An afternoon with director Jules Dassin

One of the most successful representatives of postwar European cinema, Jules Dassin, needs no introduction. As I left his home high up on Lycabettus Hill, I thought how rarely one meets a person of a certain age who is still finds life enchanting, particularly after difficult experiences in both his professional and personal life: the loss of his wife Melina Mercouri in 1994, after nearly 30 years together, and before that his son Joe Dassin, one of France’s most popular singers, who died at the age of 35. «You ask me if it is all in vain. How can that be? It is life. In my life, very few things have happened that did not matter. No, it is not in vain, at least not for me,» he said. The long list of films he has directed includes productions that have made history. For example, who could have imagined that «Rififi,» with its 30-minute scene of the robbery in the jewelry shop without any dialogue or music, would not only serve as a blueprint for future films but also for professionals in crime? Filmed in Paris in 1955, it earned him the best director prize at the Cannes film festival, but was banned in some countries precisely because it was seen as a seminar for prospective robbers. The strange thing about Jules Dassin is that although he began his career in Hollywood, it was in Europe that he became truly well known, after the end of 1949, when he and his first wife Beatrice and their three children had to leave the US during the McCarthy communist witch hunts. In London he began filming «Night and the City.» Darryl Zanuck, head of production at 20th Century Fox, advised him to begin with the more expensive scenes, so the most important part of the film would have been completed if a decision was made to stop production for political reasons. Today the film is considered one of the most representative in the film noir genre, and a faithful depiction of the atmosphere in the British capital at the time. Despite his customary optimism, it is clear that some things have left their mark. «The blacklisting was a terrible time, but I was lucky. I left and was able to film in eight countries: Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Canada, Israel and naturally Greece. I was lucky because many people’s careers ended when they left the US, it was ‘finis.’ They stayed on the blacklist forever. They were marked,» he said. «Everything was so ugly and false.» He has forgiven Elia Kazan for cooperating with the McCarthy committee. «That is a long story, with a lot of pain. A whole book. I think he knew very well what he had done in his life. He had done things he was ashamed of. I’m sure of that. I know what he thought about it and I am sorry for him,» he explained. «But he was a great talent, a wonderful director.» In his study, his desk piled with books and correspondence, the sun streams in through large windows. The conversation moves from one subject to another. Having known success in both theater and film, Dassin does not agree that the latter has won out. «Not at all. I appreciate both cinema and theater. If there is room in life for both, so much the better,» he said. As for whether he has any unfulfilled goals, he had this to say: «Years have gone by but I haven’t yet managed to write the book I began when I was very young. I go back to it now and again, and start some parts over.» While autobiographical, it also covers issues which have either been answered or are still waiting for an answer, such as those he has observed through the eye of the film director. «It’s true what they say. You know, you learn something every day,» he said. Even at this stage of life, he is still troubled by some aspects of human nature. «How is it possible for a good person I respected to have made mistakes?» he asked. However, of all the human failings, there is one that he cannot forgive. «Betrayal. Just that. I can’t write off something like that,» he said. He makes no distinction among his 26 films, scenarios and theatrical productions. «I have no special preference. I can say that I have a special fondness for certain parts of projects, but I can’t single anything out,» he said. Would he change anything if he could go back in time? «Of course,» he responded. «I would start over, but I wouldn’t change everything. I had some wonderful days, made some true friends, but above all I did something I liked.» For Jules Dassin, friendship and love are two sides of the same coin. «They go together. You can’t separate friendship and love.» His advice to the younger generation? Two things: friends and work. «Work is the only way we can leave something good behind us,» he said. At one point he admits how awkward he feels giving interviews. He talks about Melina as naturally as if she were in the next room. «Melina teased me that I shouldn’t give interviews,» he said with a smile. (1) This article first appeared in the July 2 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.