So Long Charlton Heston, Jules Dassin

Holy Moses, we lost two much-imitated cinema greats.

By Steve Burgess 11 Apr 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Heston parts the waters: that's acting!

We don't know what the real Moses looked like. He might have been 5'1" -- people were generally shorter back then. Maybe he was bald and bandy-legged from all that wandering. I'd be willing to bet his teeth were lousy. All of which is just to say that this will be a tense week in Heaven. With Charlton Heston suddenly available, the original prophet has got to be worried about losing his gig.

Of course some will say Chuck is going to Hell for his work with the National Rifle Association. Let's not fight. Charlton Heston is dead. The Academy Award-winning actor died last Saturday, age 83, after a lengthy decline due to Alzheimer's.

It was easy to do Heston at a party -- just clench your jaw. Like a lot of actors who lend themselves to impersonation -- Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Stallone -- he was not famous for his range. (People impersonate Brando too, but they're usually doing The Godfather or On the Waterfront.) Some say Heston gave a nuanced performance as the titular hero of the 1968 western Will Penny. He did show the ability to dial it back a bit for a supporting performance as a ranch hand in 1958's The Big Country -- the same year he played a Mexican cop in Touch of Evil, the odd film-noir classic from director/star Orson Welles ("He doesn't look Mexican," says Welles the actor, leaving unanswered the question of why Welles the director hired him). But Charlton Heston was no chameleon. If they had ever made a biography of Mount Rushmore, he could have starred.

More than any other mainstream, Best Actor-winning leading man you can name, Heston also became a camp figure. Even if he had never cemented his place in pop culture by shouting, "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" Heston would have been the target of parody. His hyper-masculine, utterly humorless roles -- has there ever been a less whimsical character than Heston's Moses? -- combined with his over-the-top epic oeuvre inevitably made him risible to some wiseacres. But Planet of the Apes really cinched it. What are the odds that Heston would become legendary for a movie eons removed in both time and tone from Cecil B. DeMille's Biblical behemoths? The thing was, Heston really didn't really come off that different. Beard and a robe, 4000 B.C.; beard and a loincloth, 3978 A.D. -- same dude.

So long, Charles. I guess they can take away your gun now.

Dassin, master of noir

Less noted was the March 31 death of director Jules Dassin. He was 98. Dassin, the man responsible for noir classics like Thieves' Highway, Night and the City, and Rififi, deserved a louder send-off. Those who have not yet delved into his back catalogue have a few treats coming.

1948's The Naked City was way ahead of its time, affecting a quasi-documentary look to tell its story of New York detectives on the job. But his most influential film is probably Rififi (1955), a movie which, according to Halliwell's Film Guide, has "much to answer for, in the form of hundreds of imitations." They are referring to its pioneering heist scene. Although this sort of lengthy, wordless sequence is almost expected in modern caper flicks, it was unprecedented at the time. Rififi may be the definitive French gangster film -- yet it was directed by an American who barely spoke the language. Despite his oh-so-European moniker, the Connecticut-born Dassin was only in France on account of the McCarthyite witch-hunters who had uncovered his youthful membership in the Communist Party. Rififi won Dassin the Best Director prize at Cannes.

Dassin's best known film is probably 1960's Never on Sunday, co-starring Dassin himself and his future wife Melina Mercouri. It is a very long way from his best, but at least it paved the way for his re-admittance to Hollywood. In 1964 he returned to the caper genre for the entertaining Topkapi (also influential, specifically on director Brian De Palma, who put Tom Cruise in harness for a famous Mission Impossible scene that apes a lower-tech version from Dassin's movie). His output dwindled dramatically after that, although he remained active in Greek causes championed by Mercouri. 1980's Circle of Two was a somewhat controversial Canadian production about a December/May-if-not-April relationship, co-starring Richard Burton and Tatum O'Neal.

But it is Dassin's '40s-'50s work you want to seek out. Five of them -- Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), Thieves' Highway (1949), Night and the City (1950), and Rififi, have been included in the Criterion Collection DVD series.

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