The passage of time prepares one with a sense of acceptance for the death of admired personages; this musing is more of a personal “coming-to-grips” with the approaching finale to an era of popular culture that will shortly reside solely in films, books, the Internet and the remembrances of second generation intimates.
More than regret, I feel a sense of disappointment that the era of cinematic history which comprised a significant part of my baby boomer upbringing is becoming relegated to table book nostalgia as the last icons from the era of Old Hollywood depart due to exorable passage of time. .
Richard Widmark always commanded my attention. Regardless of the role or the movie, Widmark excelled at essaying transfixed characterizations that ranged from in-your-face resolve to pure psychopath. His work on screen invariably conveyed a sense of larger purpose along with the notion that hell (or a reasonable facsimile) was apt to break loose at any moment.
Widmark’s noir portrayals are timeless: fiendishly giggling his way to instant stardom in Kiss of Death, rural jealousy begetting black rage in Roadhouse, his finest turn (IMHO) as the apotheosis of the noir loser, Harry Fabian, in the brilliant Night and the City and the sneering pickpocket who won’t wave the flag in Pick Up on South Street.
Widmark resolutely believed that being a movie star didn’t mean that you had to surrender the virtual private life. There would be no drinking, hell raising or scandals for Dick Widmark; it was all about his family, friends and home. He was devoted to his first wife and took care of her until she succumbed to the dreaded Alzheimer’s. Widmark shunned the talk show circuit from Steve Allen to Oprah Winfrey and though he left a partial, late-term legacy with some he worked with as a grouchy old man, the actor was simply being true to himself. The years of waiting around for his call on location or sound stages eventually dampened the inner flame for this most passionate of actors. When he died at age 93, Richard Widmark had long since settled comfortably into the sunset of a life well lived. A colleague who interviewed Widmark several years ago at his Connecticut farm told me that the actor couldn’t’t have been more cordial and, in a natural gesture of class, insisted on personally driving his guest from his house to the local train station in order to see him off.
Equally admirable, if perhaps not as well known, was director Jules Dassin who stepped off this mortal coil last month at the ripe age of 96 years. Dassin was one of the last of the contract directors from the studio era (the only other survivor I can come up is Joe Pevney) who ended up having several careers in a Lazarus-like existence that would make one hell of a movie.
Dassin was born in Connecticut and grew up in New York City. Eons later, he would aver that being raised in a immigrant family of eight living in Harlem bequeathed him an ironlike sense of social consciousness that he never relinquished.
After an early fling at acting, Dassin worked as a director in the Yiddish theatre in New York with contemporaries that included the gifted character actor David Opatoshu. Dassin came to Hollywood in 1940 and gained rapid entry to that gilded Cadillac of the studio system, Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
What would have been a tremendous break for any other young director quickly turned to ashes. Dassin felt akin to a pharmacist’s apprentice who couldn’t prescribe and compound the medicine, but had to be satisfied by merely doling out pills. The films that Jules Dassin helmed during his Metro years were entertaining – A Letter to Evie (1946) is a charming light comedy starring his lifelong friend Marsha Hunt – but unsatisfying fluff. Towards the end of his life, Dassin forbade any public screenings of his MGM films at tributes. When film historian and author Patrick McGilligan offered during an interview published in his excellent anthology Tender Comrades that the director specialized in comedy pictures while at Metro, Dassin responded: “I specialized in shit. They were awful. They were silly – as I was. I didn’t know what I was doing and God forgive me, I didn’t care.”
Cast adrift by Metro, Dassin found salvation in producer Mark Hellinger who engaged him to direct Brute Force (1947). A riveting saga of post war noir realism set behind bars, Dassin knew it was better, but still couldn’t’t help being tough on himself for what he considered his acquiesence to forced artistic compromises. When I wrote to Dassin several years ago with some queries for my Charles McGraw book, I asked him if he was compelled to add “the women on the outside” flashback sequences in Brute Force (with Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines and Anita Colby) that seemed so incongruous to the overall theme of the movie. Dassin wrote me back in his own hand advising, “For the answer, read your own question. I was forced to add “the women” nonsense (by Hellinger and Universal) and when I watched the picture recently, I don’t forgive myself.” Even in his nineties, Jules Dassin was a film director who remained deadly serious about the integrity of his artistic vision.
After his breakthrough with The Naked City (1948), Dassin lost his patron saint in Hellinger, who died in December of 1947, but quickly found another in Darryl F. Zanuck at Fox. Zanuck didn’t care a whit about the director’s politics (“How the fuck did you become a Communist?” was as far as the mogul pursued matters) only his talent. With Thieves Highway (1949), Dassin hit his stride under the studio system, turning A.I. “Buzz” Bezzerides’ proletarian novel of working class injustice into a joyously blue-collar gem of a film noir.
With HUAC subpoenas falling onto Hollywood terra firma like autumn leaves, Zanuck hustled Dassin out of the country to direct Night and the City in London. Dassin moved so quickly that he filmed the adaptation of Gerald Kersh’s novel without even reading the book. It didn’t matter. Night and the City (1950) starring a frenetic Widmark and highlighted by some compelling photography, terrific supporting performances by Francis Sullivan, Googie Withers along with a legendary wrestler turned actor named Stanislaus Zbyszko is one of the more beautifully rendered film noirs of the classic period. Even though Zanuck played around with the UK and American versions (DFZ also diddled with the finale of Thieves Highway that caused a temporary rupture in his relationship with the aggrieved director) which had different sequences and music, nothing could spoil Night and the City, arguably Jules Dassin’s finest American film.
It was scoundrel time when Dassin returned to the States to direct Bette Davis in a play and, after being named to HUAC as a Communist, he waited around for a subpoena that never appeared. Far from fleeing the country, Dassin traveled to France to direct a film that he would ultimately be fired off of because of the Blacklist. The fact that Dassin was a member of the Communist Party of America for a brief period (he quit in disgust in 1939 over the Nazi-Soviet pact) and had done nothing illegal – along with hundreds of others – didn’t matter. Rationality and fairness didn’t apply and Dassin wasn’t a man who could turn on his friends. Decades later, the personal betrayal of intimates like Lee J. Cobb still wounded him, but by then, he could rationalize the artist’s need to work. Dassin never could quite come to terms with the hedonistic behavior of Elia Kazan whom he considered the pantheon hypocrite of the Blacklist period.
After five years in the wilderness of unemployment and living in a foreign country came the triumph of Rififi (1955). Jules Dassin became the Fletcher Christian of the Director’s Guild – seemingly fated never to return home. Never On Sunday (1960) resulted in more honors along with meeting Melina Mercouri who would eventually become his second wife after the wonderful Topkapi (1964). More movies followed with his directorial career eventually petering out, but the activism of Jules Dassin continued. After his wife’s death in 1994, he managed the Melina Mercouri Foundation and spearheaded an international effort to have the Parthenon’s Elgin Marbles returned from the British Museum to their rightful home in Greece. Whether one agrees with Jules Dassin’s politics or not, his loyalty and sense of self was timelessly estimable. Besides, the man made some of my favorite movies.
It is of passing interest that Hollywood never awarded either Richard Widmark or Jules Dassin any individual or career honors. Just as they dissed other worthies such as Glenn Ford in favor of wunderkinds like Barbara Streisand, the award bodies are somewhat analogous to the Blacklist period in that politics, rather than justice, usually prevailed.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the passing of Joy Page, one of the last surviving cast members of Casablanca (1942). Miss Page was Jack L. Warner’s stepdaughter via his second wife and played the young Bulgarian immigrant whose husband is allowed by Rick (Humphrey Bogart) to win at roulette so the couple can buy a black market visa to America. Amazingly, the other implied benefit that skirted the Breen Office was that Joy’s character didn’t have to sleep with horny old Captain Renault (Claude Rains), to score that elusive exit visa. Casablanca continues to endure as a signpost of our cultural heritage, then and now.
Although Bogart, Bergman, Lorre, Greenstreet, Rains, Joy Page, Richard Widmark and Jules Dassin are no longer with us, we have, as Bette Davis informed Paul Henreid at the end of Now Voyager, “…the stars.”
Despite the vagaries of time, we will always have the movies.