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Jules Dassin made a string of classic films noir, peaking with the French heist drama, Rififi, as well as a handful of underwhelming films later in his career, writes Geoff Gardner of the filmmakerís substantial legacy.

Jules Dassin made seven features as a contract director at MGM between 1942 and 1946. Dedicated watchers of Turner Classic Movies can see them all on the channelís regular rotation. Nothing in them however prepares you for the shock and brilliance of the next five movies he made between 1947 and 1956. Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves Highway, Night and the City and, after shifting to France to escape the McCarthy blacklist, Rififi, made in 1956. Dassin took to modern film noir like few others and made a series of films of quite astonishing realism. They are powerful studies of contemporary society and are highly regarded, regularly revived at festivals and issued in prestigious DVD editions to this day.

It was quite a streak. Dassin had absorbed the lessons given by Huston, Siodmak, Welles, Hathaway and the Italian neo-realists and his reputation soared. Rififi was also memorable for its now much imitated robbery sequence, 11 minutes of silence as the jewellery heist is carried out.

Dassin was on a high and he followed that with an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis He Who Must Die made in Greece. There he found the Greek actress Melina Mercouri to become Galatea to his Acis. She would feature in many of his movies from then on, starting with La Loi (1959) until she gained massive international attention in Dassinís deeply sentimental movie about a prostitute with a heart of gold Never on Sunday. Mercouriís somewhat overblown presence got her a shared best actress prize at Cannes in 1960 and an Oscar nomination.

Dassin had become attracted to big literary subjects and made two films legendary as overblown duds - Phaedra and 10.30 pm Summer. Critics were very cruel about both, deservedly. In between them he had a success of sorts, repeating the formula, if not the milieu, of Rififi with Topkapi another heist movie but this time set in exotic Istanbul and featuring an all star cast, led of course by Mercouri.

"remain memorable"

From the late 60s onwards he roamed the world making films here and there but none gained any great box-office or critical attention, His last film Circle of Two was made in Canada in 1980. Dassinís was a career that petered out but it will remain memorable for that extraordinary series of film noirs made in the late forties and early fifties, and for Rififi, a brilliant film about the Parisian criminal world which contains a single sequence of quite stunning dexterity. Still quite a legacy.

Topkapi (left); Circle of Two
Published: April 10, 2008

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Jules Dassin - in 1969
Born Middletown, Connecticut, 18/12/1911
died 31/3/2008, Athens.
Aged 96

... with wife Melina Mercouri in 1964


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