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Obituaries / Jules Dassin, 1911 - 2008

Noir master directed caper classic 'Rififi'

April 01, 2008|Claudia Luther | Special to The Times

The late Francois Truffaut called "Rififi" "the best film noir I have ever seen" and said Dassin's luminous on-location shots of the cold and rainy streets in Paris revealed the city in a way that was new even to Frenchmen. Film critic Leonard Maltin labeled the film "the granddaddy of all caper/heist movies."

Much of "Rififi" feels familiar today because many filmmakers -- including Dassin himself -- have imitated it. His "Topkapi," about the theft of a jeweled dagger from an Istanbul museum, also proved influential. The "Rififi"/"Topkapi"-style band of thieves, each with a specialty that is needed to pull off the big heist, is so closely "quoted" in Brian De Palma's 1996 "Mission: Impossible" that Dassin told the New York Times he felt "shocked."

"I think it was just too literal, the same thing," he said. "I said, 'Is this allowed?' Apparently it was."

Although he received the highest directing honor for the film at Cannes in 1955, Dassin still felt shunned by his peers because of the blacklist. In an interview with The Times' Susan King on the occasion of an April 2004 retrospective of his films at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Dassin said people at the festival looked at him "as if a bug was crawling somewhere, or they would hide their faces. It was tough."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Dassin obituary: The obituary in Tuesday's California section on director Jules Dassin labeled his "The Tell-Tale Heart" a feature film. It was a 20-minute short.

Even more awful, he said, was having the French flag raised above him when his director's prize was announced.

"I'm an American. It should have been an American flag," he said.

Dassin met his second wife, Mercouri, in 1955 at Cannes; they married in 1966 after each had been divorced.

Mercouri eventually gave up acting to serve in the Greek Parliament and later as culture minister. She died of lung cancer in 1994.

The director made several films in Mercouri's home country, including "He Who Must Die" (1958), an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel "The Greek Passion," which is a modern retelling of the story of Christ.

But Dassin is probably better known for the film that made Mercouri an international star: "Never on Sunday." The 1960 film, in which he played an American tourist trying to pull her away from prostitution, was a hit both in Europe and the United States. It earned Dassin Academy Award nominations for direction and screenplay, and its theme song was ubiquitous for a time. The film also drew tourists to Greece in droves.

A few years later, Dassin was nominated for a Tony Award for best director and best book of a musical for the musical version of "Never on Sunday," titled "Ilya, Darling."

In 1962, Mercouri starred with Anthony Perkins in Dassin's intense "Phaedra."

Dassin's other films included "Up Tight!" (1968), a misconceived remake of John Ford's "The Informer" with an all-black cast, and the forgettable "Circle of Two" (1980), which starred Richard Burton and Tatum O'Neal. Dassin good-humoredly called each "a disaster."

Dassin told Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle in an interview for "Tender Comrades," a 1997 book about the blacklist, that after "Circle of Two," "that was kind of it" for his film career.

As he had throughout his life, Dassin returned to the theater to direct plays, including many productions in the Greek theater.

Of the blacklist period, Dassin often said that he was one of the lucky ones: He found work again after five years.

"I'm not bitter," the upbeat Dassin told L.A. Weekly when he was 90. "But there's an unhappiness for so many lives destroyed and for the effect it had on movies that were made, for a long time."

Survivors and funeral arrangements were not immediately available.

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