Thursday, November 11, 2010

Spotlight on Dassin

After I encountered Jules Dassin’s magnificent heist film Rififi a few years ago, I was puzzled as to why I had not heard about him previously. Surely, a director capable of making such a fine film deserved to be held in high regard. But why the silence regarding his name?

Maybe one reason why I didn't hear much of Dassin was because there was a time when he was blacklisted in the United States. On the other hand, the positive comments found in a 2008 retrospective indicate that he was appreciated by quite a few critics, so maybe I somehow was looking in the wrong places when praises of his films were handed out.

Regardless of the reasons, I wanted to do a mini spotlight and pay tribute to a director who crafted a film like Rififi. So a few featured films:

Brute Force (1947)
The Naked City (1948)
The Law (1959)
Phaedra (1962)
Topkapi (1964)

The 5 films cover a range of topics and show Dassin's versatility. Brute Force is an engaging and detailed look at prison life, The Naked City is a noirish film about a murder investigation, The Law is a fascinating look at the way of life in a small Italian town, Phaedra is a Greek tragedy about a passionate affair and Topkapi is a playful heist film.

Heist but with some humour

Topkapi sets itself apart from Rififi with its humour and overall playful tone. Yet, it still manages to spend a good amount of time depicting the robbery planning. At the film's start, the heist planner lays out the 3 cardinal rules of theft:

"Plan meticulously, execute cleanly and don't get caught before, during or after."

Another requirement for the heist is that it should only involve amateurs with no criminal record so that after the robbery, when the police round up the usual suspects or criminals on their watch list, no one will come looking for the amateurs.

Topkapi was made almost 4 decades before Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven yet the two films share a bond regarding the planning and execution:

1) Just like Ocean’s Eleven, there are no guns used in Topkapi. The initial plan in Topkapi did require a gun and ammunition but once the Turkish border security and police discover the gun, then the plan is altered to be carried out without any arms.
2) Both films go about assembling a team with defined roles for each member, including an acrobat. The team in Topkapi consists of only 6 people but each person knows their role.
3) In both films, the team is lead by a duo. In Topkapi it is a male-female combination whereas in Ocean's Eleven Danny Ocean and Rusty lead the pack.

Also, Topkapi features an engaging hanging rope robbery sequence presented with no background music, thereby increasing the crime’s tension. This scene clearly appears to have inspired the Ethan Hunt rope scene in Mission Impossible.

The city..oh the city

New York City is a key character of The Naked City and the film starts and ends with overhead shots of the city. There is a narrator to guide the audience and inform us that the film’s story is just one of the 8 million tales that exist in the city.

Dassin's film focuses on the policemen who try to solve a murder. There are detailed discussions about the suspects and eventually a series of clues allow a valid trail to be chased down. But it is not easy to find a suspect in a city with many possible leads. As one policeman tells another that their suspect could be any one of the half million males that match the description. The story certainly benefits from being set in a time when neighbours knew each other and could therefore assist in solving a crime. For example, in one scene a policeman goes to a neighbourhood and asks the children if they know a boxer who plays the harmonica. They are able to point the inspector towards the right building. Such a quick identification would not be possible in a modern day North American city because of the isolation that exists in downtown condos/apartments and even in the suburbs.

Pacze Moj has an excellent write-up about The Naked City.


While I relished watching all 5 films, The Law is probably my favourite because of the attention to detail regarding the small Italian town setting. In a sense, the closeness of the characters who live across from each other and know about other's affairs is an extension of The Naked City in which people were known by their name and occupation and were not just statistics. The Law also benefits from having Gina Lollobrigida play the sensuous Marietta, a female that is the object of desire of every male in town. The film also has Marcello Mastroianni playing a quiet, shy man and Yves Montand playing the opposite character of Matteo Brigante, a man who wants to rule the town and have his way with any woman, Marietta included ofcourse.

Dassin managed to turn his exile into a positive aspect by expanding his directorial skills to incorporate European art house and popular ingredients into his films. As a result, he could comfortably make a film in France, Greece, Italy or Turkey and still manage to capture the essence of each city or town as if he was still back in the US.

Incidentally, Hollywood too might be rediscovering Dassin as a remake of Rififi is on the cards.

By the numbers

Two of the 5 films seen in this spotlight were made before Dassin's exile from the US in 1953.
Three films are with the Greek actress Melina Mercouri who married Dassin in 1966.
Topkapi is the only color film out of the 5.
The Law is the only non-English film out of the selections.


Pacze Moj said...

The Naked City is still the only Dassin I've seen. I'd love to see it again, too.

What did you think of Brute Force? I saw a few minutes on TV a few months ago and was captured by the cinematography. At least I think it was Brute Force: Burt Lancaster was in a jail, it looked to be after a riot, papers were fluttering, I think he was wounded, and there were policemen outside.

PS: Did I miss your write-up on your Japanese spotlight, or has that one been put on hold?

Sachin said...

The scenes you describe are from the film. I need to see a DVD edition of Brute Force. I had recorded Brute Force from TV but unfortunately for some bizarre reason, the sound is missing for large chunks of the film so I missed some key dialogues, which is why I was reluctant to do a write-up of it. Still, the film left me impressed and in a way, it is more gritty that I would have expected from a film from that time period. There is an eye popping death sequence which stays long in the memory.

yeah the write-ups on the Japanese and Indian spotlights are on hold for now :)