01 April 2008

Night and Jules Dassin

Obituary, obituary, obituary. Never a shortage of these. Recently I seem to write a lot of obits for totally awesome people. Now comes another one.

Jules Dassin, a great unsung American filmmaker, dies at age 96.

Dassin started as an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock, was blacklisted by the Dark Lords at HUAC in 1952, and won the Best Film Award at Cannes for his 1960 movie Never on Sunday.

But Dassin’s great legacy to film is his quartet of four superb films noir he made during 1947–1950: Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway, and Night and the City. All four belong in any list of the great films noir, and I think that Night and the City is perhaps the greatest entry from the classic noir period. This feverish nightmare about a wrestling promoter in London (played in a career-best performance by Richard Widmark) whose dangerous schemes go out of control is on my list of can’t-miss films. It’s noir incarnate, and contains one of the quintessential great lines from this genre: “Yes, you’ve got it all. But you’re a dead man, Harry Fabian.” Who would ever believe you could set America film noir in London and have it work so perfectly? (Apparently not Michael Winner.)

As for the rest, each one is more than worth your time and rental (or purchase) blood-soaked greenback. Brute Force is a rough and bleak prison noir with an early starring role for Burt Lancaster. The Naked City is the quintessential neo-realistic or docu-noir shot on location and emphasizing procedural police work. It has a spot in the United States Film Registry and inspired a popular TV show of the same name. Thieves’ Highway is a strange but memorable film about the seedy side of produce delivery—which turns into one extremely and nasty cut-throat job. Lee J. Cobb delivers a great performance as the bullying racketeer villain.

All four films are currently available on DVD, and to commemorate Jules Dassin’s important cinema legacy, I suggest you go grab all four and have a deep and dark noir festival this weekend.

“There are eight million stories in the film noir city. This has been one of them. Jules Dassin, signing off.”