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Remembering Jules Dassin

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Julesdessin_lIt’s been a bad week for Richard Widmark fans. First, we lost the actor himself; then Abby Mann, screenwriter behind Widmark’s Judgment at Nuremberg; and now Jules Dassin, who directed Widmark in the classic noir Night and the City (1950). Dassin, who died Monday at 96, directed some of film’s greatest crime thrillers and capers, though he was probably best known for the comedy Never on Sunday (1960), for which he earned writing and directing Oscar nominations, and which starred his muse (later, his wife) Melina Mercouri. That film was made during his years as perhaps the most famous victim of the Hollywood blacklist, hounded into exile and finding refuge in France and, later, in Mercouri’s homeland of Greece.

The movie that put Dassin on the map was 1948’s pioneering police thriller The Naked City, whose gritty, then-unprecedented use of New York City locations and extras influenced virtually every film and TV cop drama that followed (including, of course, the ’50s cop show based on the movie). Around that time, Dassin made other celebrated crime dramas, including Night and the City and Brute Force, and he enjoyed a prolific career as a Broadway director as well (wouldn’t you love to have seen his Two’s Company, featuring a singing and dancing Bette Davis?). All that ended, however, when he was named a fellow traveler at the height of the Hollywood blacklist era in 1952. Dassin had been a member of the Communist party briefly in the 1930s, and while he was no longer a member when his name came up, the damage was done. Before he could testify against others, he fled the country, settling in France. Even there, he found it hard to obtain film work, since distributors feared that American theaters wouldn’t screen his movies. Still, he found success with Rififi (1955), one of the all-time classic heist movies. A decade later, he did a comic variation on that film with another heist classic, Topkapi.

In 1956, he met Mercouri, whom he would marry a decade later, and with whom he made nine films. Their most celebrated was Never on Sunday, which made her an international star. She played a happy-go-lucky prostitute in a Greek fishing village; writer/director Dassin co-starred as a visiting American self-styled intellectual who tried to educate and reform her, with disastrous results. The movie earned five Oscar nominations, including the two for Dassin and a Best Actress nod for Mercouri, and it won Best Song for its ubiquitous, bouzouki-flavored title track. Mercouri (who died in 1994) and Dassin would both come to be revered in Greece as national treasures. It would have been nice if Dassin could have earned similar status in his homeland.

addCredit(“Jules Dassin”: Arnold Newman/Getty Images”)

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