Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Jules Dassin R.I.P.

Jules Dassin, the director best known for the heist films Rififi and Topkapi and the police procedural Naked City, died yesterday at the age of 96.

Jules Dassin was born in Middletown, Connecticut on December 18, 1911. Not long after he was born, Dassin's family moved to Harlem. He went to Morris High School in the Bronx. Dassin studied acting in Europe in the mid-Thirties. When he returned to the United States, he became an actor with the ARTEF (Yiddish Proletarian Theatre) company in New York. It was shortly before the outbreak of World War II that he made his way to Hollywood. There he was apprenticed to both directors Alfred Hitchcock and Garson Kanin. He made his film debut directing the classic short "The Tell-Tale Heart" (based on the Edgar Allan Poe story) for MGM in 1941. He made his feature film debut with Nazi Agent in 1942, an MGM programmer in which Dassin's talent nonetheless shined through. Dassin would direct a few more films for MGM, including a classic version of The Canterville Ghost with Charles Laughton in the lead role in 1944.

While with MGM Dassin dabbled in a variety of genres of films, from comedies to thrillers. Once he left MGM, however, his speciality became film noir. His first film for a studio other than MGM (it was Universal) was Brute Force, a tough film noir set in a prison. Dassin would follow Brute Force up with other classics of the genre, such as Thieves Highway and Night and the City. It was during this period that he also directed one of his most influential films. The Naked City was one of the earliest police procedurals.Set in New York City, it followed the investigation into the murder of a model, showing step by step and day by day the police investigation. The Naked City was also revolutionary in that it was shot on location in New York City, at a time when on location shooting was very, very rare. The film would serve as the basis for the TV show The Naked City (1958 to 1963). Its lasting influence can be seen in such shows as Law and Order and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

The Naked City was a great success. With Night and the City, Dassin repeated that success. A film noir involving a London con man, it was widely hailed by critics as his best film. Unfortunately for Jules Dassin, events would unfold that would ultimately prevent him from working in his native country for some time. Having joined the Communist Party as an idealistic young man in the Thirties, he was set to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) even as Darryl F. Zanuck assigned him to direct Night and the City. Dassin never did appear before HUAC, but directors Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle testified before the committee that Dassin was a member of the Communist Party in the Thirties. It was enough to result Dassin being blacklisted here in the United States.

Unable to find work in the U.S., Dassin moved to France in 1953. Short on money and needing work, Dassin accepted the job of directing a low budget movie about a jewellery heist called Du rififi chez les hommes. In the United States the title was simply shortened to Rififi. While The Naked City was one of the first police procedurals, Rififi was one of the first heist films or caper movies. Based on a novel by Auguste le Breton (who co-wrote the screenplay), Rififi followed the planning, execution, and consequences of a jewel heist. Dassin strayed from the book in taking the actual safe cracking, only briefly described in the novel, and turning it into a 32 minuted sequence shown in meticulous detail. Rififi would prove enormously successful in the United States upon its release in 1955, remarkable given that it was shot in the French language. In the United Kingdom it was released on a double bill with the Hammer Films classic The Quatermass Xperiment, becoming one of the biggest double features in British history. At the Cannes Film Festival Dassin tied with Sergei Vasilyev for the Best Director award for the film. Although it was not the first heist film, Rififi would prove to be one of the most successful. In fact, it may be in part because of Rififi that caper movies would be so popular in the Sixties. Dassin won a best director award.

After having concentrated on film noir for many years, Dassin's next great film would be a comedy. Never on Sunday (Pote tin Kyriaki) featured Greek actress Melina Mercouri as a prostitute whom an amateur scholar from Middletown, Connecticut (played by Dassin himself) tried to reform. The film would earn Dassin a nomination for the Oscar for Best Director and was nominated for the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. As to Dassin and Mercouri, they would marry and Greece would become Dassin's new home.

Jules Dassin had already had a huge impact on caper films in directing Rififi. He would have as much impact on the genre with a film released in 1964, Topkapi. Like Rififi, Topkapi featured a group of criminals planning and then executing the theft of a heist--in this case, the theft of a jewelled dagger from Istanbul's Topkapi Museum. And like Rififi, Topkapi shows everything from the initial planning to the consequences of the theft, all of it in meticulous detail. But while Rififi was a dead serious, film noir thriller, Topkapi was a light hearted comedy. Topkapi proved extremlely successful. Its succes would would spur the development of yet more comedic caper movies, including everything from How to Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn to The War Wagon with John Wayne. Although Dassin would continue to make quality movies for the rest of his career (Up Tight and The Rehearsal among them, he never again matched the heights he had achieved with The Naked City, Night and the City, Rififi, and Topkapi.

Dassin not only directed movies, but also acted in them as well. As mentioned above, he was the male lead in Never on Sunday. He also played a role in Rififi, as an Italian safe cracker. Dassin also appeared in his films Phaedra, The Promise at Dawn, and The Rehearsal. Dassin also worked on Broadway. Among the plays he staged and directed on Broadway were Medicine Show (1940), Joy to the World (1948), Magadalena (1948), Two's Company (1952), and Isle of Children (1962). In 1967 he adapted Never on Sunday as the musical Illya Darling, with Melina Mercouri again in the title role. It won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Composer and Lyricist for Manos Hadjidakis and Joe Darion, Best Actress in a Musical for Melina Mercouri, among other awards.

Although he may not be one of the best known directors among the general public, Jules Dassin was arguably one of the most influential. With The Naked City he pioneered the police procedural. With Rififi he virtually invented the modern heist film. With Topkapi he invigorated the comedic caper movie. And on top of all this, Dassin was one of the greatest directors of film noir of all time, directing such classics as Brute Force, Thieves Highway, Night and the City. Few directors have ever achieved what he did. If he was able to continue his career after being blacklisted in Hollywood where others could not, it is perhaps because he had the sheer talent, as well as tenacity, to do so. He will certainly be remembered.

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