Brute Force (1947) Jules Dassin

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Jules Dassin’s Brute Force is a brutally, cruel, claustrophobic prison film that will turn your knuckles bloody to the skin. This was the director’s first venture into the world of film noir. It has a tough hard core texture, thanks to not only Dassin’s sharp direction, but the cinematography of William H. Daniels (The Naked City, Lured) and the music score of Miklós Rózsa (Ministry of Fear, Woman in Hiding). Continue reading

Thieves’ Highway (1949) Jules Dassin

Revenge, money and corruption drive Jules Dassin’s terrific 1949 noirish trucking drama. Written by A.I. Bezzerides (On Dangerous Ground, Kiss Me Deadly), based on his own novel, “Thieves Market,” this was Dassin’s last film made in the United States before he was blacklisted. Richard Conte is Nick Garcos, a returning Navel World War Two vet who sets out to avenge his father’s crippling accident caused by crooked produce dealer Mike Figlia played by a vicious Lee J. Cobb.  Much of the film was made on location in San Francisco’s produce and waterfront areas. Dark and gritty, Dassin is set on exposing the dark corrupt side of the produce business where people, mostly immigrants here represented by Italians, Greeks and Poles, are used for cheap labor and then as now, tossed away when no longer needed.  It’s an exploration of the unpleasant greedy side of capitalism, filled with despair and disillusionment where everyone is interested in making a dollar no matter at what cost. Everyone is out for a buck, even Nick’s “nice” fiancée Polly (Barbara Lawrence) reveals herself to driven by the almighty dollar.

Nick arrives home where he is greeted by his soon to be bride, Polly, who is clearly disappointed by the small china doll gift he brings her, that is until she finds the expensive engagement ring hanging on the doll. He then sees his father in a wheelchair, legless due to an “accident,” a result of carelessness by big shot Mike Figlia. Nick boils with rage and swears revenge. He hooks up with Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell), a trucker. Using his father’s truck, they become partners. When Ed attempts to cheat some Polish Apple growers, Nick makes him honest paying a fair value. They load their valuable but fragile Apple cargo and head for San Francisco to deliver the freshly picked produce along with a little payback to Big Mike. From here on, the film becomes a dark claustrophobic nightmare filled with speed, treacherous turns, threats and violence.  In the end, Nick, an ex-G.I. happy to be home has turned into battle weary cynic who views life as nothing but an opportunity to make a buck. Money is the driving force.

Visually the film is stunning, thanks to Dassin’s working of the camera and some sharp editing. One highlight is a nicely edited series of shots, close ups inside the truck’s cab when Ed realizes the breaks on the beat up vehicle are gone and he cannot slow down. In between, we cut to two of Ed’s buddies in a second truck driving behind him, who helplessly realize he is in trouble.  A hard turn, suddenly Ed’s truck is going off the road and rolling down a hill exploding into a ball of fire. From the bottom of the hill the camera eyes the turned over truck at the lower part of the frame, apple boxes spread out all over, scattered apples still rolling down the steep hill.

In San Francisco, Nick is beaten up by Figlia’s goons. Rica (Valentina Cortese), a prostitute and Figlia associate helps mend Nick’s wounds. As Nick recuperates in Rica’s small bedroom apartment the two are constantly eyeing each other, verbally and physically sparring between mistrust and sensual desire. At times Rica is playful, other times defiant, then suddenly turning playful again. She becomes openly lustful toward Nick, surprisingly so for a film of this period. 

Unfortunately, the hand of producer Darryl F. Zanuck softened the previous ninety minutes.  Thinking the film to0 downbeat, a quickly manufactured happy ending was filmed including Nick and Rica riding off into the sunset filmed without Dassin’s involvement corrupting the hard realities of what came before. Still, “Thieves’ Highway” remains engrosing, one of Dassin’s darkest and finest films.

Note: this is a revised review that originally appeared in the now defunct Halo-17.

Night and the City (1950) Jules Dassin

Harry Fabian is on the run and so was director Jules Dassin. “Night and the City” is dark unsympathetic masterpiece, uncompromising right down to its bleak ending. Even the film’s title is one of the most noirish, containing two essential elements of film noir.

“Night and the City” is one of a string of wonderfully directed film noirs Dassin made in the late 1940’s and into the early 1950’s. “Brute Force”, “The Naked City”, “Thieves Highway”, “Riffi” and this Richard Widmark marathon run. Dassin’s first European film, caps an unbelievable string of cinematic home runs that remain tough to beat. With his career in the United States over due to the McCarthy witch hunts, Dassin in exile, made his way to England, with the backing of 20th Century Fox, jumping into production on this dark morose tale of a small time scam artist who spent his life looking for his one big break.  Dassin’ s post war London is cold, wet, Dickensian with remnants of the war torn city still clearly visible. From the opening scenes at St. Paul’s Cathedral where we first see Fabian running in the night to the final scenes at the Hammersmith Bridge where Fabian’s journey ends, London is portrayed as an inhospitable gloomy place. This is all achieved with  Dassin’s use of his camera; the angles, the strategic placement of the lens all accomplished with the talented assistance of cinematographer Mel Greene.

Richard Widmark as Harry Fabian gives us his most definitive role. Dressed in flashy plaid sports jackets, tellingly saying to the world his is a sharpie while in truth, Fabian is a scam artist, an ugly American, a nobody who wants to be somebody out for his own big score and unconcerned about the bodies left behind. Even Mary (Gene Tierney), the girl who loves him is a victim to Fabian’s hucksterism. In the end there is no victory, no escape, no redemption for Fabian, he tried to take on the London underworld and lost.

Widmark once said in an interview, what he remembers most about this film is that he did a lot of running. He does. According to Alexander Ballinger and Danny Graydon in the book, The Rough Guide to Film Noir, for Fabian’s final run near the Hammersmith Bridge, Dassin and cinematographer Max Greene with only about a half hour of light left used six cameras and “completed a staggering twenty two shots in eighteen minutes.”

At the time of its release the film was not well received. The late Bosley Crowther, the premiere film critic at the New York Times for 27 years,  said after first praising Jules Dassin’s recent work on “The Naked City” and “Thieves Highway” called “Night and the City “a pointless, trashy yarn, and the best he (Dassin) has to accomplish is a turgid pictorial grotesque.”  As usually is the case Mr. Crowther has delivered a pompous bizarre review. Later on in his review he downplays Widmark’s performance, now considered one of his finest. Crowther seemed let his prejudices, dictate his criticism; his dislike of violence in film or display of political beliefs (right or left) always seemed to color his reviews. Today, “Night and the City” is considered a noir essential, a wicked masterpiece of dark cinema and Widmark’s performance is one of his finest.

Based on a novel by Gerald Kersh, “Night and the City” was remade in 1992 with Robert DeNiro as Harry Fabian, now a scheming lawyer and Jessica Lange. London was replaced with New York, a good choice, but the film remains ordinary and inferior to the original.

*****

 

Classic Film Alert on May 2nd

On May 2nd two must see films will be making rare appearances on the Fox Movie Channel and TCM.  First up is Jules Dassin’s classic film noir “Thieves Highway” on Saturday May 2nd at 11:30AM and again on May 13th at 9:45AM on the Fox Movie Channel.

Released on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection “Thieves Highway” is Dassin right in the middle of his best period with “The Naked City” and “Brute Force” behind him and “Night and the City” and “Riffifi” still to come. This was Dassin final American film until his rare 1968 film “Up Tight”,  a black cast remake of  “The Informer.”

Here’s a review I wrote for Halo-17.

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Later that same day, TCM will broadcast the 1932 classic prison drama, Mervyn LeRoy’s  “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” at 8PM. A repeat broadcast is scheduled for June 20th at 7:15AM.  Based on a true story this is one of Warner Brothers classic social dramas that they did so well back then.

Here’s a quick link to the review I wrote a short while back.

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Don’t miss the chance to see this two classic works.

Film Forum – Jules Dassin Tribute

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 Starting Friday the Film Forum is presenting a 12-day tribute to director Jules Dassin who passed away last year. Dassin’s career can be split into two parts, his Hollywood period and his expatriate period. Both are rich in cinematic treasures.

Works include:

 

Reunion in France

Night and the City

Brute Force

The Naked City

Thieves Highway (Click here for a review I wrote at HALO-17)

Uptight

Rififi

Never on Sunday

He Who Must Die

10:30PM Summer

 

All these films are included in the tribute plus others. 

 

 Click here for the schedule.

 

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Recent New  York Times article on Dassin.

 

Dassin article from the Museum of the Moving Image

 

New York Times Obituary.

 

Salon article – Jules Dassin The Early Years.

 

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Original reviews of Jules Dassin films from The New York Times 

Brute Force                                                night1

The Naked City

Rififi

Never on Sunday

Uptight

Thieves’ Highway

Night and the City

Never on Sunday

Remembering Six Who Won’t Be Forgotten

 

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    The notable deaths in 2008 seem merciless. Young, middle age and old, death took no prisoners. Here are six passings that affected me deeply

    The world is going to be a different place without George Carlin explaining the quirks in our language and how we go about our life and yes, those seven words you can never say of television (unless its HBO). The music will not be the same without Jerry Wexler, who along with Ahmet Ertegun was responsible for producing some of the finest soul music ever recorded on the great Atlantic Records label. Artists included Aretha Franklin, Wilson “Wickett” Pickett, Ray Charles,The Drifters and  in 1968, Wexler signed Led Zeppelin to the Atlantic label. Sunday mornings will shine less bright without Tim Russert on “Meet the Press.” Russert pulled no punches and asked the hard questions no matter what side of the political fence his guest sat on. Director Jules Dassin whose films “Brute Force”, “The Naked City”, “Night and the City” and “Thieves Highway” are treasures for film noir lovers. Actor Richard Widmark whose career-making role as Johnny Udo, the crazed psychotic killer in the 1947 film “Kiss of Death” is a landmark in crime movies. The famous scene where he pushes the old lady down a flight of stairs is still shocking fifty years later. Last but far from least, I am going to miss Paul Newman, the last great superstar of the last century. Starting out as an imitation Marlon Brando and James Dean, Newman’s career reached levels that neither of his counterparts ever did. Goodbye Fast Eddie.