Monday, 25 August 2008

A Voice from the Past - Jules Dassin

I met Jules Dassin in 2002. The man was a legend - surviving the McCarthy purges of 1950's Hollywood, he ended up happily living in Greece, a national hero and a man who always followed his conscience.

Ushered upstairs in a stuffy Piccadilly Hotel, I find myself alone with the ninety year-old director of Rififi whose life story itself sounds like something out of a movie. I’m torn by the desire to quiz Jules Dassin frivolously and endlessly about his terrible experience directing Joan Crawford in Reunion in Paris (1942), and discussing far more weighty and solemn matters, in particular his being blacklisted by McCarthyite stooges in the early 1950’s and a summons to the Senate Committee on UnAmerican Activities. He’s certainly not averse to chewing the fat about politics especially since he married a politician, the spirited actress Melina Mercouri who was similarly exiled from her native country by the Greek Government Junta of 1967. She later became the Greek Minister for Culture and a woman of considerable political clout in Europe before her death in 1994 (memo to Glenda Jackson: only be ‘Oscar-nominated’ like Mercouri for a successful political career – gold statuettes in the loo won’t appeal to the green-eyed Millbank set). Till his death Dassin lived in a street named after her in Athens, a man used to exile, and seemingly not much bothered by it.

Julius Dassin was born of an exile, on December 18th 1911 in Connecticut, his father a Russian Jewish barber and first generation immigrant, who moved his family of eight to Harlem in New York soon after Jules was born. Jules subsequently attended High School in the Bronx and debuted as an actor in New Yorks legendary Yiddish Theatre in 1936 after drama studies in Europe. After writing radio scripts he found himself briefly under the wing of Alfred Hitchcock at RKO during the shooting of Mr and Mrs Smith, and was snapped up by MGM. In 1942 he was in the thick of production-line film-making with three movies in that year alone, the third of which was Reunion in France with Joan Crawford in the heroine of the French Resistance. It also featured John Wayne as a pre Pearl Harbor American pilot applying to join the RAF.

It was Wayne who saved him from the full wrath of Joan Crawford when the rookie director first went onset. ‘Making it was hell,’ he admits, in the sweet tone and benign countenance that is the most striking thing about him. ‘I managed to get a meeting with the MGM executives because I was concerned about the casting and the script,’ he tells me. But they only wanted to talk about one thing. Hats. Hats were important. Joan Crawford is the heroine of the French Resistance and is sacrificed for their existence in the movie – I mean, she’s captured and stripped of all dignity. And yet they wanted to dress her ‘for the fans’. And this was talked about for hours. Finally I got a word in and said I thought the script was bad. And one of the executives took me over to a window overlooking the parking lot and said: which one is your car? And I had this little old car at the time. And he pointed to his automobile, one of those big new things. And he said: that’s my car and that’s your car, and I say the script is good’.

It didn’t get any better either. ‘On the first day we rehearsed and John Wayne – a very interesting man, extreme right-wing but really just a nationalist – was going through the script with Joan Crawford. It wasn’t going well, so of course I said cut. And the whole set just froze. My assistant panicked and pretended to call up at some imaginary guy, telling him to be quiet. John Wayne took me to one side and muttered ‘Never say cut to Miss Crawford.’ You just give a hand sign. I thought this was just nonsense. But when I said cut again Joan Crawford walked off the set, and Louis B Mayer called me to the office and fired me. But then she rang me at my house that night, and asked me to come to dinner. I came to this mansion and the door was opened by her two little girls wearing long white gloves. It was the longest dinner ev-er! And she asked me into the library, where she had thousands of books, and she said: Mr Dassin, do you think I’m a bad actress? And I said, no, I don’t. And she said don’t ever say cut to me again. Just do this.’ Dassin pauses to draw two fluttering fingers across his brow, like a diva having a neuralgia attack. ‘So that’s what I did’.

I was fascinated to hear his account of the creepy and spotless realm of Mommie Dearest, because of course one of those two little girls who opened the door to him was Christina Crawford – that same Christina whose biography of her mother passed into legend as the most spectacular hatchet-job in Hollywood history. Was she the witch of repute? The scariest mother in known history? ‘I suspected those white gloves,’ Dassin nods sagely. ‘I suspected the silence from the children’

But the problems didn’t end after this rapprochement, which saw him rehired. Quite quickly Dassin discovered that Crawford was busy avoiding her Dutch co-star Philip Dorn – he was an embarrassing ex-fling and she’d just got re-married. He began to notice La Crawford mysteriously kept moving out of frame when she was in scenes with Dorn, so the camera would never capture them together. ‘I got so mad,’ recalls Dassin, who was perched on a weighted camera crane at the time, ‘I jumped off the crane and the crane flew up – and I yelled ‘I’m gonna punch you on the jaw’. And then that whole New York gangster thing came out in her, and she took off her hat, and she put down her purse, and she pointed to her jaw, and said GO AHEAD!’

Now I don’t want to misrepresent Jules Dassin, who considered his encounter with fearsome old Mommie Dearest a very small part of his early life as a director, and who soon after made a name for himself with moody film-noir classics like Brute Force (47), The Naked City (48) and Night and the City (49). Night and the City was the actually last movie he managed to shoot for Hollywood before being blacklisted, shortly after fellow director Edward Dmytryk identified him as a communist and his life collapsed around him. It wasn’t until the Parisian heist movie Rififi – the mother of all ‘heist gone wrong movies’ right up to and including Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – that he found work five years later. He was rehabilitated in the sixties but by that point he was married to Mercouri and settled in Greece and Switzerland. I can’t help noticing that several online US biographies of the man still refer to his ‘self-imposed exile’ after his apparent rehabilitation, as if he was in some way being an awkward cuss in not returning to America, despite the vicious campaign waged against him by his own countrymen, a campaign that included the US embassies in countries like Italy and France successfully sabotaging his movie career abroad from 1949-1954 (Zsa-Zsa Gabor and producer Jacques Bar were explicitly told that none of their films would receive a US release if they worked with Dassin).

Dassin famously never talks about his time on the blacklist. It’s painful, even today. He had several post-Hollywood successes after Rififi, including the movie Topkapi (64) which won Peter Ustinov an Oscar and was apparently the inspiration for the Mission Impossible tv series and recent Tom Cruise franchise (the first of which namechecks the Dassin original). His final film Circles of Two (80) has an elderly Richard Burton as a painter falling for fourteen year-old nymphet Tatum O’Neal.

However I did manage to squeeze a few words out of him about the McCarthyite blacklist. Looking at the campaign waged against Robert Altman (still being conducted in certain US movie magazines) after his post September 11th comments, I ask Dassin if he could ever see the blacklist returning to haunt America in a new guise.

He heaves one of the most terrible sighs I think I have ever heard. He’s already found his letters to the New York Times ‘cleaned up’ of criticisms of the Bush Government. ‘Could it ever happen again?’ he says after a great and pregnant pause. For the first time in the interview he looked every one of his ninety years and his genial manner faded into sadness. ‘Somebody asked me that the other day. I always used to say – never! It is remembered with shame. But this present government scares me. Impose another blacklist? It might be possible. I believe it may happen again.’ It was a sombre note on which to end.

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