrigo Perez and Oliver Lyttelton