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A Dream of Passion

There are flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks as director Jules Dassin talks about the making of “A Dream of Passion,” an ancient and modern saga of infanticide.

He began more than 25 years ago and he talked about it all when visiting the 1978 San Francisco International Film Festival. There were flashbacks to Fellini when he was a journalist, Hollywood running scared about the blacklist of leftists, Dassin without a passport, a reluctantly helpful French cop, false papers and a Calabrese woman on trial in Milan for killing her lover's three children.

Back to 1950. The phone rings in Dassin's Paris apartment. It is Sergio Amidei, “father of neo­realismo.” Amidei says excitedly, “Julie, you must come to Italy! I think we have a picture.”

Earlier, Dassin had met Amidei in Italy through Federico Fellini, then a journalist. Fellini interviewed Dassin about his 1948 movie, “The Naked City.” That was “neo-realismo,” American style, counterpart to “Open City” (1945) and “Paisan” (1947), written by Amidei and Fellini. “What Fellini was most curious about in 'Naked City' was what he called revoluzione because it may have been the first American film made entirely away from the studio. I shot on the streets of New York,” Dassin recalled. “It had a very low budget. The studio didn't pay much attention until later. Then they cut the soul out of it.”

Dassin had started shooting 'The Naked City' in 1947. “The blacklist nonsense had begun. I hadn't been touched yet, but Albert Maltz, the co-writer, was already tarred. That hysteria had taken hold in Hollywood and the fear.

“I cut the film and brought it back to the coast where the heads of Universal said, 'This kid has made a travelogue. Take out the shots of New York, put them in the stock library. The film will not be released.'”

Although Mark Hellinger, the producer was fatally ill, he was strong enough to fight back, for a while. With confidence in him, Dassin returned to New York to direct a play. At the film's New York opening, he was horrified.

“Anything, anything that could be suspected of saying something was ripped out. I was called on to take a bow, but I refused. I left the theater and walked along the East River, sobbing my heart out.”

The studio dropped sequences “without even making graceful cuts,” Dassin noted. He and his famed cinematographer, William Daniels — who shot many of Garbo's films — had done a great deal of improvising to capture the city's “dire contrasts.”

“For instance, on the Bowery, there was a ramshackle, shabby lodging. The facing on each step carried its name 'Progress Hotel' and I panned down the steps to two derelicts sleeping in the street. They cut that.

“Near a famous diamond exchange in the midst of that misery, I had seen two hopeless men making their own exchange of a pair of shoes against a jacket so I filmed a similar scene. It was eliminated along with a marvelous speech by Barry Fitzgerald about poverty.”

As a poor kid in New York, Dassin had been all too familiar with that subject. There were ominous hints of a similar future as Hollywood blacklisting intensified. When Amidei invited Dassin back to Rome, the trip was “easier said than done.” Dassin's passport had been revoked.

When he told a French producer about his dilemma, his friend hustled Dassin away to a prefecture on the Quay d'Orsay.

“We walk into the office of a high police official and they begin to insult each other. 'You Communist bastard!' yells the chief. 'You fascist pig!' the producer shouts back.”

The producer and the flic happily indulged in more invective, but Dassin later learned, they had saved each other's lives during the French Resistance against the Nazis.

“My friend said, 'You get this man a travel paper.' The policeman answered, 'If he's your friend, I don't want anything to do with him. How can I give him stateless person's papers? He's got a state. What the hell is this?' He finally gave me a long, accordian-pleated paper, signed it over his shoulder without looking at it and said, 'If you ever tell anybody about this, I'll have your hide. Besides, nobody can read my signature.'”

The “stateless person” went on to Rome where about 100 people met him at the airport including Aldo Fabirzi, famous as the anti-Fascist priest in “Open City,” whom Dassin had never met.

Fabrizi greeted him shouting excitedly in Italian, “I love her! I love her!” “I didn't know what he meant,” Dassin said. He learned that Fabrizi and practically everybody in Italy was talking about the woman from Calabria on trial for infanticide. She was a prime target for lynching until sympathy switched to her side.

At her trial, Dassin recalled, “She never said a word and kept her head down, listening. It was an extraordinary story. Her lover was a pimp, a monster. She had been a friend of his wife, who was very ill, and she had raised their three children. The prosecution called him to confront her and he began saying the most derogatory, vulgar things.

“When he was most vituperative, she raised her head and looked at him and a shock went through that courtroom. She conveyed to everyone as clearly as if she had said it in words, 'I weep for those children. I loved them. But it was the right thing to do,' and she made all of Italy believe it.

“I was looking at the woman who had done this unbelievable abomination, feeling sympathy and pain for her and thinking of my own three children, but I didn't know how to write that story.”

Five years later, “Rififi,” made in France, re-established Dassin's reputation. “Never on Sunday” — shot in Greece — earned a fortune. He married his star, Melina Mercouri. The Greek colonels staged a coup. Mercouri's years of exile began. By then, Dassin's children were grown: his son Joe was a top pop musician in France, often singing lyrics written by his sister, Ricky.

When the colonels fell in 1974, the Dassins returned to Greece where Mercouri was elected to parliament.

While she was preparing for what turned out to be an unprecedentedly long-running “Medea,” thoughts of the old Milan trial recurred to Dassin. He also learned that an American convicted of murdering her children was in an Athens prison. He began to see how he could tell the story that had haunted him for years.

During rehearsals for the very contemporary “Medea,” Dassin said, “Melina wanted some advice and I responded absentmindedly.

“Then she asked a question that stabbed me. She said, 'Look, you put yourself in the position of having to kill Ricky.'

“I remember growing cold, but I also felt the responsibility of answering. Later, that feeling helped me write the script for 'A Dream of Passion.' Nothing I have done has meant as much to me as this film.”

He wanted to delve into the motivation for this most incomprehensible act of murder, but he also wanted to show the grandeur of classic Greek tragedy. He solved the problem by starring Mercouri as an international actress who begins to understand Euripides' “Medea” as she learns more about the imprisoned American "Medea".

“I knew I wanted to use ancient Greek, modern Greek and English in the film. I kept hearing the three different musics in each language. Melina was quite taken by the script, but the one thing she fought me on was a personal monologue before the BBC camera. She said, 'People are going to say this is me, and okay, you don't want it to be me, but you have to satisfy my truth as a woman.'I rewrote that scene several times. It isn't about her, but it had to be absolutely true for her.

“Some reporters asked if she was playing herself.” “Julie” Dassin paused and gave his wife's answer with loving mimicry: "'No, thees is not me. Thees character has refused to confide her life to any human being. I have confided my life to Julie.'”

San Francisco Chronicle October 29, 1978.

Dassin died March 31, 2008 at age 96