A Tale of Two Careers

The theatrical realism of Jules Dassin
by Bruce Bennett  posted March 26, 2009
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The career of Jules Dassin, who died in his adopted home of Athens, Greece, last March at age 97, was sharply bisected by an early-’50s relocation to Europe after HUAC made him unemployable in Hollywood. The personal and professional fortunes of this Connecticut-born, Harlem-raised director, writer, and sometime actor seem to refute F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that “there are no second acts in American lives,” and it is hard to say which part of Dassin’s two-act story contained his artistic climax. The director’s creative and romantic relationship with Melina Mercouri; Oscar nominations for Never on Sunday (1960); Rialto Pictures’ wildly successful 2000 restoration and re-release of Dassin’s 1955 continental debut, Rififi; and altruistic triumphs (the couple’s Melina Mercouri Foundation was instrumental in repatriating stolen Greek antiquities) suggest that his saga ended happily.

By his own estimation, Dassin’s childhood in the social borderlands between Fifth Avenue wealth and uptown poverty in Harlem was the impetus for a lifelong inclination toward the political left. He credited his stint in New York’s division of the WPA’s Federal Theater Project and six years in Benno Schneider’s Artef Yiddish Art Theater for steering him toward directing. After congressional conservatives gutted funding for FTP, Dassin, along with Schneider and Artef actor David Opatoshu (who would appear in both The Naked City and Thieves’ Highway), was lured into the movie business.

L.A. in the ’40s was, Dassin told a 1972 French television interviewer, “a small town with a huge talent pool—technicians, directors, actors—all devoted to the stars. Everything was employed to make this individual shine.” The institutionalized elitism rankled a young man who had left the Group Theater’s 1935 premier staging of Clifford Odets’s Waiting for Lefty so inspired that he immediately joined the American Communist Party.

In an interview for Patrick McGilligan’s blacklist oral history Tender Comrades, Dassin described MGM’s L.B. Mayer as simply “an evil man.” Referring to the work he did as an MGM contract director in the first half of the ’40s, Dassin said, “I specialized in shit.” When he received a career retrospective tribute at the Museum of Modern Art in 1995, he requested that his MGM work not be included.

Dassin’s feature debut, Nazi Agent, is actually a serviceable, briskly paced B picture. Photographed by Alfred Hitchcock and Jacques Feyder veteran Harry Stradling Sr. (who Dassin says kept him from getting fired), it was the first of several advantageous director-cinematographer collaborations that would define Dassin’s career. Caligari’s somnambulist Conrad Veidt plays a pair of estranged Teutonic twins, one a Nazi and one the proverbial “Good German,” who appear together courtesy of doubles photographed with their faces hidden and the occasional multiple-exposure trick. With its deep-focus compositions and stinger camera moves, Nazi Agent could almost pass for the ’40s work of André De Toth.

When Dassin left MGM in 1946, six features later, he had collaborated with future Columbia photographic mainstay Charles Lawton Jr. and UFA’s exiled cameraman emeritus and master of on-set efficiency Karl Freund. He had also worked alongside a host of friends, colleagues, and fellow travelers from his New York theater days both on the clock at MGM and after hours in the Actors Laboratory Theater in Hollywood, a high-minded performing troupe he co-founded.

Looking back at the theater of his New York youth, Dassin remarked in Tender Comrades that “the plays were not always as wonderful as we would have wanted them to be, but there was that spirit.” The same might be said of his films at MGM. Brute Force, the first of two films made under the auspices of hustling Broadway impresario-turned-producer Mark Hellinger, cemented the spirited combination of technical acumen and theatricality Dassin had cultivated while churning out MGM programmers and directing at the Actors Laboratory Theater.

Brute Force (available on DVD from the Criterion Collection along with the three American films that followed it and Rififi) has been variously described as a prison break movie in the Big House mold, an allegorical examination of the abuses of institutional power, and a fictionalized account of an actual 1946 prison escape and gun battle at Alcatraz Island. Screenwriter Richard Brooks’s blend of handwringing pleas for rehabilitation, sentimental serial flashback digressions, and strong doses of lurid proto-exploitation violence form the basis of a darkly entertaining, and surprisingly vicious, cocktail of genre film tropes and soft-pedaled topicality. Working with Greta Garbo’s former cameraman William Daniels and a cast bolstered with veterans of the Actors Laboratory, Dassin created an atmospheric studio-bound hell from which a legion of damned prison-picture types fight to ascend before becoming martyrs to the cause of freedom.

Dassin described the script for his second film for Hellinger, The Naked City, to a French interviewer as a “policier banal.” Indeed, outside of a then-novel emphasis on police procedure and routine, the central whodunit would not have been out of place in a Boston Blackie programmer from a decade earlier. Nevertheless, The Naked City was brought to the screen with a sustained physical realism unique for a film of its day. Director Henry Hathaway and documentary-filmmaker-turned-producer Louis De Rochemont had photographed substantial exterior portions of The House on 92nd Street (1945) on the Upper East Side. The producer-director team of George Seaton and William Perlberg followed suit with Miracle on 34th Street two years later. Overseas Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Paisan were emblematic of a global move to the realism—and practical advantages—of shooting entirely on location. (Akira Kurosawa and others would shortly follow suit.) Embracing the postwar filmmaking zeitgeist, Dassin (who credited both the De Rochemont film and Rossellini as inspirations) and William Daniels shot some 107 different exteriors and interiors, by screenwriter Albert Maltz’s count, all over Manhattan. Except for a few pickup shots, nearly every setup in The Naked City took place where the script said it did.

But the final creative calls on The Naked City belonged to Hellinger. Dassin’s efforts to use a curbside view of Manhattan to paint a portrait of an economically polarized New York in a constant tug-of-war between haves and have-nots were somewhat neutered by Hellinger’s re-cutting. Particularly galling was the producer’s insistence on adding his own first-person narration. The gala premiere of Hellinger’s edit of The Naked City left Dassin in tears.

Dassin fared considerably better under Darryl Zanuck’s supervision at 20th Century Fox. Thieves’ Highway is another politically charged, agreeably sentimental melodrama, laced with documentary realism. A sequence depicting truckers Richard Conte and Millard Mitchell dealing with behind-the-wheel exhaustion, an ill-timed blowout, and the life-threatening physics of changing a truck tire on loose earth has a confident visual dynamism that harks back to Raoul Walsh’s and William Wellman’s work at Warner Bros. in the ’30s. (The celebrated silent robbery in Rififi, incidentally, echoes the considerably noisier, faster, and less elegant break-in seen in Walsh’s 1932 pre-Code genre mongrel Me and My Gal.)

Like the rest of Dassin’s pre-HUAC American films, Thieves’ Highway has a strong emphasis on transitional dissolves, superimpositions, and other soft cuts. This confident command over golden-age Hollywood film grammar remained the most defining hue on Dassin’s directorial palette for the rest of his career.

By 1950, Fox had operated a British production office for many years. But after WWII, the British government froze the company’s UK assets, forcing Fox to produce films in England. Dassin and Zanuck’s collaborative debut generated enough goodwill that when word arrived that Dassin’s political past would shortly make him unbankable in Hollywood, Zanuck saw to it that the director would have at least one more American credit to his name. Heeding Zanuck’s advice, Dassin, along with his cast and crew, arrived in London and quickly shot several of the more expensive and challenging sequences in Night and the City early in the production schedule. The footage earned the director a pass from Fox’s impressed board of directors.

Girded by Richard Widmark’s electrifying performance and photography by Max Greene (born Mutz Greenbaum in Berlin, and a fellow HUAC persona non grata), Night and the City is one of the most compassionate and emotionally nuanced underworld movies of the sound era. Disallowing the “crime doesn’t pay” conclusion of The Naked City, every one of Dassin’s core ’40s and ’50s films ended or turned on an act of martyrdom or self-sacrifice. Like the white lie that caps Tourneur’s Out of the Past, the dawn-set death that closes Night and the City ends the film with a romantic gesture that rises above the checkerboard of desperation, pride, and greed that have gone before. It’s a reminder that even if justice doesn’t necessarily triumph in the end, the individual still has the choice to do what’s right, even in a society—or an industry—that doesn’t play fair. 


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Courtesy The Criterion Collection
Richard Widmark in Night and the City
Photo Gallery: A Tale of Two Careers


March 27–April 7, 2009 Jules Dassin Tribute


Jules Dassin  |  Retrospective  |  Hollywood  |  Cold War  |  studio system  |  Theater  |  New York  |  realism  |  Darryl Zanuck  |  Mark Hellinger


Bruce Bennett comments about film on independent radio phenomenon WFMU's Speakeasy With Dorian show. His writing has appeared in The New York Sun, NEH's Humanities Magazine, and Stop Smiling online.

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