Jules Dassin (1911–2008) had a circuitous journey from the Bronx to Broadway, then to Hollywood (starting as an apprentice to Alfred Hitchcock) in his twenties, and then being exiled from both America and Greece, accused of wanting to overthrow their governments. He had already made seven films before he scored a big success in 1947 with the prison film Brute Force, starring Burt Lancaster. (It is noteworthy, I think, that Lancaster was so central to the early careers of such hard-bitten directors as Dassin, Robert Aldrich, and John Frankenheimer.) Following on the heels of Henry Hathaway’s 1945 anti-Nazi thriller The House on 92nd Street with The Naked City in 1948, Dassin re-established a genre dating back to D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley in 1912: the crime film shot on the mean streets of New York—in this case using over 100 different shooting locations. Dassin thus paved the way for directors like Don Siegel (Coogan’s Bluff), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets), and Sidney Lumet (Prince of the City), not to mention countless television series like Cagney and Lacy. As critic Rob Edelman has pointed out, Dassin’s style at this time had roots in Italian Neorealism. Sadly, just as Dassin had brought the Mediterranean to America, he would soon be forced by politics to travel in the opposite direction.
Dassin’s life would make a fascinating movie. While an aspiring actor in the Yiddish theater, Dassin briefly belonged to the Communist Party, resigning in 1939 following the Nazi-Soviet pact. This came to light in 1948, during the House Committee on Un-American Activities witch-hunt. Like Joseph Losey and Robert Aldrich, Dassin was forced to go to Europe, but he never fully regained the standing they did after things blew over. His 1955 French film, Rififi, provided a kind of role model for heist movies, as The Naked City had done for New York film noir. With Melina Mercouri, whom he married in 1966, he made Never on Sunday, Phaedra, the award-winning Topkapi, and three lesser films. The Fascist coup in Greece in 1967 caused the couple to move to New York, but they eventually moved back to Athens, where Mercouri became an M.P. and Minister of Culture.
How authentic a vision of modern Greece is Never on Sunday? Could a Jewish boy who grew up in the Bronx do it justice? Perhaps one should look no further than the acclaimed Zorba the Greek, made four years later by the most famous of Greek-born directors, Michael Cacoyannis, and adapted from the classic novel by Nicholas Kazantzakis. Zorba was, after all, played by the Mexican American Anthony Quinn, whose career included virtually every ethnicity on the planet—though rarely Mexican American. You couldn’t get more authentically Greek than Mercouri, and it’s obvious that Dassin loves her and has come to love the laissez-faire attitude toward Greek culture embodied by her prostitute character. Movies have often been burdened with austere visions of the ancient world. The Rome of M-G-M, however, has given way to Fellini Satyricon and to television series like I Claudius and Rome which, while showing the otherness of the past, still show links to our contemporary decadence. Greece is still envisioned by some as old guys in sheets wandering around the Acropolis spouting wisdom before somebody pours hemlock in their ear, but my guess is that, for a reasonable price, they might shut up and allow Mercouri’s Ilya to do her stuff.
Jules Dassin’s career took some odd turns for a political guy who started out as one of the fathers of film noir. One would have guessed it unlikely that he would make a sexy comedy with an Oscar-winning song. As Andrew Sarris put it, Dassin’s career “verges on the grotesque.”