American expatriate helmed 'Rififi,' 'Naked City'

American expatriate Jules Dassin, director of such films as “Naked City,” “Rififi,” “Never on Sunday” and “Topkapi,” died Monday in Athens. He was 96.

With a couple of exceptions, Dassin lived and worked abroad since the 1950s, after having fled the U.S. in the wake of Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Communist purge of Hollywood. He was married to Greek actress Melina Mercouri, who became an international star in 1960’s “Never on Sunday,” which Dassin wrote, directed and co-starred in.

Born in Middletown, Conn., Dassin was one of eight children of Russian Jewish emigrants. The family moved to Harlem, and Dassin graduated from Morris High School in the Bronx. After studying drama in Europe in the mid-1930s, he returned to New York, where he became involved in the Artef Players Collective, acting in productions such as “The Good Soldier Schweik” and “Clinton Street.” He also acted the lead in a Marxist musical, “Revolt of the Beavers,” in 1937 for the WPA Federal Theater. Though he admitted to having joined the Communist Party in the late ’30s, he reportedly quit, disenchanted, by 1939. A year later he was writing for Kate Smith’s radio show.

In 1940 he made his Broadway directing debut with “Medicine Show,” a living newspaper-style drama championing socialized medicine. By 1941, he was Hollywood-bound with an RKO contract as an apprentice director. After a period of observation, he directed a short film based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which was warmly received, but his feature directing career got off to an inauspicious start at MGM with such middling films as “Nazi Agent,” “The Affairs of Martha” and “Reunion in France,” all in 1942. His first modest hit was “The Canterville Ghost,” based on an Oscar Wilde story. But “A Letter for Evie” and “Two Smart People” did little to advance his career after the war, and the studio let him slip away.

Realistic noir films such as “Brute Force,” “The Naked City” “Thieves Highway” and “Night and the City,” however, established Dassin as a first-rate melodramatic director in the late ’40s. In between he returned to the stage for the Hollywood lampoon “Joy to the World” and the underrated flop “Magdalena,” which had a score by Heitor Villa-Lobos. In 1952 he directed Bette Davis in her first song-and-dance role in the Broadway revue “Two’s Company.”

By then, he had already been named by Edward Dmytryk as a fellow traveler and was later named by Frank Tuttle. Using the Davis revue, Dassin was able to effect a postponement when he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. His testimony was later postponed indefinitely by the committee. But the damage had been done, and Dassin was unemployable. With his first wife and his children, he left for France, where he still had trouble finding work, since foreign distributors feared that American exhibs would not show Dassin’s films when they reached the U.S.

For a time, he wrote plays and poems, finally landing a low-budget project based on an August le Breton thriller. “Rififi” was a sensation in Europe and was popular in the U.S., where it was released by the United Motion Picture Organization in 1956. The film’s 35-minute wordless robbery sequence became a classic. In the mid-1990s, Dassin worked on the script for a remake of “Rififi.”

After Dassin met 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, “He Who Must Die,” based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel “The Greek Passion.” 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.”

With “Never on Sunday,” he returned the favor to Mercouri, who secured an Oscar nomination as best actress (Dassin drew noms as director and original screenplay). Their next pairing, “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.

However, “Topkapi,” a breezy comedy that combined the best elements of “Never on Sunday” and “Rififi,” was a big hit in 1964 and brought Peter Ustinov an Oscar for supporting actor.

His 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.

Dassin divorced his first wife Beatrice Launer in 1962 and married Mercouri, who died in 1994. He had three children, one of whom died in 1980.

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