Sometimes you read the obits, and you see a life that you’d just like to take off the shelf and live, soup to nuts – and the notices today for the death of the great director Jules Dassin was just such an occasion (yeah yeah, nothing’s happened news-wise in the interminable HilBamary slog – think of this as a correction day).

Surviving like a cinematic coelocanth through the changing eras of the twentieth century, now dead at age 96 in Athens where he had lived for decades, Dassin directed a brace of great Hollywood movies, raised hell politically, directed three European classics, and then married Melina Mercuri, lantern-jawed hooker with a heart of brass from Never On a Sunday, also one of Dassin’s.

Topkapi is probably the film he’s best known for, the staple of a thousand Sunday afternoon showings, when the networks had run out of Elvis films – the luridly coloured classic caper movie about a bunch of crims trying to rob the palace at Istanbul, with a party turn performance by Peter Ustinov that grows more irritating with each viewing.

Topkapi is pretty good, if you suspend your disbelief, but Dassin’s classic work was Rififi, made in France after he’d left the US to avoid the blacklist, and was basically working for food. Haven’t seen Rififi? If you’ve seen The Bank Job, or Jackie Brown you have, or an echo of it, because Rififi – the story of a bank job that falls apart – is the first of the slow-burn criminal procedural films, with a thirty minute sequence of the crims trying to break into a bank’s safe.

As in Jackie Brown, the pleasure comes from the villains saying what they’re going to do and then very slowly doing it – it’s all about the sensuous detail of the actual heist both feeding our fantasy of the big score and elevating the tension to an near unbearable level.

Rififi was a classic because it combined a louche European touch with the discipline of the studio system, but to see the former at its best you have to see Night and The City, a classic noir, one of the few shot on location, a prime example of film noir’s creation of the city as the urban sublime – a man-made object extending beyond us, becoming strange and lethal.

But my favourite, and seriously, one of the best noirs ever made is Thieves’ Highway, from a script by AI Bezzerides, a low-budget story of all-night truckers hustling loads of fruit on the California highways. Like The Wages of Fear, Thieves Highway gains its power from ceaseless motion, but it’s a measure of the genius of Dassin that he doesn’t need the gimmick of a load of sweating dynamite to twist the knife – it’s all around the brute struggle to survive the late 1940s recession by getting a load of apples to market before they rot, or the truck is jacked.

Seriously, if you want to know why Hollywood cinema was one of the great artforms of the twentieth century this movie’s it, with the works — compelling characters, lean story, social critique, soldiers back from the war, snappy dialogue, Lee J Cobb about the best character actor Hollywood produced until William H Macy and JT Walsh, and darker than dark cinematography by Norbert Brodin, who also shot Kiss of Death, the classic Richard Widmark (who also died this week) vehicle.

Plus, Dassin also made The Naked City, a police procedural which became a TV series, which served as the template for Law and Order, so all in all, the guy pretty much shaped our imaginations to a significant degree.

My point — and I do have one – is that the reason Hollywood was so damn good, was because people like Dassin were, and the reason for that was that they came from outside of Hollywood, and were in movies not for the thing itself but for something else entirely.

Bezzerides himself said that film was almost incidental to what he was doing, which was social agitation and he managed to write films like Thieves’ Highway and Kiss Me Deadly (you haven’t seen Kiss Me Deadly – christ, you’ve got to see Kiss Me Deadly) not despite but because of that fact.

Dassin started in New York yiddish socialist theatre, and got swept to LA when the talkies meant that everyone who could type got hired as scriptwriters. The studios didn’t care that half of them were red or pink, nor that their thrillers and westerns had various anti-fascist and anti-capitalist messages buried therein – which was one of the reasons that the post-war crackdown was so harsh, studio heads scrambling to distance themselves from premature anti-fascists.

Essentially, any imaginative medium is the burning slag of deeper mined territory. Without anti-poverty agitation no Dickens, without the social upheavals of the Depression and the militant left, no Hollywood. Without the New Left, no new Hollywood.

My point – and I do have one – is not only that Hollywood is so crap these days because nothing is coming from outside the system to infuse it with life – what do they know who only movies know – but that a related malaise fell over Australian cinema, once the left nationalism of the 1960s and 70s fell away, and making an Aussie movie became either a) a tender coming of age drama in Glen Waverley/ Punchbowl/Caboolture/Hackney/Cottesloe wherever or b) a Hollywood calling-card.

Yes there’s been great stuff, but not a lot of it has had much depth or literacy, or goddam drive. Good movies will always look after themselves – the test of an industry is whether it can make watchable mediocre ones. And a mediocre Aussie film is literally unwatchable. The German film theorist Siegfried Kracauer said that film’s process as a real photographic witness moving autonomously through the projector made it ontologically impossible for it to be boring, but he never saw Somersault.

MP – AIDHO – is that the problem is the film schools. These were positive when they were de facto “red bases” in the tertiary education system. Now it’s people who know little before Taxi Driver teaching people who know nothing before Reservoir Dogs, and we are vanishing down the gully trap of filmicness.

These should be abolished, and the money put instead into a government funded film studio where people with a good script can be trained as directors and churn out 2 B-movies a year, until they know how to make films backwards. Film’s a craft and the only people who need technical training are the cinematographer and the first assistant director, who runs the joint. Dassin picked it up quick not because he wanted to make movies, but because he wanted to make a point, and the way to do that ran through the woods of narrative. At the moment perforce of circumstance most of our filmmakers know more about grant applications than they do making movies.

The crucial thing is that even when Dassin was making caper movies – Topkapi etc – they benefited from his years of making cinema do something else, they bear the texture of the world. The signal fact of these films is that the world resists the schemes of the characters. Another reason why film has got so boring because with special effects, and general cultural infantilisation caper movies – Jumper, Mission Impossible etc – feature superhuman gods rather than people, capable of leaping thru explosions etc, a 12-year-old’s idea of excitement we’re all being adjusted down to.

Dassin moved to Athens when he married Mercouri (who eventually became Minister of Culture) and even in his 70s was fighting the junta which took over Greece – and when Mercouri died in 1994, spent the rest of his life fighting to get the Parthenon (Elgin) marbles back to Greece.

My point and you know the drill – if I must relate it back to the brief, is that what is most American film came from its dissident resistant traditions, infused by Europe, and that, in its current insular historical moment, it has cut itself off from just about all of that. Which may change. May.

But really what I want you to do is see Dassin’s movies if you haven’t, and raise a retsina to the man, wherever he is, whoever he was. Man what did he have? Can I have some?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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