02 July 2011

“Fade to Red: the ’Rififi’ of Jules Dassin” (2006)
by Hiáli neX

“Fade to Red: the ’Rififi’ of Jules Dassin” (2006)
by Hiáli neX

Due to paranoia caused by the House of Un-American Activities (H.U.A.C.), a significant change in Jules Dassin's filmmaking style occurred in the period before & after his cinematic exile into Europe from the United States.  This essay analyses that bridge period in Dassin’s career between 1948 and 1954; the period in which two of his milestone feature films, “Naked City” (1948) and “Du Rififi chez les Hommes” (1954), came to be.

Jules Dassin, a child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, was born in Middletown, Connecticut on 11th December 1911.  He attended secondary school in Bronx, New York and, soon after, began his complete submersion into the drama schools of Europe.  At the age of 25, Dassin made his first appearance on the New York stage with the Yiddish Theatre.  This initial exposure to acting led Dassin to Hollywood, where his first stint at the MGM's short subjects unit eventually gave way to a shot at directing his own film.  Dassin’s 20-minute adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1941) was the catapult that jettisoned him up the studio ranks.  Within a year’s time, he would go on to direct such feature-length films as, “Nazi Agent” (1942), “Reunion in France” (1942) and “The Canterville Ghost” (1944).  With his quickly-evolving crime style becoming more and more evident, Dassin’s flair for seedy underworlds and vices would catch the attention of Universal Studios’ Producer, Mark Hellinger.  Under Hellinger, Dassin would helm his first full-length crime thrillers: “Brute Force” (1947) and "Naked City" (1948).  Both of these films would become staples of the distinct Dassin style, a socialist excursion into the world of corruption.  "Thieves' Highway"  (1949), directed the following year under 20th Century Fox’ Darryl F. Zanuck, would become the third in the trio of films which would lend Dassin the visibility he needed to be respected and accepted within the Hollywood ranks.  Ironically enough, "Naked City" and "Thieves' Highway" would be the very fodder used by the H.U.A.C. to build a case against Dassin’s purported communist activities and lead to a blacklisting from the very studios of which Dassin yearned to be a part.

While most of the Hollywood films from the late 1940’s to early 1950’s would be films created on studio lots, Dassin’s veer from the cinematic norm: on-location shooting, bluntly honest melodrama, and a strong penchant for moral ambiguity- were the key salient points which made him effectively stand-out against the rest of Hollywood, particularly in the eyes of European neo-realists.  It would be this very uniqueness, however, that would also see his reputation wane within the U.S. studio system later on.  Hollywood of the day preferred to drum up fantastic larger-than-life imagery, with storylines to match, in order to help audiences escape the reality that was besieging the world at that time.  They were created to be a sort of cinematic opium for the war-weary masses.  Dassin’s straightforward and often heavy-handed style made him less popular with the post-WWII United States government, a government that punished its critics and political naysayers by ostracising them from the mainstream.  In the case of cinema, the U.S. government’s H.U.A.C. would be given carte blanche to be both the judge and executioner for any propaganda filmmakers who dared to confront its manner of political rule.

By the mid-20th Century, European cinema was approaching full blossom from the German Expressionist and French Poetic Realist movements which had seeded it.  It was well on its way to becoming an independent medium, but as its influence mushroomed and more people became involved in the elaborate productions, California’s new Hollywood camp began to monopolise and control the means to production.  They essentially took filmmaking out of the common person’s hands.  Christian clerics, who unceremoniously presided over U.S. government affairs, ignored the constitutional separation of church from state, and posited the argument that the growing influence of cinema would somehow pose a serious threat to U.S. American morale.  Upon scanning 30 years of  Hollywood films, these clerics formed what came to be known as the Hays Office in 1930 in order to reign in what was thought to be an out-of-control medium capable of conveying disastrous ideas which would ultimately "undermine" the entire nation. For the Hays Office, three decades of cinematic evolution were enough to see where this new medium was headed.  The creation of the Hays Production Code in 1930 came about through a partnership between major Hollywood studios and the Hays Office.  A rating system was devised to label films "worthy" or "unworthy" to be seen.  Any film considered propaganda would instantly be pulled and its makers fined.  The so-called “madness” of propaganda and immorality was now brought to a screeching halt.  Hollywood, aside from being more Puritanical in the 1930’s and 40’s, also did not venture out of the state of California to make films, except in special rare cases where exteriors would need to be shot sans actors by second unit cinematographers.  With the appearance of "Naked City", filmmakers began training the lens away from Hollywood and into other U.S. American cities.

“Thieves Highway” (1949) , the film which followed "Naked City", would be the turning point in Dassin’s career.  A pattern was detected in his filmmaking style, that of a Director who was unafraid to uncover any corruption in high-level political offices.  As this moral ambiguity was one of the elements necessary to consider a film as being “noir”, it was not the sole element that set him apart.  For the ideas of Socialism to be enlivened by the media, they would have to show the need for better organisation on the level of everyday workers & “Thieves’ Highway”, with its depiction of everyday people getting their fruits to the market, did just that.  Rather than provide a cinematic anesthesia for U.S. Americans and steering clear of politics, it made important the lives of the common man, in such a way that government heads began to imagine seeds of dissent.

Dassin’s European exile came about after Edward Dymytrk pointed out Dassin’s involvement with the Socialist Party.  While under the gun, Dymytrk was forced to name names during H.U.A.C. meetings.  A lifelong political leftist, who had been a Communist Party member only briefly during World War II, Dmytryk was one of the "Hollywood Ten" ; a group of artists who refused to cooperate with the H.U.A.C. and had their careers ruined as a result.  He was initially jailed for not giving up any information on  his friends' alleged "communist" leanings, but after several months of imprisonment he began to talk.  Dassin was first one he implicated.  For this, Dassin- and many of the others who were betrayed by Dymtryk's accusations- refused to forgive him.  An audit of Dassin’s filmography to date (begun on Edward Dymtryk’s accusation that Dassin was, indeed, a member of the Socialist Party) would become the roster of convictions used by Senator McCarthy, the head honcho in charge of the H.U.A.C.,  against Dassin.  Even more damning was the fact that Jules Dassin employed Native- and African-Americans in his films (something completely unsupported and unheard of in mainstream United States society at that time). For a U.S. government embroiled in "communist" paranoia, this proved to many of the accusers that Dassin was, indeed, “un-American”.  The depiction of "power of the whole" over "power of the individual" would be, to them, a sure-fire sign of a Socialist underminer.

Darryl Zanuck was aware of the impending issues about to face Dassin & quickly acted.  He rushed a production on Dassin, a book which was to become the film, “Night and the City”.  Armed with information, Zanuck informed Dassin of the situation and instructed him to shoot key sequences that would force the studio to allow Dassin to finish the film himself.  Dassin complied and was able to finish “Night and the City” around the time when H.U.A.C. dropped the axe on him.  This period would be the hardest on Dassin’s career as work was now virtually non-existent within the Hollywood system.  Furthermore, any European studio that dared to usurp the authority of Hollywood by using Dassin would face zero distribution of any of their films in which Dassin was involved.  This would all change when Gaumont Studios in France decided to take a chance on Dassin with a novel called: “Du Rififi chez les Hommes”.

Rififi applied a key directorial style developed by the film noir genre:  moral ambiguity that could only be seen once the top layers of organised society had been peeled away.  Typical classic noir style presented such storylines as: an ordinary man trapped by his own fate, or some femme fatale who simply does not know her place within U.S. society and becomes the victim of her own overly-masculine ambitions.  Another aspect of film noir spotlit a world in which the post-WWII United States found itself in; an aspect that writer Charles J. Maland called film gris (grey, as opposed to fully dark).  According to Maland, film gris had a "greater psychological and social realism than film noir".  While these gris films contained all the classical elements of noir, they avoided misogynistic approaches to women and tended to use noir conventions to hide a more profound, social agenda.  In the case of “Rififi”, the film followed the lives of four desperate men who wanted to pull off one last jewel heist.  Dassin approached the noir convention of “crime doesn’t pay” with relative ease.

According to Paul Schraeder, the film noir style had three phases:

The first period occurred during WWII (1941-46).  The films of this period set the standard of the lone, mysterious and confident Private Eye.  Dashiell Hammett's novels reflected the paranoia of wartime.  His characters often gained ominous undertones reflected against a backdrop of public fears.  Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall led the pack of stylised "noir" films that focused mostly on inquisitive and suspicious dialogue.

Films which set the stage: “Maltese Falcon“, “Casablanca“, “Gaslight“, “This Gun for Hire“, “The Lodger“, “The Woman in the Window“, “Mildred Pierce“, “Spellbound“, “The Big Sleep“, “Laura“, “The Lost Weekend“, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers“, “To Have and Have Not“, “Fallen Angel“, “Gilda“, “Murder My Sweet“, “The Postman Always Rings Twice“, “Dark Waters“, “Scarlet Street“, “So Dark the Night“, “The Glass Key“, “The Mask of Dimitrios“, and “The Dark Mirror“.

The second phase came in the period following the war (1945-49).  Street crimes, political corruption and real-life police ritual defined this period.  Realism dominated the style and characters were enmeshed in situations with other characters of similar calibre.  Gone were the compelling and romantic leading couples.  The style that emerged (after the overlap period between 1945 and 1946, when “Double Indemnity” proved a hit for Paramount with its critically-positive reactions from audiences) made some feel uneasy.  Gritty, realistic portrayals challenged the taste of studio censors of that time.

“The House on 92nd Street“, “The Killers“, “Raw Deal“, “Act of Violence“, “Union Station“, “Kiss of Death“, “Johnny O’Clock“, “Force of Evil“, “Dead Reckoning“, “Ride the Pink Horse“, “Dark Passage“, “Cry of the City“, “The Set-Up“, “T-Men“, “Call Northside 777“, “Brute Force“, “The Big Clock“, “Thieves’ Highway“, “Ruthless“, “Pitfall“, “Boomerang!”, and “Naked City” were typical of this second phase.

The final phase occurred between 1949 and 1953.  Plotlines delved into character psychoses.  People driven to the brink emerged as the neurotic antiheros.  This phase can very well be considered the apex of  this genre.  It managed to break the limit that establishes how we perceive intense realistic melodrama.  Heavy situations such as losing one's dignity/integrity made viewers aware of the strength and profundity of the human drama.  Those with nothing to lose become the end-of-the-line noir antiheroes.  Mickey Spillane provided audiences with the Classic noir sleuth series (I- the Jury, The Long Wait, Kiss Me Deadly), while “Sunset Boulevard“, “White Heat” and “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” showed us the underbelly of gangster life.

“Naked City”(1948) & the police procedural film

Dassin’s film, “Naked City” (1948), can safely be considered one of the earliest progenitors of police procedural films.  These stories outlined the daily tasks of law enforcement agencies.  “Naked City” is perhaps the first to describe in detail the inner-workings of a local police precinct.  Dassin begins his film with the memorable line: “There are 8 million stories in the naked city”, starting the visuals with a sweeping view of the New York City skyline and ending it with a continuously-narrowing perspective of daily life on the street level.  The visuals became more and more microscopic until they arrived at a random door, ready to immerse the viewer into one of the 8 million stories claimed to exist.  Dassin's classic noir style began at the entrance of a police detective’s office.  Here was the true start of the film.  The drama began to unravel within the structure of this police precinct’s daily operation.  The crime was introduced and the investigation proceeded into a routine style which would later inspire such films as Kurosawa’s “High and Low”, which followed this type of storytelling all most religiously.

U.S. films at the time were highly influenced by the Hays Production Code of 1930, which sought to control the imagery it considered propaganda within Hollywood.  Since its inception, the Hays Production Code realised the power of the cinematic medium, a power which gripped the viewers’ imagination and sublimated it to the Director’s will.  For this reason, Hollywood films were only allowed to show positive, government-approved imagery which depicted civil servants as perfect and obedient role-models.  Studios in California became organised and smaller companies were bought out in order to centralise the power within the hands of a selected few.  These studios could, therefore, be more easily controlled by the Hay’s Office.

H.U.A.C. would then wrap their tentacles around what they considered to be one of the most obvious forms of "propaganda" being disseminated at the time, cinema.  Motivated by the coercion of Senator McCarthy, Edward Dymytryk- a friend of Dassin- gave up Dassin’s name as an accomplice to the Socialist Party in order to spare his own implications.  This led to an investigation on Dassin.  His filmography came under fire, especially “Naked City”, which dared to portray the possibilities that high-ranking officials could possibly be at fault and to blame for any corruption in Society.  The semi-documentary style of “Naked City” fueled the controversy which led to Dassin’s accusation.  Because this film showed the way society truly was and did not sugar coat a more tame, dramatic storyline typical of Hollywood films, it was labeled as subversive. “Naked City” only served to bare Dassin’s ideologies of an empowered population led by a crooked government.

I tend to agree with Schraeder’s perspective in that film noir is a style, which can be applied towards any given film.  In the case of “Naked City”, noir conventions of theme and cinematic storytelling serve to enhance the ideologies all ready a part of Dassin’s psyche.  Socialist ideas come to the fore in the depiction of the underside of U.S. American society and its government.  It is clearly noir style which best suits this type of semi-documentary filmmaking.  It is no wonder that films such as this would serve to incriminate Dassin in front of a scrutinising political body such as H.U.A.C.

The case against Dassin mounted and would culminate on his next project, “Night and the City” (1950) which at the time of the accusations was currently beginning production in the United Kingdom.  At the suggestion of Darryl Zanuck, a producer at 20th Century-Fox who supplied Dassin with cinematic properties, Dassin was told to shoot the more expensive sequences of the film; a move that would force 20th Century-Fox to let Dassin complete the film.  Zanuck, quite aware of the impending situation between H.U.A.C. and Dassin, understood that Senator McCarthy’s wrath would impede any progress on Dassin’s U.K. endeavour.

When the axe finally dropped, studios placed Dassin on a blacklist that prevented him from working in any of Hollywood’s major studios.  Being that this was the only avenue for major motion picture making at the time, it seemed as if Dassin’s career would now plummet.  As the mounting pressure against him began to bear down on “Night and the City”, Dassin made the decision to remain in Europe.  The blacklist haunted him for the next 5 years as any films bearing Dassin’s name, even those coming from independent studios in Europe, would find no marketability and distribution within the United States.

“Du Rififi chez les Hommes” (1954) & the “policier” film

After several years of anonymous jobs in film, Gaumont Studios, a major distributor in France, took the chance of approaching Dassin with a literary property called: “Du Rififi chez les Hommes”.  In 1954, producer Henri Bérard specifically courted Dassin for the film version of this book stating that Dassin was “the only guy who could make this film!”.  This book was initially written as a policier novel- novels whose stories centered around law enforcement- but its subject matter, which included necrophilia, did not appeal to Dassin.  Gaumont also underscored the controversies surrounding the novel, which gained notoriety for its villainous portrayal of North Africans.  Also problematic at that time was the fact that France was embroiled in a bitter battle with Algeria.  Gaumont suggested that Dassin make the villains in the novel U.S. Americans given the problems Dassin was having with his own countrymen.  Dassin only agreed to creating a film surrounding the jewel heist scene and suggested that both heros and villains be French.  Bérard conceded.  The addition of César, the Milanese, was based on Dassin’s own feelings towards H.U.A.C. and all his so-called friends who "ratted on him".  In the end, César, the Milanese, is killed by one of his own for having broken the thieves’ code of honour, and for allowing a woman to pull the loose string from the entire operation they had fought so hard to maintain.  The style of “Rififi” would earn Dassin the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955.  François Truffaut had once commented on “Rififi” stating that it was “one of the best films he had ever seen based on one of the worst novels he had ever read”.

“Rififi” (as it would become known in England) became an instant hit.  French cinema in the mid-1950’s was still caught up in the throes of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), a movement which favoured realism and on-location shooting, the two things Dassin was well-known for.  Its description and detail of the jewel heist would become the flagship trademark of his career.  At the time of its release, the H.U.A.C. had all ready collapsed in the United States, all most single-handedly by the persistence of journalist newscaster, Edward R. Murrow.  Dassin, now acclimated to the European film world, would remain in Europe to continue his now-celebrated career amongst appreciative cineastes and moviegoers worldwide.  “Du Rififi chez les Hommes” translates as “Regarding the Trouble Among Men” and its noir depiction of dishonour among men attempted, once again, to expose corruption within the ranks, albeit thieves.  Dassin’s penchant for “exposing” showed itself in a higher octave in this crowning achievement of noir storytelling.

What was also apparent about this particular film was the underlying theme regarding H.U.A.C. written into certain aspects of the script.  The “Hollywood Ten”, artisans accused and tried during the infamous H.U.A.C. hearings, resurfaced in the guise of four friends who, ultimately, killed each other over problems which arose from their own slips of the tongue.  In the case of the film, it was indeed a crime.

Elements of film noir, as described by Schraeder in Dassin’s “Rififi”, were also evident.  The scenes were semi-documentary in style and were most revealing in its now-famous, 20-minute-long, dialogue-less safecracking sequence.  The sequence visually came off as a detailed instruction booklet on how to crack safes.  The instant success of this film was the ultimate springboard Dassin needed to jumpstart his career in another area of the world; an environment not influenced by the oppressive, bullying tactics of the United States government machine of that time.

copyright 2006
SoulChango Ink