The 1955 crime caper film Rififi is, perhaps more than any other film, responsible for the conventions of the “heist” genre today. There is no way to watch any of the Ocean’s 11 films, or Heat, or even Spike Lee’s Inside Man, without seeing many of the same devices and motifs first deployed in the 1950s French film noir.
Because many of his films were produced in France, many movie fans thought Rififi’s director, Jules Dassin, was himself French. The mistake is easy to make: Dassin’s name could easily be a French name. But it could also be a Polish-Jewish name of a guy from Middletown. Julie, as Dassin called himself, was born in Middletown in 1911, the son of an immigrant barber from Czarist Russia.
Dassin’s stature in the pantheon of mid-century filmmakers is assured. Dassin’s 1948 noir, The Naked City, was one of the first films shot almost entirely on location on the streets of New York, at a time when Hollywood almost exclusively used backlots and soundstages to substitute for the city. As such, it provides some of the best footage of a New York City long lost to redevelopment and commerce. The film’s plot is not particularly spectacular — an Irish cop chases an Italian criminal all over New York — but its cinematography is breathtaking. Because Dassin used hidden cameras to film his scenes without the public’s knowledge, the viewer gets a glimpse into a 1940s New York that is half-fiction, half-documentary. Even more adventurously for the film directors of the day, Dassin took his film off the island of Manhattan, into immigrant Brooklyn, away from the glitz and glamour typically featured in the movies of the era.
The orthographic ambiguity of Dassin’s name was convenient, as Dassin needed to relocate to France in the 1950s to reinvent his career. After moving to Harlem as a child and witnessing the wealth disparity in the city, Dassin had joined the Communist Party in the early 1930s, and while he had left it by 1939 out of disgust at the USSR’s nonaggression pact with Hitler, he was effectively blacklisted during the McCarthy-inspired House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.
Unable to work in Hollywood, he took himself to France, but he never forgot his Middletown roots. In the film Never On Sunday, in which Dassin both directs and stars, he plays an American tourist in Greece, a tourist from Middletown, Connecticut. Dassin died in 2008 in Greece, still a tourist from Middletown.