The above is an image from Dassin's Rififi, one of my favorite films of all time. Dassin directed and also played Cesar the safecracker, pictured above. The movie is famous for a 30-minute tour-de-force B&E + safecracking scene, in which the team of jewel thieves go about their work without speaking a single word. They are, after all, professionals.
The movie is a terrific heist flick, beautifully shot in a late noir style and very influential on the French New Wave directors. François Truffaut called it the best noir he'd ever seen, and I'm inclined to agree.
Dassin was on that blacklist. His name looks French, but Jules was born in Middletown, Connecticut (in 1911), and grew up in Harlem. Like a lot of Americans of the time, he was disgusted by the iniquity and brutality of robber baron capitalism, and joined the Communist party in the 1930's.
Dassin said in 2002 (quoted again in his NYT obit):
“You grow up in Harlem where there’s trouble getting fed and keeping families warm, and live very close to Fifth Avenue, which is elegant,” he told the newspaper. “You fret, you get ideas, seeing a lot of poverty around you, and it’s a very natural process.”
As the obit goes on to say, he left the party in 1939, Stalin's nonaggression pact with Hitler being the final straw. But despite having severed his ties with the Party, Dassin was nonetheless swept up in the anti-Communist witch-hunt of the early 1950's. He was fingered by two of his fellow directors.
Dassin refused to indict others in turn, and fled to Europe, his career in tatters. Even there, he could not find work -- US distributors made it clear to the European studios that they would not carry any film with his name on it. After five years of this, now completely broke and desperate, he finally managed to land a gig on a low-budget adaptation of a trashy, pulpy French novel.
The film he made is stunning, brilliant, almost note-perfect. I think it's one of the greatest movies ever made. I wish I could afford to buy everyone reading this blog a copy of the Criterion DVD. It's really that good. (After that, you'll want to go check out his earlier films, especially Brute Force, The Naked City, and Night and the City.)
For more, read filmmaker Jamie Hook's beautiful essay on the film, "Love Made Invisible."
And from around the blogosphere:
Campaspe (Self-Styled Siren) on the appalling AP obit:
It's been sixty years, people. You can stop pretending that protecting us all from Jules Dassin movies was essential for national security.
Seriously, just watch Rififi and you’ll find about a third of Tarantino’s themes.
noirFAN on Night and the City:
But Dassin doesn’t let us sit back and gawk at the grotesquery of the characters. Instead, he pulls us into their world, makes us feel for them as their dreams fall apart- even pulls off one of the most difficult tricks in storytelling- creating empathy for characters on both sides of a conflict so that we gain no easy satisfaction from the triumph of one side over the other, just an escalating tension which resolves itself into sickening inevitability.
UPDATE: Issa Clubb at On Five: The Criterion Colletion Blog:
Dassin's run of pictures between 1947 and 1955—Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves Highway, Night and the City and Rififi—was about as inspired as any director ever pulls off, and Dassin didn't break his stride of inspiration even as he was going into exile.
As a person, he belied the “great director as tyrant” stereotype—there was something elegant, sophisticated, and almost gentle about him. For one thing, as much as we tried to get him to talk about the blacklist, he was extremely reticent to do so. He refused to “name names,” which I suppose would have been out of character. He would only specifically mention people who had gone out of their way to combat the hysteria—especially pointing out Gene Kelly. But Dassin refused to talk about the people who had taken the easy way out. The one person whom he reserved the right to speak ill of was Roy “I Can Tell in Five Minutes If a Person Is a Communist” Brewer.