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The Grudging Moralist

 | Director Profile |

  BY Anuj Malhotra

Rififi (1954)

At his best, Dassin is a director of processes. His primary interest lies not in the consequences of an event, or in its foundation, but in its happening. As such, he is not interested in what led to an affair, or what happened after it, but in how it was conducted. ‘To show’ is Dassin’s policy as a cinema director: therefore, he has a peculiar ability to not meddle with the contents of a scene and let them take place as they do. By ‘showing’ everything in a simple-minded close-up, Dassin ensures that no object holds within itself an implicit meaning that is not immediately visible to the viewer – a hook is a hook, a rope is a rope, a grill is a grill, a bolt is a bolt, a face is a face – nothing is a symbol of anything else. It is a curious approach, yes, but it is one of a flow-chart artist.
Nowhere is this innocuous rigour manifest more than in sequences that involve a heist. When Dassin shoots a heist, as in his most famous film of that type, Rififi (1955), but in actually his best, Topkapi (1964), he acquires the approach of the car-mechanic; no act is self-contained, for it must lead to some immediate result. The result will then lead to another. Dassin’s heist sequences, unlike any other director’s, are devoted to causal rigour. Therefore, if the nuts of a window grill are loosened, be assured that an elaborate pulley mechanism will then be employed to lower the unfastened window grill onto the ground in the next series of close-ups. In his decision to shoot the heist sequence as objectively as it is possible to shoot a sequence of such inherent sensation; almost like a ‘how-to’ instruction manual, Dassin ensures that it is not made available to any moral commentary.

The robbers in a heist sequence are inevitably upto an act of immorality, or several acts of immorality – they intrude a sanctum, cast a sinful eye upon its riches, and then carve a stratagem to raid them. It is not difficult to admonish them for their utter lack of honour, and yet, Dassin shoots each step involved in the conduct of a heist in meticulous detail (the heist in his heist film takes upto forty percent of the film’s running time). Through a conscious rejection of the regular aesthetic that is employed to shoot sequences of such excitement – jump-cuts, a tension-filled score, frequent cliffhanger moments (such as in Mission Impossible (1996), what if the sweat drop reaches the floor?) – and instead choosing to ‘show’ the heist in all its tedious glory – each creak, each device being lowered down the window, each close-up of a sweaty robber face – Dassin peculiarly converts the heist film into a men-on-a-mission film. That means that we do not become their moral judges, but their cohorts. Ofcourse, there is the internal moral logic of a heist film: all the robbers get killed (and infrequently, caught) at the end, because well, they had it coming all along. But the effect of a heist, as its cause, occupy only meager importance in Dassin’s scheme of things, who instead of bothering with such perfunctory details, would much rather get down to business.

Dassin’s heist films are however, not symptomatic of the corpus of his work as a cinema director; instead being anomalies in it. Films such as Rififi and Topkapi, that conveniently forego discussions on morality to much rather focus on the acts of splendour that the protagonists are involved in the conduct of are Dassin rarities, mostly because they are like weekend getaways for a person who works in a coal-mine throughout the week. Throughout the rest of his filmography, he operates not like a mechanic, or a scientist, but like a parish priest – forever in a state of lament about the general immorality that plagues the world. The manner of the lament is rather fascinating in Dassin’s case, because he is also a wandering artist, a filmmaker who travelled around the world, like a busking musician, with his hat laid neatly in front of him, in the hope that someone would pay him enough to perform another instance of his art. While Roman Polanski and Luis Bunuel, the two other wandering artists of cinema did not let their location affect their attitude towards art – thereby producing only a particular kind of film, regardless of where they set it, Dassin clearly allowed himself to be influenced by the ‘setting’. In that regard, he was interested more in anthropology than in art.

No Dassin film is like another Dassin film – which should be true for all ‘directors-for-hire’ – but in his case, the difficulty in putting his entire work into a specific category arises not because of the absence of a clear ‘figure’ directing the action behind the camera, but because of the willingness of the figure to direct according to the demands of the land. 

The Dassin landscape would invariably be populated by hustlers, peddlers, schemers and deviants – all of them upto no good, and occupied by no more pressing a purpose than trying to make a quick buck. The hustler is the proverbial Dassin protagonist – the no-gooder who hatches one plot after another, all unanimously immoral, but is still in a hokey way endearing because he just seems to suck so much at crime. The failure of his scheme (or schemes) is inevitable, and he is eternally doomed to a life of failure. He or she (if its, for instance, Ilya (Melina Mercouri) in Never on Sunday (1960)) is thus, less a figure worthy of our condemnation, and more a martyr of ambition. 

The moral attitude of Dassin is not absolute; it is not laid down in concrete. It is a malleable quality, one that aligns itself with the nation in which the director gets funding to make his film.  In the America of Thieves’ Highway (1949), Mike Figlia (Lee J.Cobb) is unanimously declared ‘bad’ – he is the villain of classical dramaturgy, the conventional personification of vice. The entire film plays out like an extended scuffle between men with conscience and men without it. But Figlia is only at the top of the greed-hierarchy; all types of voracities come in for equal blunt condemnation: from the lead-protagonist (Nico)’s first female suitor who is in it with him only for the money, to Nico’s business partner (they try to sell apples), who is admonished for being unscrupulous. 

American traditionalism obviously dictates a neat distinction of the ‘bad’ as opposed to the ‘good’, it’s a culture still obsessed with the identification of a clear ‘enemy’ as opposed to a ‘friend’ – thereby facilitating a precise allocation of our contempt and our sympathy. With the war over, the Fascist enemy behind, and McCarthyism rearing its head, late 40s was a period where villainy of any sort had to be reproached, and necessarily by someone who represents an all-American hero. Who better than Nico Garcos; immigrant, war-hero and a man of honour to defeat Mike Figlia, the criminal? Its similarity to Key Largo (1948) notwithstanding, Thieves’ Highway is Dassin’s most American film, even more so than Naked City (1948), a film that could be about any metropolis in the world, but instead, wants to be about New York through the verisimilitude of shooting on-location.

Dassin’s 1950 film and also his best, Night and the City, also shot on-location, but in London, is actually about London in a lot of ways. To call it a British film would reduce its significance, for it is in no absolute way only about Londoners, but it can perhaps be conceived only in London. Unlike the clearly American Thieves’ Highway, this film’s moral centers are muddled and entangled with the forces of circumstance. Circumstance is the most frequent challenger to morality ofcourse – the question is not how moral you are, but how moral you are even when circumstance forces you to be otherwise. There is no simple-minded location of the ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or of the ‘friend’ or ‘enemy’, and instead, much like the visibility that London fog permits, everything is smudged to a uniform goal, that of profit. At each rung of the social hierarchy, from the low-level snouts to the major racketeers, everyone is looking to consummate their existence in the best way they know: by making a buck. The protagonist, Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark in one of the greatest film performances) is just one of the London low-lifes, and like everyone else, hustling ideas  to people that can fund them (much like a film director). He is the prototypical Dassin protagonist; upto no good and unable to acknowledge the only person with any real human feeling towards him. Throughout the duration of the film, Fabian’s money-plot to wrest control of the London wrestling racket leads to three major casualties (and many minor ones), a house break-in, a broken marriage, and a bounty on his head – essentially, he sucks at crime, but even then, he is not Mike Figlia. Dassin does not locate in him the center of villainy, but a tragic figure who fails to take into account one major factor as he concocts ploys: the frailty of human nature. It is a film that is premise-heavy, but light on plot, because it is not a plot that drives it, but the characters. It is as if Dassin merely stood and observed as his characters followed their human impulses, the most unreliable of all forces. Fabian is not a victim of his weaknesses as a human being (in this film, everyone has the same set of temptations, they are all similarly dishonourable) but of circumstance. 

The variable moral attitude of the characters within a Dassin film (‘good’ and ‘bad’ in America, moral confusion in England, ‘bad’ is actually ‘good’ in the Greece of Never on Sunday, morality less significant than national security in the Turkey of Topkapi) is interesting. Dassin is however, not a willing moralist. Unlike other directors whose films featured a discussion on moral attitude, he felt as if he had, against his wish, been pulled into it. Every time he set out to make a simple-minded Hubert Cornfield like thriller, he became the victim of his own intelligence, which did not permit him the often underrated but actually noble ambition of a cheap two-bit entertainer, instead obliging him with another depiction of the complex human nature. What Dassin was hopeful of was gay abandon – the ability to let go of his own general highbrow-ness and cater instead to his more pedantic sensibilities (he had equal measures of both). He discovered abandon in love eventually; Mercouri and he were married. A man at ease at himself and his status as a peripatetic craftsman – he made Topkapi, the most delightful of all heist films, where the film’s ending does not implicate the robbers, but in a bizarre turn of events cuts from the prison (where they’ve been incarcerated) to the mountains – thereby setting them free to conduct another heist.