After five years, Tony le Stephanois—down-and-out, tubercular gangster—has finally gotten out of the pen. His girlfriend has shacked up with a nightclub owner. He’s too broke even to gamble. His only friend is his partner, who wants him back in business. Soon they’re planning the biggest jewelry heist ever—Tony’s last chance to win everything back.
It had been five years since blacklisted Hollywood exile Jules Dassin had made a film when, in 1955, a Paris producer asked him to direct Rififi (now playing at Film Forum), based on Auguste Le Breton’s potboiler. “I knew what it must have felt like for Tony, that whole span of not existing, not functioning,” says Dassin. At 89, his liquid blue eyes are still penetrating. “In the beginning, Tony tells the guys, I can’t do it, I’m not up to it. And I felt that, too.”
Rififi, a smash hit, won the prize for best picture at Cannes and restored Dassin’s international reputation. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he began as an actor in Yiddish theater before moving to Hollywood, where he directed a series of groundbreaking urban dramas, using a semidocumentary style and shooting on location. The Naked City (1948) follows the police investigation of a murdered model through the streets of Manhattan, from the salons of society matrons to Lower East Side alleyways. The inspiration came from Rossellini’s Open City, Dassin says. “It was difficult at the time in the studio system to get too far from home. They’d say, you want a street, we’ll build you one. Of course, with my method, you walk a lot.” Soon he was pounding the pavement in London, after feeling the strains of the blacklist. There he made Night and the City (1950), a gripping noir thriller about wrestler racketeering.
Dassin’s Hollywood career ended in 1952, when he was named as a Communist by director Edward Dmytryk. He and his family moved to Paris, where he watched his projects repeatedly evaporate under American pressure. “I still wonder how I survived those years,” he says. “There were three or four of us in the same situation. We’d borrow money from each other, which none of us had.”
Today, after his return to prominence and years of collaboration with his second wife, Greek actress Melina Mercouri, Dassin lives in Athens. “I’m working on building a new museum at the foot of the Acropolis,” he says, “and trying to arrange for the return of the Elgin Marbles from Britain. It’s a full-time job.”