Jules Dassin, master of film noir, dies at 96

US filmmaker Jules Dassin, a victim of the 1950s anti-communist witch hunts, died Monday in Athens at the age of 96, a hospital source said. Dassin, who settled in Greece and was married to screen icon Melina Mercouri until her death in 1994, died of complications after catching the flu, said the hospital source. Dassin was a film noir master who sought exile in Europe after being named during the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. He married the legendary Greek actress Melina Mercouri, joined her campaign for the return of Greece’s lost Parthenon Marbles and was eventually awarded honorary Greek citizenship. Born in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1911, Dassin earned a reputation as an innovative director and was one of America’s hottest young filmmakers of the 1940s with films such as «Brute Force» (1947) and «Naked City» (1948). But as an active communist who never compromised on his beliefs, he was blacklisted at the height of the witch hunts on leftists unleashed by US Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 1949, Dassin quit the USA for Europe, arriving first in London, where he filmed «Night in the City» (1950), starring US actor Richard Widmark and now considered a landmark of the film noir genre. Moving on to France, he produced «Rififi» («Du rififi chez les hommes,» 1955), based on a novel by Auguste le Breton, and best remembered for a now-legendary heist scene. The 32-minute sequence played without dialogue or music, and the safe-cracking scene was so detailed that Paris police are rumored to have briefly banned the movie for fear it be too instructive to would-be criminals. Dassin’s first movie in Greece was «He who Must Die» («Celui qui doit mourir» 1957), based on «Christ Recrucified» by the renowned Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis. But he would soon have cause to return to the country for good. In 1960, Dassin made «Never on Sunday» a story about an American in Greece trying to save a kind-hearted prostitute. The film won an Oscar for Best Song for composer Manos Hadjidakis, and is considered one of the finest movies ever made in Greece. Dassin himself was nominated for Best Director and Best Script, although in the end he never won an Oscar. More importantly for Dassin, however, the film starred Melina Mercouri, one of Greece’s most adored actresses. Two years after another of his landmark films, another heist movie «Topkapi» (1964), which won Peter Ustinov an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Dassin married Mercouri, who also starred in the film. Mercouri and Dassin never hid their radical politics. Both were active in helping organize Greek resistance among expatriate politicians and artists in Paris against the right-wing junta that ruled Greece between 1967 and 1974. After Mercouri retired from filmmaking, she entered politics, rising to become the country’s culture minister in the 1980s. She made the return of the Parthenon Marbles, taken from Greece in the 19th century and now in the British Museum, a lifelong quest. Dassin joined her campaign and eventually headed a foundation bearing her name established to secure the marbles’ restitution to Greece. Mercouri died in 1994. Three years later, the Greek state awarded Dassin honorary citizenship for his efforts in their joint campaign. In 1978, the Cannes Film Festival awarded him a Golden Palm for «A Dream of Passion,» one of his last films. In later years, Dassin retained an interest in politics despite his advanced age and failing health. He had two children from his first marriage to violinist Beatrice Launer: Julie and Joe Dassin, a popular singer in 1970s France who died in 1980. He is to be buried today in Athens’s First Cemetery after a funeral service at the Jewish sector of the Third Cemetery. (AFP)

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.