The Homecoming of Jules Dassin
By Gad Nahshon
Jules Dassin, age 89, is the most prominent legendary filmmaker who lives with us. He is still active in the theater, his first love. His first film was produced in 1941 'The Tel-Tail Heart" and his last one "Circle of Two" was produced in 1980. By the way, only few people know that in the fourth day of The Six-Day War, Dassin together with Irwin Shaw produced a film called 'Survivor'.
Dassin told me that he interviewed then famous leaders such as David Ben-Gurion as well as Moshe Dayan. Even less people are aware of the historical fact that Dassin who was born in Dec. 18, 1911 and grew up as child in Jewish Harlem started his long artistic career as a young actor in a unique pro-Communist working class theater or Yiddish acting group known as 'ARTEF.'
Dassin who performed in Yiddish admired the director of this theater, Benno Schneider. Dassin is still proud of this acting period in his life and he still understands Yiddish very well. But, of course, his long career was based on his success as a filmmaker in Hollywood and later in Europe. Please note that Dassin's career was changed in 1949 because of Hollywood's notorious blacklisting or out-casting of anyone who was 'Red' or was named a communist or pro-communism by an informer. The filmmaker whose life was changed as a result of this crusade against the Reds is not bitter. He knows, exactly, who were his friends and who were the ones who betrayed him. He forgave people such as Lee J. Cobb. However, there is one individual who he will not forgive, Elia Kazan who was recently awarded a controversial kind of 'Oscar'. Dassin cannot understand Kazan, who was then the 'King of the Theater', he cannot comprehend his ugly behavior.
Dassin who became a distinguished filmmaker because of his successes: 'Brute Force' (1947); 'The Naked City' (1948); and 'Thieves Highway' (1949) had to run away in 1952 to exile. He became a new kind of refugee, one with a first wife and three kids. He was responsible for a family. He was out of work almost five years. Dassin had to adjust himself to new lands and new cultures so that he would be able to survive. He became an international filmmaker; he was lucky enough to get a chance to produce more films. And at the end of his journey, he found himself living in Athens, Greece because of his second marriage to the famous Greek actress, Melina Mercoury who passed away in 1994.
The filmmaker decided to live in Greece and to be active in the Melina Mercoury Foundation. This Foundation is the epitome of Ms.Mercoury's cultural and spiritual will. Dassin is still not a Greek citizen and refuses to be a French citizen. He is first of all an American, as he informed his interviewer Patrick McGilligan (see: The Tender Comrades - A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, St. Martin, New York 1997), he is an "American and a New Yorker. An eastern too - one of those eastern thinking people. I'll always be an American and I miss America very much."
Dassin further elaborates, "I was separated from my culture and background and I had to improvise and pretend to understand other cultures as well...The Blacklist was a horrible monstrous idea."
He is an honest person who "suffered" because of a high degree of integrity; he still espouses, like his late legendary wife Melina Mercoury, the best ideas of social justice. Mercoury who produced with Dassin great films such as "Never on Sunday" was a socialist and Greece's Minister of Culture. 300,000 people participated in her funeral in Athens. Dassin told me "whenever I come to London, I keep trying like Melina Mercoury to get back to Greece the 'Elgin Marbles' from the Greek Parthenon which the British took from Greece." (Mercoury believed that the British archeologists simply stole it from the Greek people and put it in the British Museums).
The love affair between Mercoury and Dassin is a story in and of itself. He said that he met her in the Cannes Film Festival. He comments on how "she was very sad because she did not win an award and I won an award for my film "Riffi". I was then very lucky. When I saw her I told her, 'so, this is not the end of the world.' She was crying then and answered, 'you are smart because you won an award.'" It was not easy but Dassin moved to Greece, to be his last home. Now, he devotes his life to the Foundation and to the Greek Theater. He expressed to me at a recent party in the French Consulate in New York City that he will not write his autobiography because it would be too painful for him. He was the guest of honor at this party.
Thanks to Bruce Goldstein, the founder and president of Rialto Pictures (New York) who also runs the Film Forum, New York had a chance to meet the legendary filmmaker who rarely visits the United States. Goldstein who devoted his time to the re-release of classical films such as 'The Graduate', 'Contempt', and 'Grand Illusion' decided to release the new 35 mm print of Jules Dassin's 1955 masterpiece "Riffi". This movie was defined by Francois Truffout as "the Best Film Noir I have ever seen! A marvel of skill and inventiveness!" It is the first new 35 mm print struck since the original release. It has, by now, new subtitles which "capture the flavor of the original French Argot for the very first time." Certainly, Rialto Pictures did a great job together with the help of Jules Dassin himself, Lenny Borger, Bruce Goldtein and Richelle Dassin.
"Riffi" or "Du Riffi Chez Le Hommes" was released first in April 13, 1955, then in New York on June 5, 1956. Dassin was the guest of honor of the new release by Bruce Goldstein. Dassin came home again thanks to this new endeavor. He was a popular guest of many events and he was very active this spring during his visit. Many guests gave him a standing ovation in a special screening of Realto's "Riffi" to the press. Dassin was very happy and enjoyed the great New York welcome.
"Riffi" was based on a book by the French writer Auguste le Breton. Dassin used only one chapter of this criminal thriller. The essence of this film is a robbery scene of a jewelry store. The film turned out to be a worldwide smash hit and Dassin won the Cannes Festival's Best Director Award. The song "Riffi" by Jacques Larue and Philippe Gerard also contributed to the movie's success. Dassin had a low budget and casted actors such as Jean Servois, Rober Hussein and Magoli Noel. He also casted himself as Penlo Vita. In French Argot Riffi means quarrel or open hostility. Mainly used by the French underworld (gangs). For a while it was impossible for Dassin to find a job because of the McCarthy era in America and its long reaching impact.
Dassin's country and its representatives tried to crush any attempt by Dassin to get work in the film industry. Dassin was fired a few times from various positions. "Riffi" was his unique opportunity. He knew that he must take the job; he needed to feed himself and his family. Most importantly, he knew he needed to be successful. He did not like the novel. But he had to survive and so he wrote the script himself and then directed the film. Thus, he produced a new genre of criminal films. "Riffi" is like a magnet; it is a classical film.
"Riffi" exhibits the greatness of Dassin as a filmmaker; it was written in 1956 in the Journal American that it was "a piece of filmmaking that'll have you holding your breath when you aren't chewing your fingernails." Dassin has a long list of films on which he worked. He told some interviewers, with great honesty, that some of these Hollywood movies were very bad and he would like to forget about them. Most of his films were successful and became well known: "Never on Sunday" (1960), "Phaedra" (1962), "Topkapi" (1964), "Reunion in France" (1942), and "A dream of Passion" (1978). Specifically films such as "Brute Force" (1947) and "The Naked City" (1948) had a lot of influence on the film industry because in many ways they were pioneering Dassin's new idea and approach to this medium.
Even today, Dassin believes in the progress of humanity and in social justice for all. To be a communist is another story. He said once that he was a radical since he was six years old. He told Patrick McGilligan that he grew up in a poor big family and back in the 1930's the circumstances pushed you to the left. He also was influenced by the play "Waiting for Lefty." It is important to remember that at this time many intellectuals and people in the performing arts were either pro-Communism or pro-left. Dassin argues today that these people were true idealists. He himself joined the party, he joined ARTEF, the working class theater that had many artistically acclaimed achievements on Broadway in the 1930's.
Later, when Dassin went to Hollywood, he suffered from the abuse of individuals like Louis Mager who used to call him 'pinky' or would say 'get out of here, dirty Red. When Dassin worked in MGM with Darryl Zanuck, he was asked why he was a Red. Dassin told McGilligan, "I do not see that the ideas we tried to present were wrong." But he does agree they were na�ve. However, never could they have imagined that Stalin would destroy these "Red" ideas or as a Jew in ARTEF, the Yiddish New York Theater, did they expect Stalin to sign an agreement with Hitler in 1939.
The filmmaker comments how even today the word socialism can provoke a sense of shock in listeners and how it is deemed politically incorrect. His devotion to the progress of humanity was expressed in 1973 when he made the film "Rehearsal" with Lilian Heeman, Lorence Olivia, and Maximilian Schel. It was his protest against the military dictatorships of the Generals in Greece. Dassin said that this film is one of his best. Dassin does confess to the production of a bad film about the Black Panthers.
Dassin will constantly reaffirm that he is an American and he will always stay an American. He believes his exile gave him freedom and a good life. He was happy to return to Athens with Mercoury. He was able to enjoy artistic freedom because in Europe the director has much more freedom than in Hollywood. Dassin enjoyed being a free director in Europe, free to do in films what he liked. He said that the "director is responsible for everything."
In Europe Dassin directed eleven films. This achievement entitled him to the labeling by Andrew Thornton as the Multi-national Filmmaker. Dassin enjoyed his coming back to America but he returned to Greece. He will, always, preserve and cherish the legacy of Melina Mercoury because it is also his intellectual entity. It is not an issue of films or the memory of achievements, but the tenet that he strongly believes in - the progress of humanity.
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