Jules Dassin (1911-2008)

Jules Dassin (1911-2008)

He was called the first American neo-realist, though in truth Jules Dassin worked best within the framework of the film noir. It was a genre he inflected with location shooting and a social conscience, before his career was derailed by the House of Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunt. Nevertheless, Dassin was able to pick up the pieces in Europe, where he would make his home in France and Greece. [4]

Jules Dassin was born in Middletown, United States, one of eight children of Berthe Vogel and Samuel Dassin, a Russian-Jewish barber. "This intersection between Europe and the New World haunted his career. Despite the peaceful sobriety of the name 'Middletown' – a location that because of its apparent indeterminacy might also describe Dassin’s subsequent life history as well the democratic aspirations of its forebears – the boy’s parents moved to New York where their son was raised in Harlem and educated in the Bronx. Dassin’s parents were Russian by origin (they were born in Odessa) and their decision to raise Jules in what was then the most cosmopolitan city in the world had an indelible impact on his subsequent worldview. In the mid-1930s, Dassin travelled throughout Europe, especially to countries that would later provide temporary and permanent homes to him in his professional life: France, Greece and Italy." [1] On return, he found employment in New York’s Yiddish theatre and worked for the famous Artef Theater (Arbeter Theatre Farband or Workers Theater Organization) on 247 West 48th Street in Manhattan, which was founded as an agitprop theater based on the Soviet model. As a measure of his enduring chameleon-like qualities, he learned Yiddish especially in order to converse with his fellow theatre workers. Dassin began in the Artef as an unpaid actor and director while working in a paid occupation during the day. During this period he worked with Elia Kazan on a Federal Theater Production of the Marxist children’s play The Revolt of the Beavers, which was terminated after three weeks by the New York police commissioner.

Photo from the Broadway Production of 'Waiting for Lefty' (1935)

"The cultural milieu in which Dassin thrived during this period provided a formative influence on his later political and cultural sensibilities. It was during this time that he was exposed to New York’s vital left-wing theatre then flourishing in the progressive climate of the New Deal. Dassin would later claim, for example, that he joined the Communist Party after seeing the Group Theatre production of Clifford Odets’s episodic drama, Waiting for Lefty, set among a community of taxi drivers on the verge of a strike during the Great Depression of the 1920s. Like Orson Welles, Dassin also worked in radio and it was his audio adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat that led to him being noticed by the Broadway producer, Martin Gabel, who subsequently invited him to direct The Medicine Show by Oscar Saul and H. R. Hays at the New Yorker Theater. This, in turn, led to an invitation to work in Hollywood." [1]

Hollywood Career

"The historical crucible of New York’s immigrant culture, radical politics and thriving theatre networks into which Dassin tapped, inspired the spread of liberal democratic ideas when many of its luminaries moved to the Hollywood studio system in Los Angeles. Dassin initially went to the West Coast with two of his colleagues from Artef, Benno Schneider and David Opatoshu, and was employed by RKO for six months where he worked on the sets of They Knew What They Wanted (Garson Kanin, 1940) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr and Mrs Smith (1941). He was then hired on a generous seven-year contract by MGM where an early short film he directed, The Tell-Tale Heart (1941), based on an Edgar Allan Poe short story, won an Academy Award. This led to his first feature, Nazi Agent (1942), which starred the German émigré actor Conrad Veidt. Dassin’s subsequent film, Reunion in France (1942), is of historical interest in the light of Du rififi chez les hommes, his first 'true' French film 14 years later. It was a wartime resistance drama, also set in France and improbably starred Joan Crawford (opposite John Wayne) as a patriotic French aristocrat, Michele de la Becque. It was an enormous commercial success.

Jules Dassin and Mark Hellinger discussing script

Perhaps because of his experiences in New York, Dassin eventually became dissatisfied with the conservative regime at MGM and, after his contract expired in 1947, he signed up with the liberal crime journalist Mark Hellinger’s newly formed production unit that had recently been contracted to Universal. Hellinger’s influence was timely. He had already produced the émigré director Robert Siodmak’s influential film noir, The Killers, the previous year and was attuned to the new postwar climate that favoured a greater degree of social realism within the Hollywood crime film. Like the producer Louis de Rochemont, whose works for Fox such as Henry Hathaway’s House on 92nd Street (1945) and Elia Kazan’s Boomerang! (1947) Dassin keenly admired, Hellinger wanted a wider use of location cinematography and a greater degree of psychological intimacy shown towards the motivations of his central protagonists. In short, he foresaw a visual equivalence between the drama of the front cover photo of a city newspaper and the true-to-life sensation of a film set on the streets where such a paper would be sold.

Dassin’s first film for Hellinger was Brute Force (1947), a prison drama whose powerful and intimate examination of male confinement, loyalty and betrayal echoes some of the subsequent concerns of Du rififi chez les hommes." [1] "Brute Force perpetuated the wartime theme of collective action against Fascist tyranny. However, instead of a combat unit, this theme is developed within a prison setting that, unlike the propaganda films of World War II, yields a kind of fatalistic melodrama. In the film the sadistic Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) runs his prison as a fascist state, and because the liberal authorities are powerless to stop him, death provides the only relief for the prisoners. After most of them die trying to escape, the film concludes with the humane prison doctor (Art Smith) facing the camera and telling the audience that 'nobody escapes, nobody ever really escapes'." [3]

The Naked City

The making of the 'Naked City' photographed by Weegee

"The Naked City was based on the eponymous anthology by the New York photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig), which had been published in 1945 to great acclaim. From its opening atmospheric moments, which survey the skyline of Dassin’s former home, the film insists on its prominent use of urban location cinematography as a key aspect of the narration. The Naked City’s description of city space conveys the vernacular as much as the monumental and the intimate as much as the anonymous, and it attempts to read both these tensions in terms of class. The city is ‘naked’ because its surface glamour and prestige have been peeled away in favour of a more cautious scrutiny of the way social and economic conditions force people to act the way they do. It contrasts domesticity with criminality and represents images of play and childhood to suggest another kind of innocence untouched by adult corruption in a dangerous world. The film’s scriptwriter Albert Maltz, then already suspected of communist sympathies, attempted to confront the inequities in wealth and status he saw in New York more overtly, but to his and Dassin’s bitter regret, Universal clumsily re-edited the film prior to its release." [1]

"The Naked City is perhaps the best known of a group of films made in the immediate postwar period that are commonly referred to as semidocumentary film noirs or as semidocumentary crime films. Some historians exclude them from the canon of classical film noir for ideological reasons, claiming that their political values are conservative rather than radical, while others are more inclusive and consider them an important subgroup within the overall genre. It is widely accepted that during World War II, there was a softening of the control that the Production Code Administration exerted over the content of Hollywood films, especially of violence. As part of the war effort, newsreel footage of battles, along with somber documentaries showing such enemy atrocities as concentration camps, included images of brutality that would not previously have been allowed on American screens. These nonfiction films, with their authoritative (even strident) voice-over narrations, helped foster a desire in the public for a greater realism in fictional movies. The classical film noir cycle helped satisfy that appetite.

The documentary atmosphere of The Naked City's on-location shots

Louis De Rochemont had been a producer on the weekly newsreel series The March of Time. At the end of the war he moved to the Twentieth Century Fox studio, and with the encouragement of production head Darryl F. Zanuck, he began to make fictional films that employed techniques taken from documentaries and newsreels. The first of these was a spy film titled The House on 92nd Street (1945), directed by Henry Hathaway. This film combined actual FBI surveillance footage with dramatized scenes involving actors shot on actual locations and narrated by the stentorian voice of a newsreel announcer. Later examples, which were also influenced by such Italian neo-realist films as Roma, città aperta (1945), included Boomerang! (1947) and The Street with No Name (1948). The popularity and success of these rather cheap films spurred other studios to follow suit. Mark Hellinger, who had worked as a war correspondent, produced The Naked City at Universal and also narrated it (he died of a heart attack before its general release).

Essentially a police procedural, The Naked City traces the investigation into the murder of a young woman in New York, leading up to the identification and pursuit of her killer. Many of the scenes are filmed in the standard dramatic style of Hollywood filmmaking, but the story is framed by documentary-style shots of the city that place the woman’s individual fate in the context of the organic life of the whole metropolis. Producer Mark Hellinger introduces the film in voice-over, emphasizing that it is not a studio-bound movie but that all its scenes will be played out on real streets and in the buildings of the actual city. This (he says) is "the city as it is . . . [at] one o’clock in the morning on a hot summer night." The "pulse" of the city, which never stops beating, is then shown by a montage of night workers doing their graveyard shifts: cleaners, newspaper printers, and so on. After the film’s climax high on the superstructure of a bridge, his closing voice-over famously explains that 'there are eight million stories in the naked city: this has been one of them'." [3]

Thieves' Highway

"After the early death of Hellinger and a brief return to the New York theatre, Jules Dassin signed with Twentieth Century-Fox and worked with the Armenian émigré author and proletarian scriptwriter, A.I. Bezzerides, on a powerful adaptation of his novel Thieves’ Market, Thieves’ Highway (1949). Bezzerides would go on to have impeccable noir credentials. He had already written the script for Raoul Walsh’s atmospheric trucking melodrama, They Drive By Night (1940) and would later work on the classic film noirs, On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952) and Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955). Bezzerides and Dassin’s interest in the themes of cooperation, loyalty and betrayal within the milieu of the Californian road haulage industry also bears similarities to Du rififi chez les hommes. Both films are driven by a keen eye for the interrelationship between the external immediacies of place and the internal psychological pressures of their troubled masculine protagonists that inhabit these locations." [1]

The noir city - Thieves' Highway, 1949

Thieves’ Highway fits into Dassin’s noir work by showing the rebellious indignation of returning vet Nick Garcos (Richard Conte), quite the opposite of the fatalistic hero. Nick returns from wartime service decent and trusting, yet not too disingenuous to be an effective avenger of his father’s crippling by racketeer Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). To reach Figlia, Nick courses past the corruption of the wholesale produce market and reenters the world of the long-hauler. Trucking and blue-collar heroes rarely reside comfortably in the noir world; their concerns are simpler, more trusting in equitable solutions, and more prone to be worked out in wide-open spaces than in the noir city. In Dassin’s film, driving is dangerous and deadly, and the criminal impulse to steal or make crooked money on a haul is far more important than the value of a life. Dassin shows this in the context of the marketplace, with its loading docks and warehouses and neighborhood honky-tonks, which generates an energy as volatile as any found in a more familiar noir neighborhood. We feel uncomfortable when Nick and Rica walk along the neon-lighted side streets and alleys; we expect an incident to erupt, Figlia’s retaliation. However, Thieves’ Highway misses making that descent into a noir world where the scathed come back to us but never quite the same. Nick Garcos is restored, and to some extent Rica (Valentina Cortese) is, too, by the promise of happiness together." [2]

"The social message in Naked City and Thieves' Highway was less obvious, although the latter film emphasizes the corrupt side of capitalism through the exploitation of farm workers by mercenary wholesalers. However, these films, along with other films with a relatively strong social-realist inflection, such as Crossfire (1947) and Force of Evil (1948), created severe problems for those involved in the production after 1947 as the political climate moved rapidly to the Right." [3]

Night and the City

The Anglo-American coproduction Night and the City (1950) was filmed in London in 1949. "Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of production at Twentieth Century Fox, sent Jules Dassin to Britain as he was about to be expelled from the studio following orders from New York because of his left-wing political sympathies. Zanuck told Dassin to start filming Jo Eisinger’s script for Night and the City as soon as he could, and he also told Dassin to film the most expensive scenes first so that it would be costly for the studio to remove him from the film. Zanuck also asked Dassin if he could develop a role for one of the studio’s most important female stars, Gene Tierney, as he wanted to get her away from Hollywood following a failed romance.

Labyrinthine trap of urban hell - Night and the City, 1950

Dassin did not have time to read Gerald Kersh’s book, published in 1938, and his interest in the project was both formal and ideological. He wanted to present London as an urban nightmare with night-for-night shooting at a time when it was still difficult to generate sufficient light for extended night scenes, especially those filmed in long shot. Dassin, however, received the cooperation of many London businesses, who agreed to leave their lights on at night so as to assist the filming. As a result, Night and the City is one of the strongest examples of film noir expressionism, and it presents London as an urban hell - a world of dark shadows, desperate individuals, and derelict buildings. Tourist landmarks such as Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, along with other parts of the city, were transformed into a consistent vision of urban hell, a perfect encapsulation of a dark, threatening world permeated by betrayal, fall guys, and moral corruption.

Dassin was also attracted to the film’s overarching theme based on the destructive effect of money and ambition, and Night and the City is one of the toughest, bleakest films ever produced by a major Hollywood studio due largely to its almost total lack of sentimentality. American director Jules Dassin and actors Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, and Hugh Malowe joined talented British actors such as Francis L. Sullivan as the love-stricken Phillip Nosseross and Googie Withers as his venal wife, Helen, and German cinematographer Max Greene, who gave Dassin the depth of field and unusual compositions he wanted. Greene and Dassin filmed many scenes just prior to sunrise so as to accentuate the film’s sense of fatalism.

A voice-over introduces both setting and theme. In the film’s opening moments (and in the climax) a man is pursued and is seen as tiny and powerless. St. Paul’s dome looms over the action, and cobblestoned alleyways form a labyrinthine trap. Raucous music provides impulsion for the character’s fl ight through the inescapable maze of the city. Trapped in headlights like a doomed animal, he is cornered in a wasteland of debris from the Blitz of World War II and summarily killed and dumped in the river.

When Dassin returned to the United States for postproduction work on Night and the City, he was, due to the fact that his left-wing past had become public, prevented from entering the studio and had to convey his ideas with regard to the film’s postproduction to editors Nick De Maggio and Sidney Stone and composer Franz Waxman by phone as they were too frightened to meet him in person due to the possibility that any direct association with Dassin might have damaged their careers. The film received mostly negative reviews in the United States and Britain, possibly affected by the political climate, and performed poorly at the box office." [3]

The House Committee on Un-American Activities

"After World War II ended in 1945, the United States experienced intense political turmoil. The dominant concern was the spread of Communism, and after the Communist victory in China in 1949 and the beginning of the Korean War, this fear intensified and affected all levels of American life, including the Hollywood film industry. There were also interrelated issues such as the opposition to the development of an industry-wide union in Hollywood and the determination of conservative and right-wing groups to dismantle many of the liberal programs developed during Roosevelt’s presidency.

HUAC hearing

Beginning in 1947, the left-liberal elements in Hollywood were under severe pressure, and many were forced to leave the industry, while others suffered the humiliation of denouncing their beliefs and providing the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) with the names of friends and colleagues. Some were also required to work on anti-Communist films such as Howard Hughes’s notorious I Married a Communist (1949), which was rereleased as Woman on Pier 13. There were others, however, like Jules Dassin, who left the United States and found work in Europe.

The change in the political climate after 1947 meant that films such as Crossfire (1947) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), with their criticism of anti-Semitism in the United States, were no longer possible. In fact, it was virtually impossible to produce films with overt, or literal, liberal sentiments after 1947–1948. Such films were replaced by a cycle of so-called caper films, which, in some cases, continued film noir’s ability to critique various aspects of capitalism - even if this critique was heavily camouflaged by generic conventions.

Dassin was part of a culture that was repressed and marginalized in the period after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. This community, who played a prominent part in the development of film noir throughout the 1940s, was under attack as the simmering bitterness that was held in check by the demands of war broke down as soon as the war was over. This community included Communists, socialists, liberals, and other left-wing factions of actors, writers, directors, and producers such as Dassin, Edward Dmytryk, Robert Rossen, Abraham Polonsky, Dalton Trumbo, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, Nicholas Ray, Cy Endfield, John Garfield, Lee J. Cobb, Howard Da Silva, Karen Morley, Sterling Hayden, John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Robert Ryan.

Danny Kaye, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall lead a posse of Hollywood actors and film-makers to protest at HUAC's disregard of the Hollywood Ten's constitutional rights.

In 1946 the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress, and President Harry S. Truman, a Democrat, ordered that government employees must take a loyalty oath. In 1947 the Taft-Hartley Act forbade communists in labor unions, and the so-called Waldorf Declaration, following a meeting of prominent studio executives at the Waldorf Hotel in New York, initiated the blacklisting of many left-wing and "troublesome" filmmakers. This was accompanied by a sustained congressional attack, orchestrated by the Republican-controlled Congress, on the Left in Hollywood, and in 1947 and 1951 the HUAC, which was formed in 1938, conducted public hearings in Washington, D.C." [3]

"During 1950–51, Dassin returned to Europe and attempted to continue to forge a career in European film production. Ironically, given his own conflicted situation, he worked on preparations for an adaptation of Giovanni Guareschi’s best-selling satirical novel, Le petit monde de Don Camillo, starring the beloved French comic actor, Fernandel, as the hotheaded priest constantly at odds with the communist mayor of his village. The film’s producer, Guiseppe Amato, who had also produced the neorealist classic, Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948), eventually backed away after concerns that Dassin’s presence on the production would damage the prospects of the film obtaining an important American release. While at the Cannes Film Festival in 1951, Dassin learnt that Frank Tuttle along with Edward Dmytryk had testified against him at the HUAC hearings. He decided to return again to the United States.

There was no work for Dassin in Los Angeles and instead he took up an offer to direct Bette Davies in a Broadway revue called Two’s Company. It was during rehearsals in 1952 that he was finally summoned by the HUAC to testify. Unlike his friend and colleague from his New York theatre days, Elia Kazan, whose own betrayal in front of the HUAC that same year had so angered him, Dassin never actually got to testify. He insisted that the production of Two’s Company had to go ahead and, after the intervention of the election of President Eisenhower in November, just as he was getting ready to travel to Washington he received a telegram declaring that his hearing had been postponed indefinitely. Dassin has claimed in various interviews that he would have been a willing participant in the HUAC sessions and would have been prepared to defend himself. This may be the logic of hindsight, but there is no doubt that the episode finally put paid to his employment prospects in the United States." [1]


Jules Dassin

"The following years were therefore hard ones for the director and they account for the alacrity with which Dassin eventually began working on the film. He travelled back to France to work on L’ennemi public no. 1, with Fernandel again and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Once more, the blacklist intervened. Jacques Bar, the film’s producer, contacted Roy Brewer, head of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), for information on Dassin. Brewer replied via the IATSE’s European representative, Irwing Brown, that Dassin was presumed to have communist links and ten days before shooting was due to commence, he contacted Bar directly saying that if Dassin were employed the film would be denied any kind of release in the United States. This degree of censorship outraged the French. Dassin was by then an admired director in France and for this, as well as his probable symbolic political currency, he was nominated an honorary member of the French directors’ union as a mark of solidarity. The French film industry formed a support group led by Jacques Becker whose seminal film noir, Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), would become a comparative benchmark of quality for many critics. "L’affaire Dassin", as it then became known, came to nothing though. Its historical significance remains in its status as a key instance of the problematic Franco-American cultural relationship in the postwar period.

Dassin spent his time in a village outside Paris maintaining contact with fellow émigrés such as the blacklisted director John Berry. For a while the authorities revoked his passport. Various projects failed to get off the ground, including adaptations of Giovanni Verga’s Sicilian literary classic, Mastro don Gesualdo and Emmanuel Robles’s novel, Cela s’appelle l’aurore. In the end, it was a phone call from his friend, the producer Henri Bérard, that saved the day. Rather than straightforward high culture, would Dassin turn to one of the best-selling Série Noire books? After years of collaboration and friendship with many of the best practitioners of American film noir, Dassin was now to work on one of the finest French film noirs ever made." [1]


Rififi rescued Dassin from five years of unemployment. Ironically, his political exile from Hollywood was a significant factor in receiving the offer to script and direct the film. First, the film’s producers knew that Dassin was unemployed and consequently that they could get him for little money. Second, they were worried that the North African nationality of the villains in Auguste Le Breton’s story would cause problems for the film as relations between France and Algeria were very volatile at the time. Hence the producers wanted the villains to be Americans, and they thought that Dassin would be an ideal director. Dassin, however, convinced them to change their nationality to French.

Dassin had one weekend to read the novel and give his answer. However, he could not understand the dense argot in the book, and only after he forced his agent to forgo an amorous weekend and read the book to him could Dassin make any sense of it. He still did not like it as he considered it cruel and perverse. One incident, however, intrigued him - the robbery. Nevertheless, he decided to reject the project. But broke and desperate to work, he heard himself say yes." [1]

The classic 32 minutes safe-cracking scene

The title of Jules Dassin’s Du rififi chez les hommes comes from the French argot for "free-for-all", or "of brawling among men", connoting open hostilities between rival gangs or individuals. Dassin retains the central focus on loyalty and betrayal and made the gang’s burglary of a Parisian jewelry store the centerpiece, played wordlessly (and with no accompanying music) for 32 tense minutes. The safe-cracking scene was so detailed that Paris police are rumoured to have briefly banned the movie for fear it be too instructive to would-be criminals.

Although Rififi was made for a very modest budget of $200,000, Dassin’s reputation in France commanded highly talented collaborators: Alexander Trauner, who designed the jewelry store and the L’Age D’Or nightclub; Georges Auric, whose sparing and haunting score helps create the film’s elegiac mood; and Phillipe Agostini, whose cinematography creates a palpable but subdued Montmartre - Dassin insisted that they shot only on gray days, never when the sun was shining, thus evoking a melancholic fatalism. Rififi was a major hit, and Dassin won the Best Director’s award at the 1955 Cannes Festival.

Paris streets in Rififi

The characters of Rififi inhabit a small, hermetic world, bounded by rigid precepts, in which even the police scarcely seem to figure. Danger threatens, not from the forces of law and order, but from rival gangs: the final shootout takes place in a half-built villa on the outskirts of Paris, a setting as ramshackle, bleak and devoid of bystanders as any Main Street in a western. From the first reel, the final outcome of events is never in doubt. With his racking cough and air of aging, existential gloom, Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) is marked down for destruction. The best he can hope for is a good death, according to his own strict code of honor.

"Rififi is a notable cinematic achievement for Dassin; it can be said of him that he is perhaps the only director to shoot a noir film on location in each of the Western world’s major cities - New York, London, and Paris - and to do it with a particular awareness of the myths and flavor of each. Paris has rarely appeared more fascinating on screen than in Rififi. But the postwar moment of Paris during its 1950s vogue offered a Paris of enormous cinematic texture, evoking the tragic remnants of its recent past just beneath a renewed vitality and displaying the sterile middle-class consumerism that would begin to engulf Parisians by the end of the decade (and in which the young nouvelle vague filmmakers would exult with both romance and cool criticism). During this time Rififi, Melville’s Bob le flambeur, Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi, and Decoin’s Razzia sur la chnouf - all made between 1954 and 1956 - were intriguing underworld tone poems to a city that instinctively absorbed the noir sensibility, perhaps as no other outside America. Dassin and his cameraman, Philippe Agostini, captured the landmarks, the storefronts, the metro stops, and the rhythm of the city’s streets and bar-tabac life with an allure that intensifies the story’s tragic irony. Street scenes shot at night and in the rain do not serve as mere set pieces in Rififi; they accentuate the whole of Paris as a noir universe." [2]

Dassin portrays his doomed criminals with warmth and sympathy, aided by fine performances from a cast which includes (under the stage name of Perlo Vita) the director himself, as the dapper Italian cracksman whose susceptibility to women brings about the gang’s downfall. Rififi marks the high point - and, regrettably, the conclusion - of Dassin’s urban thriller cycle.

After Rififi

After Dassin met Greek actress Melina Mercouri in 1956, she helped him secure the backing of the Greek parliament (her father was a member), and he was able to raise financing for his next film, Celui qui doit mourir (He Who Must Die, 1957), based on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel Christ Recrucified. It is considered by many his best film. Richard Coe of the Washington Post called it "a screen classic -- beautiful in concept, exciting in execution, absorbing to think about."

Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri

With Pote tin Kyriaki (Never on Sunday, 1960), he returned the favor to Mercouri, who secured an Oscar nomination as best actress (Dassin drew noms as director and original screenplay), a story about an American in Greece trying to save a kind-hearted prostitute. The film won an Oscar for Best Song for composer Manos Hadjidakis, and is considered one of the finest movies ever made in Greece. Dassin himself was nominated for Best Director and Best Script, although in the end he never won an Oscar.

The next pairing with Melina Mercouri, La legge (The Law aka Where the Hot Wind Blows), was not as felicitous despite co-stars Gina Lollobrigida, Marcello Mastroianni and Yves Montand. Nor was Mercouri's updated Phaedra of much interest in 1962.

Two years after another of his landmark films, another heist movie Topkapi (1964), which won Peter Ustinov an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Dassin married Mercouri, who also starred in the film.

Dassin's semi-documentary The Rehearsal in 1974 effectively criticized murders by the Greek junta. And his documentary about the Arab-Israeli war, Survival 1967, on which he collaborated with Irwin Shaw, also had its fans. In 1962 he returned to the U.S. to stage The Isle of Children on Broadway; despite a highly lauded performance by Patty Duke, it quickly folded. In 1968, he directed Uptight, an African-American version of John Ford's classic The Informer. The bright spot in his later U.S. work was Ilya Darling, a musical version of Never on Sunday, which ran for nine months in 1968 and earned Mercouri a Tony Award nomination.

With son Joseph (Joe) Dassin

Mercouri and Dassin never hid their radical politics. Both were active in helping organise Greek resistance among expatriate politicians and artists in Paris against the right-wing junta that ruled Greece between 1967 and 1974. After Mercouri retired from film-making she entered politics, rising to become the country's culture minister in the 1980s. She made the return of the Parthenon Marbles, taken from Greece in the 19th century and now in the British Museum, a lifelong quest. Dassin joined her campaign and eventually headed a foundation bearing her name established to secure the marbles' restitution to Greece.

Mercouri died in 1994. Three years later, the Greek state awarded Dassin honourary citizenship for his efforts in their joint campaign. In 1978, the Cannes Film Festival awarded him a Golden Palm for Kravgi gynaikon (A Dream of Passion, 1978), one of his last films. In later years, Dassin retained an interest in politics despite advanced age and failing health.

He had two children from his first marriage to violinist Beatrice Launer: Julie and Joe Dassin, a popular singer in 1970s France who died from a heart attack in 1980. Jules Dassin died from complications from a case of flu at the age of 96; upon his death, the Greek prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, released a statement: "Greece mourns the loss of a rare human being, a significant artist and true friend. His passion, his relentless creative energy, his fighting spirit and his nobility will remain unforgettable."


  • Circle of Two (1981)
  • Kravgi gynaikon (1978) ... aka A Dream of Passion
  • The Rehearsal (1974)
  • Promise at Dawn (1970)
  • Up Tight! (1968)
  • Hamilchama al hashalom (1968) ... aka Survival 1967
  • 10:30 P.M. Summer (1966)
  • Topkapi (1964)
  • Phaedra (1962)
  • Pote tin Kyriaki (1960) ... aka Never on Sunday
  • La legge (1959) ... aka Where the Hot Wind Blows!
  • Celui qui doit mourir (1957) ... aka He Who Must Die
  • Du rififi chez les hommes (1955) ... aka Rififi
  • Night and the City (1950)
  • Thieves' Highway (1949)
  • The Naked City (1948)
  • Brute Force (1947)
  • Two Smart People (1946)
  • A Letter for Evie (1946)
  • The Canterville Ghost (1944)
  • Young Ideas (1943)
  • Reunion in France (1942)
  • The Affairs of Martha (1942)
  • Nazi Agent (1942)
  • The Tell-Tale Heart (1941)