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Between the mid-1940s and the late 1950s, Jules Dassin directed some of the better realistic, hard-bitten, fast-paced crime dramas produced in America, before his blacklisting and subsequent move to Europe. However, while he has made some very impressive films, his career as a whole is lacking in artistic cohesion.
Dassin's films are occasionally innovative: The Naked City is one of the first police dramas shot on location, on the streets of New York; Rififi is a forerunner of detailed jewelry heist dramas, highlighted by a thirty-five-minute sequence chronicling the break-in, shot without a word of dialogue or note of music; Never on Sunday, starring his wife Melina Mercouri as a happy hooker, made the actress an international star, won her an Academy Award nomination, and popularized in America the Greek bouzouki music. The Naked City and Rififi are particularly exciting, as well as trend-setting, while Brute Force remains a striking, naturalistic prison drama, with Burt Lancaster in one of his most memorable early performances and Hume Cronyn wonderfully despicable as a Hitlerish guard captain. Thieves' Highway, also shot on location, is a vivid drama of truck driver Richard Conte taking on racketeer Lee J. Cobb.
Topkapi is a Rififi remake, with a delightful touch of comedy. Many of Dassin's later films, such as Brute Force and Thieves' Highway, attempt to observe human nature: they focus on the individual fighting his own demons while trying to survive within a chaotic society. For example, in A Dream of Passion, an updating of Sophocles' Medea, an American woman is jailed in Greece for the murder of her three children; Up Tight, the filmmaker's first American-made release after the McCarthy hysteria, is a remake of The Informer set in a black ghetto. Unfortunately, they are all generally flawed: with the exception of Never on Sunday and Topkapi, his collaborations with Melina Mercouri (from He Who Must Die to A Dream of Passion) are disappointing, while Up Tight pales beside the original. Circle of Two, with teenager Tatum O'Neal baring her breasts for aging Richard Burton, had a limited release. Dassin's early triumphs have been obscured by his more recent fiascos, and as a result his critical reputation is now irrevocably tarnished.
The villain in his career is the blacklist, which tragically clipped his wings just as he was starting to fly. Indeed, he could not find work in Europe for five years, as producers felt American distributors would automatically ban any film with his signature. When Rififi opened, critics wrote about Dassin as if he were European. The New York Herald Tribune reported in 1961, "At one ceremony, when the award to Rififi was announced, (Dassin) was called to the dais, and a French flag was raised above him. 'It should have been a moment of triumph but I feel awful. They were honoring my work and I'm an American. It should have been the American flag raised in honor."' The blacklist thus denied Jules Dassin his roots. In 1958, it was announced that he was planning to adapt James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan, a project that was eventually shelved. It is one more tragedy of the blacklist that Dassin was not allowed to follow up Brute Force, The Naked City, and Thieves' Highway with Studs Lonigan.