This Day in Jewish History

1911: Blacklisted Director Who Became the Toast of Paris Is Born

Jules Dassin ('Never on Sunday') had left the Communists over a decade before, yet found himself tainted and had to move. And learn French.

Left: French singer Joe Dassin, smoking a cigar at the table of a bar; center, his father, the American director Jules Dassin; right, his mother Beatrice Launer. Paris, 1970.
Wikimedia Commons

December 18, 1911, is the birthdate of Jules Dassin, the American-born filmmaker who, at the height of his artistic powers, found himself blacklisted in Hollywood. He relocated to Europe, where, so successful was he at reinventing himself, that today many film enthusiasts assume he was French-born, and his name pronounced Dah-SAN, rather than a native of Connecticut who pronounced it DASS-in.    

Julius Dassin was the son of Samuel Dassin, a barber, and the former Berthe Vogel, both Odessa-born Jews. Shortly after his birth, in Middletown, Connecticut, the family moved to Harlem, New York.

Julius graduated from Morris High School, in the Bronx, in 1934, after which he spent two years traveling around Europe studying acting.  On his return to the U.S., Dassin taught himself Yiddish, before joining the Artef Players (a Yiddish acronym for Workers Theater Organization). In the summers, he worked as director of a Jewish theater company in the Catskills resort region.

When he came to the conclusion that, as he put it, “an actor I was not,” Dassin moved his focus to directing.

Seeing Red

It was also during the 1930s that Dassin joined the American Communist Party, a move that seemed natural to him and to many other first-generation American Jews during the Depression years. As he told the Guardian newspaper in 2002, “You grow up in Harlem where there’s trouble getting fed and keeping families warm, and live very close to Fifth Avenue, which is elegant. You fret, you get ideas, seeing a lot of poverty around you, and it’s a very natural process.” But by 1939, Dassin had quit the party.

In 1941, Dassin was scouted by RKO Pictures, which invited him out to Hollywood for an apprenticeship that consisted of spending six months watching Alfred Hitchcock and Garson Kanin as they made movies. Following that, he was hired as a director by MGM. There people seemed to think he was a nephew of Louis B. Mayer – an impression of which he did nothing to disabuse them.

After making several undistinguished features for MGM, before falling out with the studio, Dassin hooked up with producer Mark Hellinger, at Universal. Between 1947 and 1950, the two made such critically acclaimed films as “Brute Force,” about a prison revolt, the New York drama “The Naked City,” and “Thieves’ Highway,” about extortion in the trucking industry.

Je ne sais quoi

In 1951, Dassin was named by two fellow directors as a Communist. Although he never was forced to testify himself, he was washed up in Hollywood. Realizing that, in 1953 he and his wife, the former Beatrice Launer, moved to France with their three children.

After a slow start, in 1955, he made “Rififi,” a heist movie that is today considered a classic of the genre. The actual scene where the jewelry shop is burglarized lasts 33 tension-filled minutes, with neither dialogue nor music, in part, Dassin explained years later, because he still hadn’t mastered French, and needed to keep the talking to a minimum.

Trailer for 'Rififi'

“Rififi” won Dassin the prize for best director at Cannes that year, and became the most profitable film in French history up to that time. It was at Cannes that he met the Greek actress Melina Mercouri, with whom he began working on films, and whom, a decade later, in 1966, four years after he and Launer divorced, he married.

Dassin and Mercouri’s two best-known collaborations are “Never on Sunday” (1960), about the proverbial prostitute with a heart of gold, and “Topkapi,” another heist film, this one based in Istanbul, from 1964.

He and Mercouri were forced to flee Greece in 1967, after a military coup, but returned after civilian rule returned, in 1974. Mercouri later served in parliament and as the Greek minister of culture.

Dassin divided his final decades between the movies and theater. But his glory years were behind him, and after making the 1980 film “A Circle of Two,” with Richard Burton and Tatum O’Neal, a flop both commercially and critically, he retired. He also headed a foundation dedicated to the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece from Britain.

Jules Dassin died on March 31, 2008, at the age of 96.