Noir master directed caper classic ‘Rififi’
Jules Dassin, the blacklisted American filmmaker who was a master of film noir, directing such classics as “Brute Force,” “The Naked City” and “Rififi,” died Monday in an Athens hospital. He was 96.
The cause of death was not made public. The Associated Press reported that he had been in the hospital for a couple of weeks.
“Greece mourns the loss of a rare human being, a significant artist and true friend,” Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said in a statement. “His passion, his relentless creative energy, his fighting spirit and his nobility will remain unforgettable.”
Dassin, considered one of the leading American filmmakers of the postwar era, directed his most influential film, “Rififi,” while living in France after being blacklisted as a communist in the early 1950s. “Rififi” earned him a best director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955.
“Rififi” is the “benchmark all succeeding heist films have been measured against,” Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan wrote in 2000 when it was re-released in the United States.
The film was widely considered the prototype for films like “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Mission: Impossible.” Dassin himself made another film based on “Rififi,” 1964’s “Topkapi,” which starred Melina Mercouri, whom he had worked with on the popular English-language film “Never on Sunday,” in which she played a good-hearted prostitute. Dassin and Mercouri later married.
Turan said the influence of “Rififi” “is hard to overstate.” The critic wrote that one section of the film is “a model of tension and precision.” In the sequence, Dassin spends “a full 30 minutes on the actual robbery, a completely wordless half-hour (though it makes good use of sound effects) that racks the nerves and provides a master class in breaking and entering as well as filmmaking.”
Dassin was born on Dec. 18, 1911, in Middletown, Conn., one of eight children of Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, a barber, moved the family to New York City. Dassin graduated from high school in the Bronx.
He got into show business as an actor in New York’s Yiddish theater in the mid-1930s. But upon discovering “that an actor I was not,” he switched to directing, first on the New York stage and then in films.
In the early 1940s, Dassin went to Hollywood, eventually working for MGM, Universal and 20th Century Fox. His first feature film for MGM was “The Tell-Tale Heart” which was followed by “Nazi Agent,” released in 1942. He did several other average films for MGM, including “The Canterville Ghost” (1944) and “A Letter for Evie” (1946).
But “Brute Force” (1947), the violent prison film starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn, marked a striking change in direction to grittier fare. That was followed by “Naked City” (1948), one of the first police dramas shot on the streets of New York; “Thieves’ Highway” (1949), a gritty film about independent truckers battling a crooked produce wholesaler; and “Night and the City” (1950), a film noir starring Richard Widmark as a hustler in London who is caught up in his own schemes. Widmark died last week at 93.
But by the early 1950s, the hunt was on for Communist Party sympathizers in Hollywood, and Dassin’s name joined countless others on the blacklist.
Dassin never denied that he had been a Communist Party member. As part of the New York theater scene in the 1930s when the Depression still deeply affected millions of Americans, he was among many who saw the Communist Party as a force of good for working people. He left the party in the late 1930s over its position on the Soviet alliance with Hitler and the party’s downplaying of the outbreak of World War II.
In 1951, fellow directors Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle offered Dassin’s name to the House Un-American Activities Committee, saying that Dassin was part of the Hollywood “Communist faction.” Although Dassin was never called to testify before the committee, he could not find employment after their testimony. In 1953 he moved his family to France.
Initially, Dassin was unable to find work. But he eventually was asked to write the screenplay for and direct “Rififi,” based on a novel by Auguste le Breton. It concerns a group of jewel thieves who in the end have more to fear from one another than from the police. Dassin plays one of the thieves, Cesar, under the pseudonym Perlo Vita.
Dassin told National Public Radio’s David D’Arcy in 2000, on the occasion of the U.S. re-release of “Rififi,” that when making the film he remembered advice that Alfred Hitchcock had once given him: “Tell them what you’re gonna do, and then make them worry about how you’re going to do it.”
The centerpiece of the film is the now-famous half-hour burglary sequence. The scene is permeated with breathless tension.
“Few avant-garde films have demonstrated so skillfully how time and pace affect perception,” film critic Michael Sragow wrote in 2000.
The late Francois Truffaut called “Rififi” “the best film noir I have ever seen” and said Dassin’s luminous on-location shots of the cold and rainy streets in Paris revealed the city in a way that was new even to Frenchmen. Film critic Leonard Maltin labeled the film “the granddaddy of all caper/heist movies.”
Much of “Rififi” feels familiar today because many filmmakers -- including Dassin himself -- have imitated it. His “Topkapi,” about the theft of a jeweled dagger from an Istanbul museum, also proved influential. The “Rififi"/"Topkapi"-style band of thieves, each with a specialty that is needed to pull off the big heist, is so closely “quoted” in Brian De Palma’s 1996 “Mission: Impossible” that Dassin told the New York Times he felt “shocked.”
“I think it was just too literal, the same thing,” he said. “I said, ‘Is this allowed?’ Apparently it was.”
Although he received the highest directing honor for the film at Cannes in 1955, Dassin still felt shunned by his peers because of the blacklist. In an interview with The Times’ Susan King on the occasion of an April 2004 retrospective of his films at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Dassin said people at the festival looked at him “as if a bug was crawling somewhere, or they would hide their faces. It was tough.”
Even more awful, he said, was having the French flag raised above him when his director’s prize was announced.
“I’m an American. It should have been an American flag,” he said.
Dassin met his second wife, Mercouri, in 1955 at Cannes; they married in 1966 after each had been divorced.
Mercouri eventually gave up acting to serve in the Greek Parliament and later as culture minister. She died of lung cancer in 1994.
The director made several films in Mercouri’s home country, including “He Who Must Die” (1958), an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel “The Greek Passion,” which is a modern retelling of the story of Christ.
But Dassin is probably better known for the film that made Mercouri an international star: “Never on Sunday.” The 1960 film, in which he played an American tourist trying to pull her away from prostitution, was a hit both in Europe and the United States. It earned Dassin Academy Award nominations for direction and screenplay, and its theme song was ubiquitous for a time. The film also drew tourists to Greece in droves.
A few years later, Dassin was nominated for a Tony Award for best director and best book of a musical for the musical version of “Never on Sunday,” titled “Ilya, Darling.”
In 1962, Mercouri starred with Anthony Perkins in Dassin’s intense “Phaedra.”
Dassin’s other films included “Up Tight!” (1968), a misconceived remake of John Ford’s “The Informer” with an all-black cast, and the forgettable “Circle of Two” (1980), which starred Richard Burton and Tatum O’Neal. Dassin good-humoredly called each “a disaster.”
Dassin told Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle in an interview for “Tender Comrades,” a 1997 book about the blacklist, that after “Circle of Two,” “that was kind of it” for his film career.
As he had throughout his life, Dassin returned to the theater to direct plays, including many productions in the Greek theater.
Of the blacklist period, Dassin often said that he was one of the lucky ones: He found work again after five years.
“I’m not bitter,” the upbeat Dassin told L.A. Weekly when he was 90. “But there’s an unhappiness for so many lives destroyed and for the effect it had on movies that were made, for a long time.”
Survivors and funeral arrangements were not immediately available.