Julius “Jules” Dassin (December 18, 1911 – March 31, 2008) was an American film director, with Jewish-Russian origins. He was a subject of the Hollywood Blacklist in the McCarthy era, and subsequently moved to France, where he revived his career.
One of eight children of Berthe Vogel and Samuel Dassin, a barber in Middletown, Connecticut, Dassin grew up in Harlem and went to Morris High School in the Bronx. He joined the Communist Party USA in the 1930’s and left it after the Hitler-Stalin Pact in 1939. He started as a Yiddish actor with the ARTEF (Yiddish Proletarian Theater) company in New York.
Dassin quickly became better known for his noir films Brute Force, The Naked City, and Thieve’s Highway in the 1940’s, which helped him to become “one of the leading American filmmakers of the postwar era.”
In 1937 he married Beatrice Launer, with whom he had three children. In May 1955 he met Melina Mercouri at the Cannes Film Festival; at bout the same time, he discovered the literary works of Nikos Kazantzakis; these two elements created a bond with Greece. He divorced Launer in 1962 and married Mercouri in 1966. The couple had to leave Greece after the colonels’ coup in 1967. In 1970, they were accused of having financed an attempt to overthrow the dictatorship, but the charges were quickly dropped. Dassin and Mercouri lived in New York City during the 1970’s; then, when the general’s dictatorship in Greece fell in 1974, they returned to Greece and lived out their lives there. While Mercouri became involved with politics and won a parliamentary seat, Dassin stayed with movie-making in Europe but found time in the U.S. to make another movie, the racial drama Up Tight!, which would be his last American film.
After he was blacklisted from Hollywood, Dassin found work in France where he was asked to direct Rififi. Despite his distaste for parts of the original novel, Dassin agreed to direct the film. He shot Rififi while working with a low budget, without a star cast, and with the production staff working for low wages. It was to become his most influential film; Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes) is a 1955 French film adaptation of Auguste le Breton’s novel of the same name. The film stars Jean Servais as the aging gangster Tony le Stéphanois, Carl Möhner as Jo le Suédois, Robert Manuel as Mario Farrati, and Jules Dassin as César le Milanais. The plot revolves around a burglary at a jewelry shop in the Rue de Rivoli, Tony, Jo, Mario, and César band together to commit the almost impossible theft. The centerpiece of the film is an intricate half hour heist scene depicting the crime in detail, shot in near silence, without dialogue or music. The fictional burglary has been mimicked by criminals in actual crimes around the world.
Upon the initial release of the film, it received positive reactions from audiences and critics in France, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The film earned Dassin the award for Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival; it was nominated by the National Board of Review for Best Foreign Film. Rififi was re-released theatrically in 2000 and is still highly acclaimed by modern film critics as one of the greatest works in French film noir. It inspired later heist films, such as Ocean’s Eleven and Mission: Impossible; another piece it inspired was Dassin’s own heist film Topkapi, filmed in France and Istanbul, Turkey with Melina Mercouri and Oscar winner Peter Ustinov.
Dassin died aged 96, in 2008 from complications from a case of flu; he is survived by his two daughters and his grandchildren.