Jules Dassin, 96; Blacklisted Filmmaker

Jules Dassin made several films with Greek actress Melina Mercouri, including
Jules Dassin made several films with Greek actress Melina Mercouri, including "Never on Sunday," and the two married in 1966. (1960 Photo By The Associated Press)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Jules Dassin, 96, an American filmmaker who was blacklisted for alleged communist sympathies and who flourished as an expatriate with the celebrated "Rififi" and "Never on Sunday," died March 31 at an Athens hospital. The cause of death was not clear, although Agence France-Presse reported that he died of complications from the flu.

Mr. Dassin rose to Hollywood prominence in the late 1940s with a series of taut and moody pulp films, including "Brute Force," "The Naked City" and "Night and the City." They were elevated by an inventive camera style and shadowy imagery capturing a bleak, sometimes sadistic vision of human nature.

As he was gaining in critical stature, his career dried up after movie director Edward Dmytryk testified before a congressional committee in 1951 that Mr. Dassin was a communist sympathizer.

Mr. Dassin, who briefly had been a member of the Communist Party in the mid-1930s, went into self-imposed exile in Europe. He returned to acclaim with "Rififi" (1955), a heist-gone-wrong movie for which he won a best director award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Director Francois Truffaut, then a film critic, wrote: "Out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen."

The film's reputation has grown because of the extended jewel-robbery sequence, done entirely in silence, that inspired similar scenes in films by Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh.

It also influenced Dassin's own raffish heist comedy "Topkapi" (1964), set in Istanbul and starring Maximilian Schell, Peter Ustinov and Mr. Dassin's future wife, Melina Mercouri.

He had met Mercouri at Cannes in 1956 and was immediately taken with the husky-voiced actress, activist and politician. They became companions and collaborators, most famously on "Never on Sunday" (1960), which starred Mercouri as a merry hooker and Mr. Dassin as a dour and moralistic American tourist. The film, whose theme song became a pop hit, earned him Academy Award nominations as writer and director.

He settled in Greece with Mercouri, whom he married in 1966, and directed her in a string of films, including "Phaedra" (1962), "Promise at Dawn" (1971), and "A Dream of Passion" (1978).

Mr. Dassin was directing his wife in the hit Broadway musical "Illya Darling," based on "Never on Sunday," when he learned of the 1967 military coup against the Greek government.

Banned from Greece, the couple spent several years in the United States before making a triumphant return in 1974 after the junta was overthrown. Mercouri became a national hero, won a seat in Parliament and became minister of culture and science.

After Mercouri's death in 1994, Mr. Dassin took on her last unfulfilled cause: advocating the return to Greece of the Elgin Marbles, the ancient statues removed from the Parthenon and taken to England in the early 19th century.

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