The great American director Jules Dassin has succumbed to a surfeit of life at the age of ninety-six, barely one week after the passing of his Night and the City lead, Richard Widmark, and some fourteen years after losing the love of his life, Melina Mercouri. The shameless deification of Ms. Mercouri (in Never on Sunday) earned Dassin his first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Director (and made him an art house favorite amongst those who really didn’t like art house movies), but it is the tough, unsentimental, London-bound collaboration with Mr. Widmark to which we look when we wish to recall Dassin’s bruising noir realism. The brilliance of 1950’s Night and the City was presaged over a three-year span via Brute Force, The Naked City and Thieves’ Highway (which features one of Lee J. Cobb’s most memorable screen performances), but Dassin had to travel abroad to realize it, as he was soon to be blacklisted for his brief dalliance with the Communist Party; in fact, Dassin’s position was so tenuous that 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck urged the filmmaker to shoot the most expensive sequences first, which would essentially push the studio all-in on finishing the picture. This situation clearly wore on Dassin: whereas his previous films evinced a profound disappointment in humanity, the HUAC tussle brought out an active loathing. Indeed, Night and the City may be the most pessimistic movie ever financed by a major studio (prior to 1967).
Amazingly, Dassin got most of the bile out of his system with that one film; his next work, the masterful Rififi, is positively buoyant in comparison (even though it ends… eh, I’ll not spoil it for those who’ve yet to experience its glories). Of Rififi, Francois Truffaut raved, “Out of the worst crime novels I
have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I have ever
seen.” It’s hard enough to argue with an authority like that, even
harder when you behold Dassin’s meticulously crafted centerpiece: a
twenty-eight-minute heist sequence that unfolds in almost total silence. That one scene basically spawned the modern heist film (see Roger Donaldson’s The Bank Job for the latest iteration); fifty-three years later, it’s yet to be surpassed.
If you’re suddenly inspired to catch up on Dassin’s filmography, make sure you get everything from Brute Force to Rififi out of the way before you go sampling his later frivolities (the best of which is easily Topkapi); I’m afraid that one viewing of Phaedra could put you off the Dassin’s cinema for good. Whatever. You can’t fault a man for being in love, especially when he left behind so much else to cherish.