This is the third Jules Dassin film I’ve written about on this blog, and why not? The man’s filmography is impeccable and varied. Everyone knows (or should know) Rififi (1955), but that film overshadows a career spanning four decades and several countries and working in modes from wartime dramas (Nazi Agent, 1942), to classic noirs (Night and the City, 1950) to social dramas (Up Tight! 1968) to romances (Circle of Two, 1981). Hawks deservedly gets a ton of credit for delving into various genres, but Dassin was no slouch himself.
Phaedra is an awesome film. It features a post-Psycho Anthony Perkins and Melina Mercouri (Dassin’s second wife) in the retelling of Euripides classic myth or incest and sexual tension.
There are some truly great, cinematic moments in Phaedra. Perkins and Mercouri both shine. Perkins is often maligned for just playing Norman Bates over and over, but I think that’s simply his inherent boyishness and not his actual ability. Here he’s far from that sinister innkeeper. His Alexis demands range – the change from fleeting, naive artist, to hardened businessman, and essentially back again is no easy task. For her part, Mercouri (nicknamed “The Last Greek Goddess”) oozes a throaty sexuality.
Mikis Theodorakis, who I recently mentioned in my blog for Night Train, does it again with a phenomenal score. Check it out here. Skip up to 1:35 for my favorite part:
Dassin’s film is big, and the beginning of this trailer shows off the huge set-pieces and gorgeous photography by Jacque Natteau (who also shot Dassin’s 1960 flick Never on Sunday). The narrator is unfortunately your typical Hollywood voice-over, and really doesn’t do the passion of the film any justice.
Still there are a few glimpses of other visual stunning moments. Check out 1:20 for a beautiful use of contrast, costume design, and an effective high angle shot to really emphasize the depth.
2:17 is really great. The sex scene between Alexis and Phaedra is shot so surreally – through flames, with smoke wavering in front of the lens and featuring (as at 2:19) plenty of close-up synecdoche shots (I made that up, but I think it makes sense here):
There are several great scenes in Phaedra. Here’s a brief example of why Dassin is so great (and smart). This scene starts with Phaedra in the foreground, frame-left. Alexis is off-screen and in the bathroom:
She stands and walks frame-right. The camera pans with her:
She lands frame-right as Alexis comes out of the bathroom, in depth and frame-left:
It’s only the beginning of a longer scene, but this simple movement is testament to Dassin’s visual sensibility. It would be particularly easy to simply have Phaedra begin as she is seated in the lower frame. It would be easy enough to have a phone there for her to use. She’d never have to move and Alexis could just emerge from the bathroom behind her in one, much simpler, set-up.
But Dassin and Mercouri play this in a more interesting way. Her movement opens the space up, echoes her character’s internal struggle, and simply gives more visual interest in the frame. It also affords her the opportunity to begin by facing towards Alexis and end facing away from him. Mercouri makes the motion believable – not an easy task, walking aimlessly. It’s the small things in Phaedra.
Then there’s this scene. Alexis calls while Phaedra is with her husband (and Alexis’ father ) Thanos (Raf Vallone).
The camera starts in a medium wide-shot. Thanos is in the foreground, Phaedra in the middle ground and frame, and Phaedra’s friend/servant Anna (Olympia Papdouka) is in the background:
Dassin cuts to a few telling reaction shots-
-which tell the emotion. Eventually Thanos calls her to the phone. As she approaches the camera dramatically dollies in to a 2-shot:
Thanos, eagerly listening in, blocks from frame-left to frame-right, which reveals Anna in the background. If Phaedra’s tear-stained face doesn’t tell the story, then Anna’s slack-armed, motionless stance does:
Phaedra hangs up and she and Anna walk away from camera.
After Phaedra and Anna diminish in frame, the opposite happens with Thanos. There’s a huge dolly forward, framing him from a wide-shot to a close-up as he speaks enthusiastically. Dassin uses the foreground trees to really make you feel the move:
If there’s one thing that this shows us of Dassin’s aesthetic, it’s that he never shoots into a corner. Seriously. I’m hard-pressed to think of more than one or two times that Dassin doesn’t frame his characters with a ton of depth behind them.
This is also an expert use of the expressive camera – both dolly moves tell part of the story – Phaedra’s apprehension, Thanos’ enthusiasm. And staging to tell the story in near-still images (Phaedra flanked by Thanos and Anna; Anna revealed as in-depth behind Thanos and Phaedra).