Dassin's films ripe with realism

April 04, 2008|By Michael Sragow

The appreciative coverage of film director Jules Dassin, who died at age 96 on Monday, paid just tribute to a formidable yet underrated director. But it also testified to the impact of small distribution companies and the movie lovers who prize their wares. For without the efforts of Rialto Pictures, it's doubtful this director would be as widely and properly remembered as he has been this week.

Eight years ago tomorrow, when researching an article on his groundbreaking jewel-heist film Rififi for The New York Times, I called him at his office in Greece. He'd retired from films in 1980, and the movie press hadn't covered him for more than a decade. Then 89, he was still safecracker-sharp, immediately expressing surprise that Rififi, the most famous film he ever made, the one that earned him a best-director prize at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival and revived his career during the blacklist, was being restored, re-subtitled and re-released.

Dassin, who started his career in New York's Yiddish theater and learned his film craft at MGM and other studios (he did two of his best films for Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century Fox), had made Rififi in France after fleeing from the Cold War's anti-communist witch hunts. He later settled happily in Athens with the great Greek star Melina Mercouri, his second wife. When I called him on April 5, 2000, he didn't know that Rialto was about to bring Rififi back to the United States.

But Rififi became an American art-house hit in the summer of 2000, just as it had in 1956, and led to the rediscovery of other prime Dassin movies, such as his ace pre-blacklist melodramas Thieves' Highway (1949) and Night and the City (1950).

Dassin was best known to mass American audiences for his Athens-set streetwalker comedy, Never on Sunday (1960, starring Mercouri), and his frolicsome Istanbul-set caper, Topkapi (1964, also starring Mercouri). Sunday even became a Broadway musical, Illya Darling (1967-1968). Still, Rififi was by far his most influential movie.

Every classy heist film since, including The Bank Job, owes Dassin a debt, for the way he turned criminal process into drama and used the potential for violence rather than its gory actuality to rouse suspense and concern for damaged souls. During the exquisitely prolonged heist scene - a half-hour sequence without dialogue - he explored a cinema master's theory of relativity: He brought you into the parallel time-frame of men who have focused all their energy and light on one big score.

Though Dassin made more explicitly ambitious films, such as He Who Must Die, the story of a Passion play that becomes real in the Turkish-occupied Greece of the 1920s, his signal contribution to the movies would be his ability - in Thieves' Highway and Night and the City, as well as Rififi - to bring a rough-edged lyricism to pungent urban melodrama.

The free use of scrappy locations in his famous New York cop film The Naked City, his ability to turn patois into found poetry whether in the San Francisco produce market of Thieves' Highway or the entertainment underworld of London in Night and the City, and his eye for lived-in detail - you feel that you meet each man and woman in Rififi after they've already gone a distance in their lives - set a new standard for American verismo.

The savor and tang of urban experience that emanates from his movies sprang from his own personality. Yesterday I dug out a couple of faxes from Dassin that he sent after our interview and couldn't help smiling at how colorful he was even on fading thermal paper. When Dassin wrote "I enjoyed our talk and appreciate how much you know about movies, despite your green youth," I laughed at the good old phrase "green youth" even more than I did at the flattery.

He later took a few sentences to explain where the title of Rififi came from. "I may have told you that in the serie noir book from which the film was made the bad guys were North African. The Riff or Riffis were Morocco Bergers, tough fighters. The title of August Le Breton's book was Rififi Chez Les Hommes, translated `clashes between the men' (in the macho sense). I think that the word Rififi was Breton's invention. The closest translation would be Pitched Battle."

Then he provided his own punch line. "You asked what time it is? I send you the watch."

Those who know Dassin only from Rififi or his commercial hits or art films should check out the Criterion Collection's DVD of Thieves' Highway, his pulsating 1949 trucker movie about a World War II veteran (Richard Conte) who challenges the corruption of San Francisco's produce marketplace. Italian actress Valentina Cortesa was an out-of-left-field choice to play the waterfront whore who becomes the hero's ally, but she's phenomenal in the role: playful, turbulent and sensual - and blazingly honest when it counts.

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