Jules Dassin: Maker of gritty thrillers forced into exile by the Hollywood blacklist

The career of the film-maker Jules Dassin – from the cycle of realistically gritty thrillers with which he gained initial recognition in Hollywood to the embarrassingly high-falutin literary adaptations to which he turned his attention during his later exile in Europe – described a descending spiral which was more or less parallel to that followed by Joseph Losey.

Both directors established themselves in the cinema on the strength of early, distinguished theatrical work in New York; both rapidly mastered the generic codes and conventions of semi-documentary film noir; both were radical left-wingers, forced to quit the United States after becoming entangled with Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); and both, resettling in Europe, almost immediately fell victim to the perilous intoxications of "self-expression".

It was as though, having been blacklisted by Hollywood, Dassin and Losey were determined quite deliberately to expunge from their European work every last trace of those virtues – modesty of ambition, economy of means, energy of expression – for which their American films can still be appreciated; as though it were not merely political but, in a sense, artistic asylum which they sought in Europe. Yet, to paraphrase a celebrated witticism on the recipe for creation, aesthetic self-expression is, or ought to be, 10 per cent self and 90 per cent expression; and it was, in particular, Dassin's misfortune that his ambition should so decisively outstrip its filmic execution, that his rashly and prematurely assumed "self" should so flagrantly eclipse his capacity to articulate it on the screen.

On completing drama studies in Europe, the young Dassin had rapidly found employment as an actor in New York's Yiddish Theatre, then as a radio scriptwriter and as the director of a series of short films (the best of them being an eerie adaptation of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart in 1941), which he no doubt regarded as calling cards in the hope of eventually graduating to feature film-making. Only one year later he did so graduate, even if, until 1947 and Brute Force, his filmography (which includes an amusing Oscar Wilde adaptation, The Canterville Ghost, 1944) remained that of a fairly uninspired journeyman, one who was capable of applying his efficient if still anonymous skills to whatever genre came his way.

Brute Force, however, inaugurated his first genuine "manner". A brilliant prison drama of exceptional violence and viciousness, starring Burt Lancaster and written by the director-to-be Richard Brooks, its almost unrelieved pessimism already harboured the seed of the specious "intellectualisation" which was to mar much of his European work. There was about it a whiff of Sartrean existentialism, albeit in a debased form already familiar from certain self-consciously misanthropic French films of the same period.

The critical and commercial success of Brute Force allowed Dassin to direct two similar and arguably superior movies: The Naked City (1948), a painstaking procedural thriller whose principal character, filmed wholly on location, was New York City itself; and Thieves' Highway (1949), which intensified the horror of its urban angst by juxtaposing it with the placid serenity of an idealised rural landscape (the farmlands of central California).

Identified as a former Communist by one of the HUAC's "friendly" witnesses, his fellow director Edward Dmytryk, Dassin was offered no further assignments in Hollywood; and, like Losey two years later, he travelled first to England, then to France.

His sole British film, Night and the City (1950), was in fact his masterpiece, a bizarrely stylised thriller in which Richard Widmark found himself stalked by Dassin's camera no less than by pursuing mobsters and London, a notoriously un-cinegenic city, was transformed by warped angles and expressionistic lighting into a sinister chequerboard of villainy and terror. Then, after a five-year hiatus, Dassin smoothly adapted himself to the French style with what is perhaps his best-known work, Rififi, remembered still for its lengthy opening heist sequence played totally without dialogue, a sequence which has become a cliché through subsequent imitations (it was even parodied by Dassin himself, in the comedy Topkapi, 1964).

From which point his career stopped growing: it merely expanded. In the wake of his marriage to the Greek actress Melina Mercouri, he embarked upon a series of melodramas which were steamily "Mediterranean" in atmosphere and naively "cultural" in ambition: adaptations of Nikos Kazantzakis (Celui qui doit mourir; He Who Must Die, 1957), Roger Vailland (La Loi; The Law, 1958), Racine (Phaedra, 1962), Marguerite Duras (10:30PM Summer, 1966) and Romain Gary (Promise at Dawn, 1970). All of these aspired to a bona-fide art-film status that Dassin was simply incapable of sustaining, while his two commercial successes, Topkapi and Never on Sunday (1960), in which Dassin himself starred opposite Mercouri and whose naggingly catchy theme song went around the world, were presumably thrown into the mixer as comic relief.

Hence it was at the very moment when Dassin discovered "art" – like Molière's Monsieur Jourdain being belatedly alerted to his unsuspected fluency in prose – that he ceased to contribute anything of value to the movies.

Gilbert Adair

Jules Dassin, film-maker: born Middletown, Connecticut 18 December 1911; married 1933 Beatrice Launer (two daughters, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1962), 1966 Melina Mercouri (died 1994); died Athens 31 March 2008.

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