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Jules Dassin RIP

Old 04-01-08, 12:46 PM
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Jules Dassin RIP

Jules Dassin, Filmmaker on Blacklist, Dies at 96

Jules Dassin, an American director, screenwriter and actor who found success making movies in Europe after he was blacklisted in the United States because of his earlier ties to the Communist Party, died Monday in Athens, where he had lived since the 1970s. He was 96.

A spokeswoman for Hygeia Hospital confirmed his death but did not give a cause, The Associated Press reported.

Mr. Dassin is most widely remembered for films he made after he fled Hollywood in the 1950s, including “Never on Sunday” (1960), with the Greek actress Melina Mercouri, whom he later married; “Topkapi” (1964), with Ms. Mercouri, Peter Ustinov and Maximilian Schell; and the 1954 French thriller “Rififi.”

But before his blacklisting he had also carved out a successful Hollywood career making noir movies like “Brute Force” (1947), a prison drama starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn; “The Naked City” (1948), an influential New York City police yarn that won Academy Awards for cinematography and editing; and “Thieves’ Highway” (1949), about criminals who try to coerce truckers in California.

Mr. Dassin’s last major effort before his exile was “Night and the City” (1950), a film shot in London starring Richard Widmark (who died last Monday) as a shady but naïve wrestling promoter and Francis L. Sullivan as a predatory nightclub owner. Some critics called it Mr. Dassin’s masterpiece.

“Dassin turned Londontown into a city of busted dreams and nightmare alleys,” Michael Sragow wrote on in 2000. “He mixed the fantastic and the real with masterly ease.”

The producer Darryl F. Zanuck had assigned the film to Mr. Dassin just as Mr. Dassin was to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He never did testify, but testimony by the directors Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle, who recalled Mr. Dassin’s Communist Party membership in the 1930s, was damning enough to sink his career.

Mr. Dassin left the United States for France in 1953 because, he said, he was “unemployable” in Hollywood. In Paris, unable to speak much more than restaurant French when he arrived, he encountered hard times and remained largely unemployed for five years. In need of money, he agreed to direct “Rififi,” a low-budget production about a jewelry heist. A memorable sequence is of the robbery itself, lasting about a half-hour and filmed without music or dialogue.

Mr. Dassin also acted in the movie, under the name Perlo Vita, playing an Italian safe expert. He won a best-director award for the film at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. By the time he wrote and directed “Never on Sunday,” a comedy about a good-hearted prostitute (Ms. Mercouri), the anti-Communist witch hunt in the United States had been discredited, and he had been accepted again.

Mr. Dassin also had a role in the movie, as a bookish American from — like Mr. Dassin himself — Middletown, Conn., who tries to reform the prostitute. His directing and screenwriting were nominated for Academy Awards.

The movie was a moneymaker and its title song was a hit, though some critics found the script predictable. Ms. Mercouri became Mr. Dassin’s second wife in 1966, two years after he directed her in “Topkapi,” another film about jewel thieves, the prize in this case being gems from the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul.

Jules Dassin was born in Middletown on Dec. 18, 1911, one of eight children of Samuel Dassin, an immigrant barber from Russia, and the former Berthe Vogel. Shortly after Jules was born, his father moved the family to Harlem. Jules attended Morris High School in the Bronx.

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

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

In the mid-1930s, Mr. Dassin studied drama in Europe before returning to New York, where he made his debut as an actor in the Yiddish Theater. He also wrote radio scripts.

He went to Hollywood shortly before World War II erupted in Europe and was hired as an apprentice to the directors Alfred Hitchcock and Garson Kanin. Soon he was directing films for MGM, including “Reunion in France,” a Joan Crawford vehicle with John Wayne in which her character comes to believe that her fiancé is a Nazi collaborator.

His later movies were often joint efforts with Ms. Mercouri. They included “He Who Must Die” (1957), about life overtaking a Passion play in a village on Crete; and “La Legge” (1959), a noirish melodrama with Gina Lollobrigida, Marcello Mastroianni and Yves Montand.

One film without Ms. Mercouri was “Up Tight!” (1968), a remake of a John Ford classic, “The Informer,” set in a poor black neighborhood, with a script by its star, Ruby Dee. It was Mr. Dassin’s first film in the United States since he had left.

The year before, Mr. Dassin had directed the Broadway musical comedy “Illya Darling,” based on “Never on Sunday,” for which Ms. Mercouri was nominated for a Tony Award. The couple lived in Manhattan during the run.

The same year, 1967, Ms. Mercouri, an ardent anti-Facist, lost her Greek citizenship for engaging in what Greece’s rightist government called “anti-national activities.” In 1970, Mr. Dassin was accused of sponsoring a plot to overthrow the junta. The charges were later dropped.

When the regime lost power in 1974, he and Ms. Mercouri returned from exile, which had been spent mainly in Paris. Ms. Mercouri entered politics, becoming a member of Parliament and later culture minister. They had homes in Athens and on the Greek island of Spetsai. Ms. Mercouri died in 1994. They had no children.

Mr. Dassin’s first marriage, to Beatrice Launer, from 1933 to 1962, ended in divorce. Their son, Joseph, who became a popular French singer, died in 1980. Mr. Dassin is survived by two other children from his first marriage, Richelle and Julie Dassin, an actress, as well as grandchildren.

Toward the end of his life, Mr. Dassin ran the Melina Mercouri Foundation, which tried to induce the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles, sculptures taken from the Parthenon nearly 200 years ago. In September, a museum is set to open at the foot of the Acropolis displaying plaster casts of the works.

Mr. Dassin ended his directing career in his late 60s on a disheartened note, when his film “Circle of Two” (1980) — about an aging artist (Richard Burton) who is infatuated with a teenage student (Tatum O’Neal) — did poorly at the box office. Mr. Dassin never made another film.

He had always been demanding of himself and often critical of his own work. In 1962, with his best films largely behind him, Mr. Dassin told Cue magazine: “Of my own films, there’s only one I’ve really liked — ‘He Who Must Die.’ That is, I like what it had to say. But that doesn’t mean I’m completely satisfied with it. I’d do it all over again, if I could.”
Old 04-01-08, 08:06 PM
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Great filmmaker. It's a shame that he was blacklisted but if he hadn't we would never have Rififi. Coincidently, Richard Widmark recently passed who had worked with Dassin.

RIP Dassin you were one of the best.
Old 04-02-08, 01:29 AM
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I just saw this in the USA Today, they gave him a full paragraph.

Anyway, he was one of the best noir/suspense/crime thriller directors ever. I remember when I first watched all of his films that are on DVD the one summer. COMPLETELY blown away by just about all of them. It's a shame the red scare forced him out of hollywood I cannot imagine how many other fantastic films he would have created.

Hopefully he won't become so overlooked in the future.

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