Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Jules Dassin, born in Middletown, Connecticut on December 18th, 1911, was a very American film director who reinvented himself as a very European film director in the mid 1950's with a brilliant film called Rififi.

He was able to do this through a fascinating combination of political victimization, luck, talent and accident.

After making several fine films for 20th Century Fox, including the brilliant Naked City with it's Weegee- esque scene settings, Dassin found himself shut out of Hollywood, a victim of the infamous blacklist. Director Edward Dmytryk, a member of the original "Hollywood Ten"  labelled Dassin a communist, eventually forcing him to leave the country in search of work.

He ended up in France, and, in 1954 was asked by French producers to direct a film from a bad crime novel called Du Rififi Chez les Hommes.  Dassin wrote a treatment in six days, using a translator to help him wade through the indecipherable slang of the novel. The treatment was made into a working script, low budget actors were recruited and Jules Dassin went to work for the first time since being blacklisted.

The resulting film, now titled Rififi (evidently an untranslatable French expression sort of meaning "rough and tumble" and applying to sexual relations) is clearly the work of a French auteur. One could hardly imagine it is really the work of an American- born, Harlem- raised guy named Julius.

With this one masterpiece, Dassin pulled himself out of the hell of the blacklist and into the flame of top flight European director. Subsequent films, like Never on Sunday and Topkapi  were hailed as masterpieces. He married his Never on Sunday co-star Melina Mercourii 1966, settled in Greece and died at the age of 94.

Much like Pepe Le Moko, Julian Duvivier's crime masterpiece starring Jean Gabin, Rififi is, at its heart, a crime movie. Their world, however complete, is a limited one and all the characters, despite some semi- attractive character traits, are morally bankrupt.

It is a world best seen from the outside, in black and white, a story told in chapters without good guys- only bad guys and worse guys.

The centerpiece of Dassin's film is the execution of a meticulously planned robbery: thirty minutes of action told visually without dialogue or music. The crime is so well executed that genuine thieves in South America evidently used it as blueprint for a similar crime. 

The sequence is brilliant and mesmerizing. One cannot look away.  Dassin uses deep focus throughout and eschews close-ups. His visual style, so evident in Naked City (again, thanks somewhat to Weegee, from whom Fox had to buy the title) reaches a noir zenith here. He uses flashlight beams at one point as a single source of illumination. His dawn scenes actually look as if they were filmed at dawn and his night scenes look as if they were filmed at night as opposed to the annoying "day for night" technique of under exposing the film stock.

This is Dassin at his best as a storyteller. His ideas were used over and over again in caper movies ranging from Ocean's Eleven to Dassin's own Topkapi.

What is truly amazing though is the look of the overall film. The senes are longer than American film scenes. The locations have that naturalistic post- WWII look, and the women are attractively believable looking and of course, extremely sexy in a very non- Hollywood way. All the performances are astutely delivered, especially Jean Servais as Tony Le Stephanoise, the aging ex-con/ mastermind of the robbery.

One wonders if Jules Dassin's name had been, say, Joe Brown or Herbert Biberman, how successfully he would have been in reinventing himself in Europe and Greece.
Whatever the reason, he was able to carve out the type of life- long career that other directors could only envy.

The cast of crooks in Rifiifi with director Jules Dassin (third from left) as the safecracker Cesare.

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