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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?