Jules Dassin

I came to Jules Dassin‘s work relatively recently, when I was researching heist movies and rented a dub-of-a-dub videotape of his French gangster classic Rififi. I knew nothing about the movie before watching it, only that it was supposed to be a classic and have a good heist in it. The tape I was watching was such a bad dub of such a bad print that the movie looked like it took place in the middle of the night in a Paris submerged under 50 feet of water. In those circumstances, the 25-minute silent heist sequence that forms the centerpiece of the movie took on an air of deep mystery and a kind of solemn strangeness. It felt weird and transgressive and dangerous, like I was watching a snuff movie or something.

Many years later I saw Rififi courtesy of one of Criterion’s typically pristine transfers and saw that there is nothing particularly weird or mysterious about the movie, except that it’s always weird and mysterious when a good movie gets made. The lighting in Rififi is crisp and lush, even occasionally pedestrian. The difference with the new transfer was that I could see the faces of the people in the narrative and witness the director’s skill with actors. With a name like Jules Dassin, I assumed that the director was an off-brand French gangster-movie director, the guy French producers went to when they couldn’t get Jean-Pierre Melville. I was wrong — Dassin was an American, working in France when the McCarthyites chased him out. Rififi remains a classic, and I have also hugely enjoyed Brute Force and Naked City. Topkapi is a movie whose charms elude me, but I look forward to watching Night and the City, starring the just-now-deceased Richard Widmark. I don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife, but it comforts me to think of Heaven like a kind of Valhalla, where whatever you were good at on Earth you get to do forever in the next world. In this case, I assume that Widmark, having signed on to star in some afterworld production, requested his favorite director or threatened to cross the street to make the movie with the competing studio.



6 Responses to “Jules Dassin”
  1. craigjclark says:

    You’ve never seen Night and the City? That was actually the second Dassin I saw (after Rififi). I just Brute Force (with the excellent commentary by film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini) and The Naked City is one deck, with Thieves’ Highway batting cleanup. For my money, though, Night and the City tops them all.

    • I’m a big fan of Dassin, and Criterion’s recent restoring of so much of his work has been a godsend after years of lousy bootlegs.

      I second Craig’s vote for Night and the City as the greatest of his films – I just rewatched it after Widmark’s death, and it was as good as I remembered it (I had only watched it once before, loved it, but found it – and Widmark’s performance – too painful to go back to as often as I do many other noirs). And if you haven’t gotten to the great agro-noir Thieves’ Highway, that’s pretty amazing, too.

      I already had Brute Force and Thieves’ by the VCR anyway – guess I’ll put them at the top of the pile for today.

  2. urbaniak says:

    I look forward to watching Night and the City

    Movie Night with !

  3. ndgmtlcd says:

    To the Francophone world he was Joe Dassin’s father and Melina Mercouri’s husband. For me he was also the author/director/actor of “Never on Sunday” with Melina Mercouri.

  4. moroccomole says:

    Another dead-this-week Hollywood player with a Widmark connection is screenwriter Abby Mann, who wrote Judgment at Nuremburg.

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