Jules Dassin (1911-2008): Rebel With a Cause

Night And the City 1950
Richard Widmark in Night and The City (1950)

Jules Dassin, one of the great noir directors, died in Athens overnight.

Born in Middletown, Connecticut in 1911, Dassin’s ground-breaking noirs of the late 1940’s rank among the great films noir:

Brute Force (1947)
The Naked City (1948)
Thieves’ Highway (1949)

A committed leftist, Dassin was blacklisted by the HUAC and left the US before the final cut of Thieves Highway was made. In London he made in 1950 Night and the City, another classic noir starring Richard Widmark, in perhaps his best dramatic role.

In Europe, Dassins’ attempts to work as a director were vengefully thwarted by Hollywood mogules until 1955, when penniless and in despair he was offered Du rififi chez les hommes (1955) [“Rififi”], which he crafted into the greatest french noir of the 50’s. Dassin also played the Italian safe-cracker in the picture. The movie, which featured the legendary 32 minute heist scene filmed in almost total silence, desevedly won him the best director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, where he met his second wife, the Greek actress Melina Mercouri, who died in 1994.

An interesting Salo.com interview with the 89-yo Dassin in August 2000 by Michael Sragow offers some background on Dassin’s attitudes to his early noir work.

Check out my reviews of Thieves’ Highway, Rififi and Night And the City.

His major noir releases are available as Criterion DVDs, and these essays on the Criterion web-site are elegant dissertations on Dassins’ artistry:

Brute Force: Screws and Proles by Michael Atkinson Here we are in the dark territories again, the republic of bitternesses and bile known as noir, squaring our jaws against an amoral universe and roaming the rain-wet, lightless American City as if it were a circle of the inferno where backstabbers, goldbricks, and unfortunates march in closed patterns and puzzle >>>

The Naked City: New York Plays Itself by Luc Sante In 1945 Arthur Fellig, known as Weegee, a canny and gifted tabloid newspaper photographer, did something unprecedented: he assembled some of his best shots, of corpses and fires and arrests and crowds and spectacles, and made them into a book, published in hardcover—this at a time when photography books were still >>>

Night and the City: In the Labyrinth by Paul Arthur Within film noir’s unparalleled roster of resonant titles—Kiss of Death, Out of the Past, Where Danger Lives, to name three—none is more emblematic or iconographically cogent than Night and the City. Juxtaposing two of noir’s essential, virtually ontological qualities, the title of Jules Dassin’s underrated elegy for a self-annihilating hustler reminds >>>

Rififi: Love Made Invisible by Jamie Hook In 1955, Jules Dassin, an American director in exile in Paris, made this flat-out perfect piece of cinema. The film came as a redemption for Dassin: a one-time promising young director cranking out B-movies under an MGM contract (“They were awful. It was just plain unhappiness and embarrassment,” he later said >>>

Thieves Highway: Dangerous Fruit by Michael Sragow Like the movie’s rattletrap trucks lurching down the highway as they carry way-too-heavy loads, the characters in Jules Dassin’s brilliantly volatile Thieves’ Highway struggle under psychological and moral baggage until they can lay their burdens down. Working from a novel and script by A.I. Bezzerides, Dassin made this swift, fluid melodrama >>>

6 thoughts on “Jules Dassin (1911-2008): Rebel With a Cause”

  1. Night And The City (1950) after viewing it tonight, is I must say a near-perfect noir. Dassin’s command of his mise-en-scene is breathtaking: somehow London becomes the proto-typical noir city in this dark story of ambition gone wrong.


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