No politics this time, except a retelling of a political life. Jules Dassin, the director, died last week, and I keep thinking about him. Although it's only been recently that I've really begun to notice or understand him, he's been a presence in my imaginative life since I was a kid.
My parents loved his movies. My dad especially liked Rififi—nothing gratified him more than a finely wrought heist movie—and explained to me what was great about Topkapi when he took me to see it when I was seven or so. For my mother, the great Dassin movie was Never on Sunday. I had no idea then, but now I understand how that sentimental comedy about a scholar in love with a whore gave voice and image to everything she wanted to believe about her own sexuality and passion for life and hunger for self-acceptance. She would speak Dassin's name with something between a sob and a sigh; although that was partly, I think, because she (like most of the art-house audience) assumed he was French, and so invested his name with wet flourish: Zhool Dah-SANH. She didn't know he was really just Julie Dassin from Morris High in the Bronx—"DASS'n"—son of a Jewish immigrant barber.
Dassin's journey to the movies was a fairly standard one for a New York Jew of his generation: Yiddish Theater, Group Theater, radio, Broadway, then the invitation from RKO to learn directing by assisting a master (Hitchcock in this case). And like most of the creative kids who came up through that world he got involved in left-wing politics, joining the Communist Party during the "Popular Front" days and leaving it when Stalin signed his pact with Hitler in 1939. If you were a son of Yiddish immigrants in the Depression, that was how you expressed your humanity, your civic responsibility, your essential patriotism. It showed in his movies, too. They were never overtly political, but his inclinations and talents led him to stories of exploitation, alienation, and crime—Brute Force, Naked City, Thieves' Highway—and his brutal focus on the agony of individuals struggling against an indifferent environment turned those stories into indictments of the culture of money and what it did to people.
He was just becoming an important American artist when America turned on him, as it turned on so many of the idealists who had held up the progressive pillar of our national coalition through the Depression and the War. In the late 1940s the House of Representatives and the mavens of the movie industry teamed up to destroy the careers of left-leaning filmmakers, and the great mass of those filmmakers' coworkers and fellow citizens, even their own labor unions, sat by nervously and let it happen. Never mind that Americans of all political stripes had eaten up the dark images of corruption and conflict that left-wing moviemakers had perfected. Never mind that stories of the little guy battling plutocracy were a staple of the American imagination on the right wing as well as the left. We were in one of our fits of ideological madness when any call to change is heard as a threat to our identity, and the word went out to sacrifice the "Communists" to our terror.
When Dassin took on Night and the City, he knew he was about to be blacklisted, that it would be his last movie for an American studio, and it showed in the nausea and hysteria, the mad persistence of dreams in the face of hopelessness that shaped every scene. With a good crew, a strong script and one brilliant actor—Richard Widmark, who also just died—he crafted a whole vision of a fear-driven world with its soul out of joint. There was not an explicitly political line in the entire thing, no angry laborers or cruel bosses, only touts and conmen and B-girls and cabbies and wrestlers, and yet without a moment of posturing or cant he made it one of the cinema's most relentless critiques of capitalism, its psychological, spiritual, and social costs, like Brecht without the speeches or surrealism. And then his American career and life were over.
The blacklisters weren't just cowardly or conciliatory, they were petty and mean-spirited, too: American film distributors passed the word among their European counterparts that no movie in which Jules Dassin was involved would ever be exhibited in the United States. That kept him from landing a movie job even in France for five years, and when one came to him it was nothing special: a low-budget crime flick called Du rififi chez les hommes. But his loving attention to the mechanics of theft made it a nasty delight. It was a huge hit in Europe, and American distributors wanted a piece of that cash. So money became Dassin's savior and the blacklist began to crack. But Dassin never wanted to be an American again. He directed a movie with the Greek actress Melina Mercouri, fell in love with her, fell in love with her country, and became a "first-generation Greek."
Even in Europe his work was rarely political on the surface. His best movies were sentimental comedies and ingenious crime capers. And yet, through his amused fascination with thieves, prostitutes, and fly-by-nighters he continued to make brisk points about the effect of cash on morality and law. He cast himself in his most personal movie, Never on Sunday, as an American intellectual named Homer who is disappointed when Greece will not reflect back to him his own fantasies of its cultural purity. He falls in love with a Greek prostitute but cannot accept her for what she is, trying to reform her through education until he finds himself sinking into the muck of the modern Greek underworld. In the end he arrives at the essential Dassin understanding: that we and the world are painfully flawed and money is stronger than any of us, that we can save ourselves only through honest acceptance of what we are. Dassin wasn't a very good actor, and that's part of the reason the movie doesn't hold up as well as his Hollywood work, but in his fragility and eagerness to please and sometimes too self-conscious effort we can see his journey out of pain and into love.
(And it launched my mother on her own version of Homer's journey. For years after seeing that movie she was desperate to see Greece, but when she got there she found no sign of the singing, stomping, glass-tossing gaiety Dassin had promised. My father took her to a taberna to hear bouzouki music, but the music was overamplified and everyone smoked. She hated it.)
Dassin's interest in movies—and his talent for them—faded as he grew older, and he gave more and more of his energies to helping Mercouri, his wife and moral compass, in her work as a socialist politician and eventual Culture Minister of Greece. After she died in 1994 he devoted himself to her last cause, the return of the British Museum's Elgin Marbles to their original home on the Parthenon. Not a quixotic battle, exactly, because it might yet succeed. But still a heartbreaking one somehow. For over two centuries those marbles have sat there, white and serene in their London tomb, far removed from the passage of time and the turmoil of Greece and the racket of New Oxford Street, and the British are in no hurry to let them go. The corrosive smog of Athens, they say, would damage them. Dassin outlived his wife by fourteen years, but in those years he came no closer to bringing the marbles home. So they stay frozen, those Centaurs and Lapiths and horsemen and basket-bearers, some headless, some handless, but all imperturbed, so far from the building they were meant to glorify.
There's a trace of the pain of all those early 20th century left-wing patriots in that unrealized dream: the return of a pure, shattered beauty at long last to its rightful home.