Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jules Dassin, 1911 - 2008 (a belated tribute)

Night and the City

(Please note: plot of various films discussed in minute detail)

He looked like the gentlest of men, but in Pote tin Kyriaki (Never on a Sunday, 1960) he played an American prude and sexual hypocrite; in Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955) he was a happy-go-lucky Italian safecracker too weak-willed to resist betraying his friends. He looked like the gentlest of men, but one wonders, from what one sees of him in his films, from what one sees in his films, how exactly did he see himself; what, exactly, did he keep hidden inside?

No idle question, this; Dassin's first directorial job is, after all, Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart (1941), about a murderer who from the sheer weight of guilt caused by the act of murder (a guilt symbolized by the relentless drumbeat of his victim's heart), reveals his crime to the police. The film differs from the short story in the that the story is told in first-person, almost entirely from the killer's point of view--inside his head so to speak--while Dassin's twenty minute film observes him from third.

It's an interesting choice; using a narrator is the obvious way to go, and in fact I've seen versions (one of them animated) that do exactly that; by shifting to third Dassin arguably takes the more difficult challenge, attempts to suggest interior states of mind through lighting, camera movement, and precisely positioned details (the two police officers constantly framing the killer, standing on either side of him like sentinel statues--pinning him in between them, in effect, to maintain the pressure, prevent his escape). Even early in his career Dassin excels at evoking the burden of guilt without making that guilt too explicit--without exposing, so to speak, the more private recesses of the mind.

He knew something about violence, too; Brute Force (1946) is startling not so much for its atrocities (the film takes its cue from World War 2 documentary footage to create what is generally considered to be the most shocking depiction of prison violence at the time) as for the intensity of the emotions accompanying the violence.

Take the death of a stool pigeon. A distraction is staged; the guards move to deal with it; left to themselves, the prisoners in a machine shop gather around the stoolie. Dassin stages the sequence like a ritual sacrifice, complete with high priests bearing flaming brands (handheld blowtorches) and a metal god (the machine shop press) waiting for its promised sacrifice. The man stumbles out of sight, the press drops down--it's the deliberate pace, the convicts' implacability, the sense of an irrevocable fate that give the scene its power.

Later, Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) interrogates a prisoner using a rubber hose, and one remembers not the beating (which happens offscreen) but Munsey's playful manner with the prisoner--Dassin makes it clear that Munsey enjoys toying with the man, teasing him for his helplessness, is perhaps eager to have the prisoner refuse to answer so he has an excuse to torment him.

When the facility finally explodes in a prison-wide riot, Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is shot in the back by a prison guard. He bellows, the single most memorable sound in the film; you imagine that a Cape Buffalo maddened by a hunter's shot would roar that way prior to charging. What you can't imagine is Joe being stopped--not by the bullet, not by a high, winding staircase (Joe is mortally wounded and can barely stand, much less climb), not by Munsey whipping the ammo belt from a wall-mounted machine gun across Joe's face.

Dassin for the record disliked the flashbacks (producer Mark Hellinger reportedly insisted on them)--he believed the excerpts from their past lives overly sweetened the convicts, turned the prison into a refuge for victims of melodrama (the true sociopaths work as prison guards and deputy wardens). Good point, but at the very least the violence shown, the manner in which that violence is shown, belies the prisoners' apparent soulfulness. These are brutes, perfectly capable of brutal acts (speaking from experience, the flashbacks actually makes their characterization more, not less, persuasive--hardened criminals are sentimental, and will often tell stories slanted in such a way as to make them look the victim).

By story's end the prison doctor (Art Smith), gives us the picture's putative lesson: "Nobody escapes. Nobody ever escapes." It's the usual bone thrown to the audience, to assure moral watchdogs that a clear lesson is being taught. As the doctor moves forward, though, shadows pass over his face and the camera retreats; it slips through a barred window, the lenses staying on the doctor's face. Suddenly the doctor is himself a prisoner; suddenly the doctor's gloomy pronouncement doesn't just apply to the convicts, but to everyone and anyone in the world. Suddenly the doctor's words have become a Sartrean pronouncement on humanity.

Dassin's next project Naked City (1948) is interesting not so much for the story as for the way Dassin sets the story in New York--literally in New York, in the indisputable fact of the streets and buildings of that city (Roberto Rossellini out of necessity filmed in the bombed-out ruins of Rome some years before, establishing the neorealist movement along the way, and the contrast of Rome's rubble to New York's unyielding skyscrapers--both housing the same flawed human beings, struggling in either poverty or near-prosperity for survival--is fascinating).

Perhaps the most memorable sequence in the film is the pursuit of Willie Garzah, which ends with an ascent up the Williamsburg Bridge, New York's Finest aiming at him with their rifles. Dassin will come back to this image again and again--the killer or criminal or otherwise guilty party running from authorities, from the gang lord's tentacular reach, from his own doom, running not with any realistic intent to escape, but for the sake of running, of maintaining a sense of motion, of delaying a despair so immense and absolute that movement itself is a sign of life, of defiance.

Dassin would find himself involved in a case of real-world persecution: one night he hears a knock on the door, opens it to find 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck standing there: "You better get out of town," Zanuck says. Word is that HUAC (the House of Un-American Activities Committee) is calling on people to reveal communists, and Zanuck wants him out of the country and working on a project before he was blacklisted. “Get a fucking script done," Zanuck said. "Begin shooting, start with the most expensive scenes and they won’t fire you, because it’s probably going to be the last picture you’re ever going to make.” The film was to be Night and the City (1950), arguably Dassin's masterpiece; Dassin was named by among others Elia Kazan, and his filmmaking career was effectively over.

Until five years and numerous aborted projects (some of them scuttled thanks to the endlessly vindictive U.S. government) later, when Dassin surfaces with Rififi. The film, just about the tautest, most elegant crime thriller ever made, is a masterpiece of understated style cunningly posing as realism. Everything seems real; everything seems to have been shot, documentarylike, on the streets of Paris (yet a crucial scene where Tony Le Stephanois (Jean Servais) and his friends sit in a nearby cafe to observe the storefront of Mappin & Webb is both set and street shoot--basically a table, chairs, and window frame set up in the sidewalk in front of the camera, through which the actors could peer upon the famous jewelry store).

The actual heist itself, thirty-two minutes of action sans dialogue, sans music, sans (almost) sound is, of course, legend. I'll repeat two of the best-known stories about it: Georges Auric, upon learning that Dassin planned to have no music, was horrified; he said "Look, I'll tell you what, I'm going to protect you, I'm going to write the music for the scene anyway, because you need to be protected," and he did. Later Dassin showed him the film, first with music, then without; Auric went up to Dassin and said "get rid of the music."

The other anecdote's even better: some countries (Mexico, for one) reportedly banned the picture because of imitation robberies. Apparently criminals who watched the film found it too educational.

As interesting if not more so are the scenes that precede the heist. Since Mappin & Webb was equipped with the Suralarm, the very latest in burglar alarm systems (maybe the storeowners should have checked with Mark Twain first on their value and convenience), Tony and his crew buy the very same device to study it and, hopefully, find a way to disarm it.

Dassin sets it all up simply: a medium shot of Jo the Swede (Carl Mohner), Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel), and Cesar le Milanais (Dassin himself, under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) gathered around the metal box. Tony has just tried hot wax, to be dripped through the alarm's front grill, muffling the bell; Mario points out that the vents are angled upward. Dassin has the camera move slightly to the left, following Tony as he pantomimes his thoughts with his hands (literally, 'thinking with his hands'), worrying about the problem while the others sit and joke. Mario suggests spaghetti noodles ("with parmesan!" Cesar adds); Tony absently picks up a wine bottle (to accompany the pasta, one supposes) and rubs the cylindrical shape, as if it reminded him of something. Mario starts to whistle. Suddenly, Le Stephanois picks up the fire extinguisher (the cylindrical extinguisher, to belabor the point). The whistling stops--the gang chuckles at what Tony, walking towards the Suralarm, seems to be proposing. "We're all set," Tony says with grim satisfaction, as Dassin fades on the scene. Procedurals are fascinating, but Dassin adds to the interest by revealing the men's idiosyncrasies (and goofiness) while they work the problem.

Better yet is the sequence that directly introduces the heist. A woman hums in the background as Dassin shows his images, the humming muted, casual. We see a child in bed, coughing. His mother Louise (Janine Darcy) looks at him through the bedroom doorway, turns to catch her husband Jo going down the hall and out the front door. She closes the bedroom door slowly, almost regretfully; you get the sense (through her body language, the deliberate way she shuts the door) that she wishes she hadn't seen him leave--or, more, that she had been able to shut the front door, preventing him from leaving. Cut to Mario and his wife Ida (Claudia Sylvain), bustling in a kitchen; Mario wets his fingertip, presses it on Ida's nipple, makes a hissing sound, leaves.

Cut to the nightclub; the lovely Viviane (who, it turns out, is the muted hummer) is rehearsing at her nightclub L'Age d'or (a joke on Bunuel). She stretches a leg over the table, bends gracefully; as Dassin's camera backs away she follows. She steps near the bass viola, and we hear its strumming ; steps up to the piano, and we hear its tinkling; steps past guitar and drum; skips onstage to the xylophone, picks up a trumpet, moves away from camera to hand it to its player, and we hear its blowing. By this time Cesar has appeared before the xylophone player, looks at his watch, turns to depart; as he and Viviane walk past each other, Viviane throws Cesar a lingering look before prancing away (Cesar's leavetaking is captured in a single, sinuous shot).

Scene after scene, Tony's men show us the value they put on their respective home lives--Jo takes his largely for granted (he'll eventually regret that) while Louise deliberately shuts a door on the disparity between them; Mario thoroughly appreciates Ida, little appreciates the possibility that he might lose her (or, more likely, she him); Cesar does everything with an artistic flourish (Viviane, stepping past each instrument as they start playing--a foreshadowing if you like of the precisely coordinated, wordless effort the gang will put into the heist), but both he and Viviane are too self-absorbed to do more than exchange brief looks.

When the crew's plans unravel and the rififi (chaos in French argot) begins, Dassin manages to inject a personal inside joke about his blacklisting that must have given him some satisfaction. Tony finds Cesar tied up at the nightclub's backstage (club owner Pierre Gutter (Marcel Lupovici) had frightened Cesar into pointing out Mario as an accomplice, presumably giving Mario's address). Dassin's camera moves in on Cesar--on himself, in effect--strung up against a post like so much carcass. A few brief closeups are exchanged between Tony and Cesar as Tony reveals the enormity of what Cesar has done: "Forgive me," the Italian whispers; his eyes are wide and his forehead glitters with sweat. "I liked you, macaroni," Tony tells Cesar with affectionate contempt. "But you know the rules." Cesar acknowledges with a nod what must be done; the camera moves back, watching Cesar with a pitiless eye.

If, as we see in Brute Force, Night and the City and this picture Dassin holds great sympathy for criminals, we see also in the films' various codas that said sympathy doesn't imply undue softness or sentiment (precluding the producer's interference, of course), doesn't imply extending unqualified forgiveness to the offenders for the crimes they committed, and this combination of empathy and hard judgment applies to himself as well. "Nobody escapes" Dassin has the doctor declare, just before his camera moves back to reveal the barred window imprisoning the doctor. "I liked you, macaroni," he has Tony say "but you know the rules." When Tony fires it's the director punishing those who betrayed him to the House of Un-American Activities Committee, but it's also Dassin punishing himself--why, exactly, is anyone's guess. Perhaps the artist in him refuses to create a clearcut correspondence with real life, demands some measure of sympathy for the most despicable of characters. Perhaps his moral intelligence refuses to grant anyone absolute righteousness, or complete certainty on matters of life and death. Perhaps at some level he does feel some measure of guilt, and will accept this much punishment--his own execution, enacted on the big screen.

The film's final moments, of Tony at the wheel driving Jo's son Tonio (Dominique Maurin) back from his kidnappers, continues Dassin's obsession (traced from Night and the City past The Naked City to the mine car ride in Brute Force) with motion as an expression of life, defiance, meaning, purpose. The passing countryside outside of Paris and later of Paris itself become increasingly unsteady, almost hallucinatory (they have the tremulous sharpness of images seen through eyes desperate for rest), reflecting Tony's increasingly tenuous grip on the wheel (meanwhile Tonio is as irrepressible as ever, the ironic contrast between dying man and rowdy child obvious--maybe a little too obvious (a nod to O. Henry, perhaps? Did Tonio exhaust his captor, allowing Tony to catch the man asleep in bed? And was he playing the same diabolical game on Tony too)). When the car finally rolls to a stop, it's as much resolution as relief to a long, relentless journey.

Gerald Kersh's novel Night and the City is reportedly a comic, Zolaesque view of London's underworld; Dassin worked from a script by Jo Eisinger that expunged much of the book's sordidness (the prostitutes are suggested more than dwelt upon), pointed up conflicts and antagonists (the novel, for example, ends with a general police sweep of the city, in preparation of the coronation of George the Sixth, and not with a manhunt), and replaced the book's darkly comic tone with an altogether bleaker one.

It has Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) in endless Brownian motion, running across darkened London streets, bursting in and out of the Silver Fox nightclub (where he works) to either brag about or beg money for his latest get-rich-quick scheme. He's the transplanted American as incurable optimist and hustler, willing to do and say anything and everything, even try convince the one woman who cares for him (Mary Bristol, played by a radiant if subdued Gene Tierney) to fund yet another of his wild dreams.

It's a withering portrait, one that finds distant echoes in Michael Moriarity's Jimmy Quinn, his great portrayal of a New York City heel in Larry Cohen's Q - The Winged Serpent (1982). Widmark is miles away from his debut performance as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947); the unnatural nervy laugh he makes is less a sign of sadistic psychosis than it is of a yawning insecurity, the sound of a man attempting bravado but failing, knowing everyone's aware of his failure.

Kersh sums up habitual liars like Fabian thusly: "The habitual liar always imagines that his lie rings true. No miracle of belief can equal his childlike faith in the credulity of the people who listen to him; and so it comes to pass that he fools nobody as completely as he fools himself." I like that description but disagree on this one point: I do think Fabian at some level knows what he's doing, knows the effect he has on people, but refuses to acknowledge it. Why? I'd say doing so precludes any intention of growing up (there's something infantile about Fabian that Widmark is able to refract to us, without any sense of embarrassment or need for self-protection); that he has an urge to self-destruct; that he can't find enough in himself worth saving to expend the effort. 

The shape of Fabian's character arc (I can't think of another Dassin film so dominated by one character) is a sharp parabola; he's brought up high, almost within reach of controlling the single most popular wrestling venue in the city (the proximity is maddening), only to be thrown swiftly and utterly down. Part of the fascination is in seeing how unwieldy his plan is, how dependent on quick promises and the unlikely event that Fabian's very vice (his loquacious dishonesty) becomes his strength (after years of poor luck, Fabian finally experiences a run of the good kind). The luck's temporary--it always is--and Fabian's tragedy is that he fails (or refuses) to recognize this. The seeds of Fabian's destruction sprout with Fabian's sudden bloom, have been planted there from the very start; as Philip Nosseross (the great Francis L. Sullivan) whispers softly to him: "You've got it all, Harry. And you're a dead man."

Dassin's feel for various cities--New York in Naked City, Paris in Rififi--is justly celebrated; his vision of London here rivals that of Carol Reed's Vienna in The Third Man (1949) or, perhaps more relevantly, Reed's Odd Man Out (1947). But where Reed's Vienna softens the wartime rubble by surrounding it with the backdrop of romantic decay (the film makes full use of the city's beautiful Baroque architecture), and his Belfast is on occasion seen through the haze of heavy rain and, most memorably, snow (they're like benisons granted to soothe a painfully haunted city), Dassin's is an unrelentingly dark urban landscape, no trace of inclement weather and no prominence given to old structures; it's London here and now, and Dassin refuses to allow anything to step in the way of his camera's clarity.

The plot--as befits something Fabian has created, whole cloth, out of his fevered imagination (someone notes: "Harry is an artist without art")--is complex, but I'd rather concentrate on three key figures that function opposite of Fabian, and how Dassin treats them. 

For Gregorious Dassin actually made an effort to seek out Stanislaus Zybyszko, a former world championship wrestler Dassin remembers from his childhood (he found Stanislaus raising chickens in New Jersey). Dassin shoots Gregorious like a massive living monument, especially in the film's climactic wrestling bout where he battles The Strangler (Mike Mazurki, who also choreographed the wrestling). The two resemble oversized toddlers covered with an abundance of pale, flabby flesh, growling and groaning, with a tendency to spend as much time lying on the side as they do standing on their feet. If Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) uses quick cutting and animal roars to emphasize the speed and ferocity of boxing matches, Dassin's Night with its long takes and solidly planted camera gives us the terrible slow-motion nature of wrestling--how one hunts for the perfect hold and holds it, and holds it, and holds it, until one's opponent gives in.

Gregorious' son Kristo (the Czech-born Herbert Lom) is a deeply conflicted man, caught between the demands of managing his wrestling empire, and his sense of having betrayed his old man's ideals about wrestling (the matches Kristo stages are in stark contrast to Gregorious' classical Greco-Roman style of wrestling). Dassin never suggests that Kristo is dangerous: the man is repeatedly shot from medium distance, rarely if ever from an ominous angle, and not once does he ever raise his voice--but you know without being told that he's dangerous (Dassin knows that Lom without trying can be threatening and works against that--suggests instead the outwardly bland but powerful bureaucrat that Kristo really is). Kristo's knotty relationship with his father, on the other hand, complicates our feelings, keeps us from dismissing him as the plot's mere villain (he puts paid to the notion that a motiveless killer like Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) is the ultimate expression of evil. We don't doubt that Kristo loves his father; we also don't doubt that he'll order someone killed without hesitation, if it suits him).

Francis Sullivan's Philip Nosseross recalls Sidney Greenstreet in the way he's shot (mostly from low angles, to emphasize his bulk) and treachery of character (he promises Fabian monetary support that he intends to later withdraw). Nosseross differs in one respect, however; like Kristo he's cursed with a hopeless love, in this case for his wife Helen (Googie Withers, in yet another of the film's memorable performances), who frankly hates his guts. Little bits of business betray the man--his lascivious sniffing of her fox fur (he's like an overweight child gobbling forbidden candy); his lost, childlike manner when talking or thinking about her.

With Fabian, however, Nosseross shows little hesitation. For their final confrontation Fabian enters Nosseross' club basement from the stairway; the camera peers at him from long shot, with Nosseros on the right foreground, and the angle is more or less conventional, the lighting low and shadowy. What follows is a kind of pas de deux where Fabian dances around Nosseross like a mongrel teasing a bear, bragging about his accomplishments while tapping on the various drums and cymbals stored there (beating his own drum, in effect); like an oversized Salome Nosseross gradually drops his polite condescension, revealing to Fabian just how he's betrayed him and why Fabian is finished. Fabian retreats the way he came; Dassin uses a similar shot to cover the retreat, only this time from a low angle; stonework looms over Fabian, reminding us of the massive prison walls that enclosed the convicts in Brute Force. Reverse shot: with Fabian in the foreground, we watch Nosseross cross from right to left, to the cymbals Fabian had been playfully toying with earlier; he gives the cymbals a single resounding crash, and it's the starting signal for Fabian to leap into action, into a run that will endure for the remainder of the film (more or less--there's still Gregorious' battle with The Strangler coming--but Fabian has been given his marching orders), and the rest of his too-brief life.

I've mentioned how Dassin seems to be fascinated by runs, chases, futile journeys that end in death and oblivion; I've also mentioned Dassin's strong identification with the very criminals and lowlifes he depicts onscreen, even when they're wrong, even when he shoots them in such a way that we sense his disapproval. Nowhere are these elements so strongly expressed as they are in Fabian's final moments in Night and the City. The night is unrelentingly black, the surrounding ruins and buildings unmoving, implacable (one is reminded of the convicts surrounding the stoolie in Brute Force), the people around Fabian lost in their own concerns and obsessions (money being the common, indeed overarching, theme). Dassin, cutting loose, achieves extraordinary effects: a car stalks Fabian, and its shuddering headlights pin him like some great predator's eyes; Fabian later hides in a shot tower, and as someone tries the door he and the camera slide sideways to the left, tilting more and more upwards (this suggesting the kind of vertigo one experiences from extreme terror) until it's looking up the inside of the tower from below.

The finale has much in common with his other works; it also has, I submit, the look and feel of a summation, a terminal work of art. "it’s probably going to be the last picture you’re ever going to make," Zanuck told him, and for all we know, he took Zanuck's word--hence the heedless profligacy , the sense you get that this is his last chance, and he's throwing everything on the big screen: his art, his intelligence, his morality, loneliness, fear.

When dawn comes it's seen through bleary eyes (the way Tony's gang does, after working for most of the night in Rififi) as largely unwelcome--Fabian will have even less opportunity for concealment, escape. 

Possibly the film's most haunting image Fabian points out himself--men standing on Chelsea Bridge, presumably searching for him. They look like angels (thanks to the bridge's distance and height) watching, waiting. It's nearly film's end and Dassin, after having tormented poor Fabian for a full hour and a half, relents by granting him a glimpse of the next life, and what may be in store there.

I started this tribute with questions: just how does Dassin see himself, and what's he hiding inside? I'm no closer to a final answer, but can perhaps hazard a few guesses: there is little flattery in Dassin's self-perception, even less leeway in his self-judgment. He has suffered his share of fear and self-loathing, enjoyed his share of courage and defiance, longed to reach the angels on the bridge (a wish only recently granted to him). What he might do then, is anyone's guess. 



Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your insightful comments, Noel, as I always do.

NIGHT AND THE CITY is my favorite Dassin film as well, beautifully evoked in what you wrote here. I didn't know that Zanuck/Dassin anecdote you provided.

However, just to point out that Harry's last name is "Fabian" and not "Fagin." Somehow you got offtrack there--I don't know if you want to correct it but the name is there a lot. I do think we should remember one of cinema's more memorable protagonists with his correct name.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks Blake, high praise coming from you.

And I don't know what I was thinking, putting Fagin instead of Fabian (I heard it that way too). That's a tremendous Freudian slip showing, there.

jahaniman said...

A treat for Dassin aficionados. I've not read an extended essay examining the individual films quite like this before. Excellent.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks for the kind words!