Jules Dassin was born Julius Moses Dassin, in Middletown Connecticut on December 18, 1911. Member of a large family of seven children (he had four brothers and two sisters) he was the son of Jewish immigrants. His father Samuel was from Odessa and his mother Berthe Vogel was Polish Jewish. His grandfather worked as a wig maker for the Odessa Opera. His father who worked as a barber loved classical music and passed on his passion for Caruso to all of his children. This involvement in the arts was a legacy that was going to mark the following generations of the family.
Jules Dassin’s childhood was difficult. His family had very limited means and moved to Harlem and to the Bronx while Jules was still very young. Like his older brothers, Jules had to work at various jobs in order to help his family. He attended night school but due to his various work obligations during the day it proved impossible for him to finish high school. The daily toil to earn a living and the exposure to poverty, planted the first seeds of political consciousness in him. From early onward he became aware of the contrast between the destitution in Harlem and the affluence in 5th Avenue. The difference in the standard of living was too provoking.
His fascination with the arts and particularly the theatre motivated him to attend theatre-acting lessons at the “Civic Repertory Theatre Company” established by Eva Le Gallienne.
The Yiddish Theater called ARTEF (acronym for the Arbeter Teater Farband – Worker’s Theatrical Alliance) was founded in 1925. Jules with his aunt’s help learned Yiddish in order to join ARTEF, in the 1930s. He then worked as director for about six years after experimenting with acting. As implied in its title, a leftist ideology was involved in ARTEF’s productions as it was formed and sustained by radical workers who did not receive compensation for their participation in the plays. They were totally dedicated to the idea of a theatre for the masses and devoted evenings and weekends toward this end. Dassin was not paid for his contribution either. He had a lifelong admiration for the Yiddish actors and directors who had a major impact on New York theatre. He took part in plays such as: “Rekrutn- (Recruits)” a Lipe Resnick’s adaptation, Sholem Aleichem’s adaptation “First Prize or 200.000”, Moshe Kulbak’s plays etc.
One of Dassin’s earliest jobs was to direct one act plays at summer camps in the Catskill Mountains (Camp Kinderland, Camp Nisht-Gedayget) where Jewish workers spent their holidays. Since there were no means to hire actors or musicians, Dassin recruited individuals who were either workers or visitors at the camp to take part in the plays including as violinist his future wife Beatrice Launer. Several remarkable American actors began their involvement in acting at these camps.
This was the height of the “Great Depression” which started in the US with a stock market crash in 1929. The consequences were shattering for international trade, income etc. Overall, the lives of individuals were greatly disrupted and the standard of living dropped dramatically. In 1930 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president. He created the “New Deal” between 1933 and 1938, a program for economic recovery. The Work Projects Administration (W.P.A) was launched to provide jobs for many Americans and the Federal Theatre Project was created to provide employment for actors, directors and writers and entertainment to poor families. Jules Dassin was involved in the Federal Theatre Project. He portrayed the role of a young beaver in the children’s musical play “Revolt of the Beavers”. Productions of the FTP were often criticized for their socialist ideas. Inevitably this led to its abolition by Congress in 1939, much to people’s anger and regret.
In 1935 Dassin attended a play called “Waiting for Lefty” by Clifford Odets, staged by the Group Theatre on Broadway, a theatre company co-founded by Lee Strasberg. It was about a taxi strike during the depression. He was profoundly affected by such plays. His decision to join the communist party was greatly determined by the experience of watching this play.
Jules Dassin as a young adult was deeply affected by his social and political environment as well as by the cultural and intellectual atmosphere of the 1930s in the US. The revolutionary theatre and the abolition of the Federal Theatre to a large extent determined his decision to join the Communist party which inevitably had a great appeal to many people amidst the hardships of the Depression. However, Dassin withdrew his membership in 1939 as a result of events that pertained to World War II.
He started writing for radio. Among other things he wrote sketches for the CBS show of the famous singer Kate Smith, which was one of the most well-liked and successful radio shows in the US from 1931 until 1947.During the same period, his adaptation of Gogol’s novel “The Overcoat” impressed Martin Gabel, Broadway producer, who granted him the direction of “The Medicine Show” by Oscar Saul and H. R. Hays starring John Randolph, Dorothy McGuire and Norma Lloyd. This marked a turning point in his career as the quality of his work was noticed, which paved his way to Hollywood.
He received a six month contract with RKO as an apprentice director, a task that among other things involved assistance to Alfred Hitchcock in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” starring Carol Lombard.
After leaving RKO he was employed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM). In 1941 he directed two short films about Arthur Rubinstein and Marian Anderson. Also in 1941 he directed the short film “The Tell-Tale Heart” an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s novel, a work that did not make an impact until it was fortuitously screened at a cinema. This opened the way for Dassin for a seven year contract with MGM.
In 1942 he directed three feature films: “Nazi Agent”, “Reunion in France” and “Affairs of Martha”. The “Nazi Agent” was a story of espionage starring Conrad Veidt. John Wayne and Joan Crawford starred in “Reunion in France” a successful romantic drama. “Affairs of Martha” was a comedy starring Marsha Hunt. In 1943 he directed “Young Ideas” with Mary Astor and in 1944 “The Canterville Ghost”, an adaptation of a novel by Oscar Wilde. Charles Laughton played the ghost. In 1946 he directed “A Letter for Evie” a comedy starring Marsha Hunt and Hume Cronyn and in 1946 “Two Smart People” with Lucille Ball and John Hodiak. This was the last film he made for MGM.
During this period Jules Dassin was part of the group that founded the Actors Lab, a workshop for actors with one class for beginners and one for professionals, and which attracted many Hollywood actors. “A Streetcar Named Desire” as the one-act play was then called “Portrait of a Madonna” with Jessica Tandy as the main actress and was first performed in the Actors Lab.
Dassin was in constant conflict with Louis B. Mayer (LB), one of the co-founders of MGM, because of the directors’ limited involvement in the whole process of making a film. They had no control and authority over their works and the producers had the final say in the editing of their films. Unhappy with his seven year contract with MGM, he wished to interrupt it. He took a break for ten months – “a one man strike” – but came back temporarily until his break with Mayer was final and irreversible and his contract with MGM was broken.
He had decided not to bind himself with a long term contract and collaborated with independent producer Mark Hellinger in 1947. The first film of this collaboration was “Brute Force” for Universal, starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn, a very successful prison film. In 1948 Dassin again made with Hellinger “The Naked City” for Universal. It was a film noir classic starring Barry Fitzgerald, Don Taylor etc. In this movie Dassin was a pioneer as he filmed this detective story entirely on location in New York City in documentary style. The film was a great hit and won an Oscar for best cinematography for William H. Daniels, best film editing for Paul Weatherwax and was nominated for several awards. Dassin is considered to be one of the first masters of film noir. Although the public responded enthusiastically to “The Naked City”, Dassin himself was unhappy with the final cut of the film since it was done in his absence and without seeking his consent.
After “The Naked City” he directed two theatre plays in New York called: “Magdalena” and “Joy to the World”. “Magdalena” was a musical. The music was composed by Heitor Villa Lobos. The “Joy to the World” was written by Allan Scott.
In 1949 returning to California he directed “Thieves’ Highway for Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox, based on a novel by A.I. Bezerides called “Thieves’ Market”. The film was about conflicts surrounding the control of San Francisco’s produce market and starred Valentina Cortese and Richard Conte.
It was the beginning of the McCarthy era which for people like Jules Dassin was the beginning of an extremely difficult phase. This period, marked by acute anticommunist sentiments, lasted for about a decade, from the late 1940s to the late 1950s. Thousands of Americans were subpoenaed to appear in front of committees with the accusation of being communists or communist sympathizers. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was the main governmental committee conducting such investigations. Many were imprisoned and a great number lost their jobs. Hollywood was particularly affected by this anti-communist hysteria. The Hollywood Black List was created and Senator Joseph McCarthy led the investigations. Ten movie industry professionals who were not willing to cooperate claiming the Committee itself was unconstitutional, were put in prison and became known as the “Hollywood Ten”. One of them was Albert Maltz, one of the two script writers of the “Naked City”.
Dassin was “saved” by Darryl F. Zanuck who urged him to leave the US immediately and go to London in order to direct the film “Night and the City”. Filmed in 1950 for Twentieth Century Fox, it was to be one of his best works. The film was about a wrestling promoter in London and starred Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney.
In the 1950’s he travelled to Paris and Rome. In Rome he was to direct a film in 1951 called “The Little World of Don Camillo” but he had to abandon this plan. While attending the Cannes festival the next year, he was informed that he had been named as a communist by director Edward Dmytryk during a HUAC hearing. Dassin nevertheless returned to the US. He had an offer from Universal to direct a film under a fake director’s name, a proposition he refused. It was impossible for him to sign a contract using his own name. The only film he directed that year was a documentary of the series “Meet the Masters”. Its title was “The Trio” and was about three great musical performers Arthur Rubinstein, Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky.
Bette Davis refused to succumb to the pressures stemming from Dassin’s stigma as a communist. She accepted to take part in a play directed by him, called “Two’s company”. It was performed in various theatres in the US. During a rehearsal he was called to appear in Washington before the HUAC. Dassin delayed his appearance there because he had plans to tour many US cities. At the opening of the play in NY he received a telegram which stated the cancellation of all hearings. However, since Dassin’s name had been included in the informal blacklist it was still difficult for him to find work.
In 1953 he and his family decided to immigrate to France. There he received an offer to direct the film “Public Enemy No 1” starring Fernandel. This film was never made as American distributors would not release it in the US if directed by Dassin. Nevertheless Dassin was received very warmly by the French, who declared him member of the French Director’s Union. His American passport was revoked in the meantime, but in time he received an official document by the French which allowed him to travel. Another offer this time in Rome, likewise never materialized. Once again Dassin was stigmatized as an “undesirable”. Once again members of the Italian cinema were very supportive. The title of the film was to be “Mastro-don Gesualdo” based on the Italian novel written by Giovanni Verga.
The next film he was to direct was to mark a major change in his life: This was “Rififi” (“Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes”), a classic Film Noir, based on the book by August Le Breton, starring Jean Servais, Carl Mohner etc.
It was a huge success and won Dassin the best director’s award at the Cannes film festival in 1955 which effectively put an end to the black list for him. Especially notable for its great suspense is the scene of the robbery which lasts 33 minutes and involves completely silent action without dialogue or music. At the Cannes film festival he met Melina Mercouri who was there participating at the festival for her role in “Stella”. This was a momentous encounter and was to have an impact on the rest of both of their lives.
In 1957 Dassin filmed in Crete “He Who Must Die” based on Kazantzakis’ novel “Christ Recrucified” starring Melina Mercouri and Pierre Vaneck and once again Jean Servais. In 1959 he directed the film “The Law” based on a novel by Roger Vailland which had been awarded the Goncourt prize in 1957, starring Melina Mercouri, Gina Lollobrigida, the young Marcello Mastroianni, Yves Montand, Pierre Brasseur etc.
After “Rififi” the next turning point came with “Never on Sunday” in 1960 starring Jules Dassin himself, Melina Mercouri, Titos Vandis, George Fountas, Despo Diamantidou etc. Not only was “Never on Sunday” a great commercial success but it also promoted Greece abroad tremendously. The main theme, “Ta Paidia tou Peiraia” by Manos Hadjidakis, is known throughout the world and has been adapted in numerous languages. The film was nominated for a number of Academy awards: Dassin was nominated twice as director and script, Melina Mercouri was nominated for best actress; it was also nominated for best costume design. Manos Hadjidakis won an Oscar for best original song. The film won the Golden Globe Award and Melina Mercouri won the best actress award in Cannes.
In 1961 Dassin was in Paris where he directed the play “Flora” by Franco Brusati. The sets were done by Alexander Trauner. In 1962 Dassin adapted “Phaedra” which he filmed in Greece starring Melina Mercouri, Anthony Perkins, Raf Vallone etc with a soundtrack composed by Mikis Theodorakis. In this film the Parthenon marbles issue was already present in a scene with Melina Mercouri in the British Museum. He also directed the play “Isle of Children” by Robert L. Joseph in 1962. In 1964 he had a great success with a film he made for United Artists in Istanbul: “Topkapi” starring Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximillian Schell etc. It was based on a novel by Eric Ambler. This was his first colour movie. In 1966 he filmed in Spain for United Artists “10:30 pm Summer” an adaptation of a novel by Marguerite Duras starring Melina Mercouri, Romy Schneider and Peter Finch.
His next work was “Ilya Darling” on Broadway, a musical adaptation of “Never on Sunday” starring Nikos Kourkoulos, Melina Mercouri etc. It was performed in 1967 and 1968. Mercouri and Dassin were nominated for the Tony Award for this work. The military coup took place in Greece at that time. It was fiercely opposed by Melina Mercouri and Jules Dassin. Because both were so openly opposed they were forbidden to live in Greece for seven years. They stayed in Paris and toured Europe and the US in the context of their anti-junta campaign.
In 1968 during the six-day war Dassin filmed a documentary in Israel called “Survival” (Hamilchama al Hashalom). For the film he interviewed David Ben Gourion, Moshe Dayan etc. In 1968 for Paramount Dassin filmed a remake of the “Informer” with an all black cast and music by a young black composer Booker T. Jones. The movie was called “Uptight” and was made at a time of great unrest among the Afro-American population (the Black Panther movement and the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.). In 1970 he produced and directed “Promise at Dawn” an adaptation of the autobiographical novel by Romain Gary starring Melina Mercouri, Assaf Dayan, Despo Diamantidou,Jules Dassin etc.
On the occasion of the November 1974 Athens Polytechnic student revolt, Dassin still exiled filmed in New York “The Rehearsal” a political documentary with the free participation of: Jules Dassin, Olympia Dukakis, Lillian Hellman, Melina Mercouri, Sir Lawrence Olivier, Manuella Pavlidou, Maximillian Schell, Mikis Theodorakis etc. Dassin considered this to have been one of his best films. It was due to be distributed on the day of the fall of the dictatorship and became untimely. Therefore it was never released. After the collapse of the junta Jules Dassin and Melina Mercouri returned to Greece where they settled for the rest of their lives. Melina was actively involved in the establishment and promotion of the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK).
In 1978 Dassin directed the film “A Dream of Passion” starring Melina Mercouri, Ellen Burstyn, Andreas Voutsinas, Dimitris Papamichael etc. The movie was presented at the Cannes film festival. In 1980 in Canada Dassin made the film “A Circle of Two” with Richard Burton and Tatum O’Neal. In the next year when PASOK won the elections Melina Mercouri became minister of culture. She was going to remain in this office for eight consecutive years. Dassin wholeheartedly joined in her work and supported her. Dassin was genuinely interested in Greek culture in the social and cultural issues in his adopted country. He was a true philhellene. His whole life was dedicated to political commitment.
When he spoke about his art Dassin referred to the importance of combining lyricism with realism. He was a great admirer of documentary style which he incorporated in many of his films. Dassin was at ease to work and create in various cultures and languages. As a world citizen he loved and respected his actors and his crew and he was loved back.
Between 1975 and 1994 he directed the following plays in Athens: “The Threepenny Opera/by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, “An Evening with Bertolt Brecht”, “Sweet Bird of Youth” by Tennessee Williams, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” by Edward Albee, ” A Month in the Country” by Ivan Tourgenev, “Heartbreak House” by George Bernard Shaw, “Extremities” by William Mastrosimone, “The Road to Mecca” by Athol Fugard, “Anatol” by Arthur Schnitzler, “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov, and “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller.
He received honorary awards from many institutions in Europe and the US such as the Legion of Honour and the Order of Arts and Letters. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate degree by the Greek University. The Greek State granted him honorary Greek citizenship in 1988 for all his contributions and the love he had shown for Greece.
Jules Dassin married Beatrice (Bea) Launer a distinguished violinist in 1933 (they divorced in 1962). They had three children: Joseph Ira (Joe, famous singer in France who died in 1980), Richelle and Julie. His grandchildren are: Jonathan, Julien and Joshua.
In 1966 he married Melina Mercouri and they remained together until her death in 1994. In memory of Melina Jules Dassin established the Melina Mercouri Foundation in Plaka Athens. Its aim is to carry on Melina’s work and especially her campaign for the return of the Parthenon marbles to Greece. Jules Dassin passed away on March 31, 2008. He was 96 years old.