Jules Dassin: The early years

This summer's hottest noir director talks about the road to "Rififi."

By Michael Sragow
Published August 24, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

When that wily American expatriate, 89-year-old Jules Dassin, spoke to me five months ago via phone from Athens, Greece, I had the pleasure of being the first to tell him that his exemplary French film noir, "Rififi" (1955) -- justly famous for its trailblazing half-hour silent robbery sequence -- was going to be re-subtitled and re-released. Dassin made "Rififi" after four years of unemployment due to the anti-Communist blacklist. He became so successful in Europe -- not just with "Rififi," but with the bumptious "Never on Sunday" (1960), his smash Greek streetwalker comedy -- that even buffs forgot that he ever made films in New York or California.

But Dassin served time at MGM through much of the 1940s, and then developed his edgy personal style in iconoclastic home-grown thrillers, including "The Naked City" (1948) for Mark Hellinger and Universal and "Thieves' Highway" (1949) for Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century Fox. He became a favorite of Italian neorealists and French New Wavers alike with his adventurous on-location shooting and his infusion of moral ambiguity into hard-boiled melodrama.

"Rififi" -- in both its strengths and limitations, the textbook example of a caper flick -- connects more directly to these movies than to the art-house films that Dassin made afterwards. Francois Truffaut, who at the time of "Rififi" wrote that he adored Dassin's way of "combining the documentary approach with lyricism," soon was scolding the director for betraying his "good instincts and temperament" in the tortured and confused "He Who Must Die" (1957).

The week "Rififi" reopened in New York to huge business and tumultuous acclaim, critic David Thomson warned NPR listeners against overvaluing the accomplishments of politically persecuted filmmakers like Dassin. But in our conversation, Dassin was mercilessly incisive about his own directorial achievements. He said he felt ashamed of his half-dozen years at MGM, where his most prominent production was probably his indifferent update of Oscar Wilde's story "The Canterville Ghost." He didn't overrate the films he made after he left MGM either, including his prison movie "Brute Force" (1947), which pitted a young and feral Burt Lancaster against a fascistic chief guard (Hume Cronyn). Despite the film's considerable cult, Dassin himself thinks the story is ridiculous: "So silly -- all those prisoners were so sweet!"

When it comes to his most famous and influential American movie, "The Naked City," he likes mostly its look and its texture -- he says that otherwise the guts were cut right out of it. This Gotham-set police melodrama used real locales to create a juicy ambiance. As James Agee wrote about the New York of this movie (in an uncollected review in Time), "evil things go on there, but by and large the city is bursting with energy, grandeur, sunlight, human variety and an eager journalistic glamor."

According to Dassin, Garbo's great cinematographer William Daniels, who shot "Brute Force" and "The Naked City," was an alcoholic banned from studio work until Dassin approached him "clandestine" and asked: "Is there any reason you cannot make a film?" Dassin recalls that this celebrated craftsman, whose credits included "Greed," took a long time to answer: "I witnessed a marvelous thing of a guy reviewing himself. Then he replied there was no reason. [Producer Mark] Hellinger had him followed, but he never took another drink. Billy won an Oscar for shooting 'The Naked City.'"

Dassin did his final cut of that film in Los Angeles, and went back to New York to direct a play. But the former Broadway columnist Hellinger, who died a month later, from, Dassin says, "loving brandy too much," gave in to Universal and had the film re-edited. Juxtapositions of poverty and glitz, and of middle-class coziness and homelessness, fell to the cutting room floor. Seeing the butchered piece for the first time at the New York premiere, Dassin "walked off in tears."

One producer who almost always backed Dassin up was Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox. The first film Dassin made for Zanuck -- "Thieves' Highway," a critical hit when revived last spring at the Roxie in San Francisco -- is a solid melodrama about a trucker (Richard Conte) who goes head-to-head with the thug in control of San Francisco's produce market (Lee J. Cobb). The movie has surprising heat: Valentina Cortese glitters in the rough as a shady city lady who is more of a stand-up gal than Conte's small-town sweetheart. Dassin's biggest qualm about this film is that "I only had 24 days to shoot -- I could have done it better with more time." Also: Zanuck added his own moralistic scene in which cops lecture the hero and his pals about not taking the law into their own hands.

By then, Dassin was in England at Zanuck's behest, trying to outwit the blacklist and making "Night and the City" (1950), his masterpiece. In this story about a hustler (Richard Widmark) who gets in over his head as a wrestling promoter, Dassin turned Londontown into a city of busted dreams and nightmare alleys. He mixed the fantastic and the real with masterly ease -- and for once, without interference. Knowing that a key role was a grizzled Greco-Roman wrestling legend, Dassin says he "didn't want to pick an actor and train him to be a wrestler -- I wanted to do the opposite. I had never gone to a wrestling match, but I had an image of the name Zbyszko -- Stanislaus Zbyszko. I was told he was dead, but he was alive and had a chicken farm in New Jersey." He turned out to be "a beautiful, cultured, multilingual man" who looked like a graceful rock formation.

Dassin loved working with Widmark, too. "I had immense respect for him as an actor," says the filmmaker, "and I lamented the way his career went. You may not believe this, but after we had this great experience on 'Night and the City,' I wanted him to do 'Hamlet' with me on stage. But he was terrified of the idea." Widmark fell victim, Dassin thinks, to the hard-guy typecasting the studios imposed on him: "Hollywood had trapped him."

But it hadn't trapped Dassin. Just as that European political exile Fritz Lang had been able to ply his thriller skills in Tinseltown, Dassin was able, in "Rififi," to bring his Hollywood-honed talent for suspense to an actual French film noir -- and show the natives (and the world) how it should be done.

Dassin says that throughout his career he's felt at ease among all movie artisans, whether American, English, French or Greek. Indeed, the community of filmmakers has become, for him, the true international brotherhood -- and the one possessed of the highest creativity. "You can find first-class craftsmen in Zimbabwe," he declares. He recalls a quip that Billy Wilder made after the Western powers panicked over the Soviets' successful launch of Sputnik: "Wilder said, 'If I knew they'd be so concerned about putting a satellite in orbit, I'd have introduced them to my prop man.'"

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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