Dark Side of the Men
The now-nearly-forgotten Jules Dassin was a victim of the McCarthy-era communist witch-hunts that occurred in Hollywood around 1950. He was one of those named by Elia Kazan, which effectively ended his career in Hollywood and severely undermined his later efforts to get work in Europe, where he fled after the HUAC trials. Rififi was his first film after leaving the U.S. five years earlier, which he grudgingly directed for a flat fee of $8,000, mostly because he was broke. He hated the book it was based on and significantly revised the script to include the now-famous heist scene. What started as an unwanted project landed Dassin a Best Director prize at Cannes, and although most Hollywood types continued to shun him, the film became a critical and commercial success, putting Dassin on the list of important directors working in Europe at the time. Sidebar....Gene Kelly was one of the few American stars who openly engaged with Dassin in public at Cannes that year, a testament to both Kelly's class act qualities and how the blacklisting stain stayed with people like Dassin.
But what does all this have to do with Raging Bull? Dassin was one of the earliest directors to consistently work stories around characters with less-than-redeeming qualities. Scorsese's La Mota can trace a direct lineage to Dassin's underworld prisoners and mobsters – flawed protagonists whose actions were selfish and often destructive. Dassin didn't shy away from the underbelly of the human condition and made films about our weaknesses instead of our strengths. These themes put him at odds with the mom-and-apple-pie version of America that it liked (and still prefers) to hide behind. Even though the noir canon is filled with flawed characters, none were as consistently pitch black as Dassin's rogues gallery of ne'er'-do-wells. The 5 films he made from Brute Force (in 1947) to Rififi (in '55) became trailblazing signposts for an entire generation of film makers that followed, allowing young directors like Scorsese the latitude to expand and rework these themes. Like Rififi was for Dassin, Raging Bull would be the culmination of Scorsese's early exploration of humanity's dark side. Neither would return to the raw, self-destructive, single-character dramas they peaked with in both Rififi and Raging Bull. Dassin ended up in Greece and made mostly forgettable pictures thereafter. Scorsese's work became arguably more complex but he never quite recaptured the brutal realism of his earlier works. Connecting these two filmmakers might be a bit of a stretch but, particularly during these respective periods, they both seemed to be exploring similar themes. Two parts the flip side of the American dream and one part the evil that men do.
I've fallen behind a little on my reports from SNUFF - what with all the gala openings and crazy parties that invariably accompany it - so I may try to shoehorn in another report later today on yesterday's stellar return to the unknown world of B-movies. On tap was the revenge flick Rolling Thunder (1977) with William Devane, Sam Fuller's delirious and rarely seen Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1972) and universally-despised Warren Oates neo-noir vehicle, Chandler (1971).