“Never on Sunday”, 1960. Melina Film
Never on Sunday is Jules Dassin’s love letter to Greece. Homer Thrace (Jules Dassin himself) is an American scholar and self-confessed amateur philosopher who comes to the port of Piraeus to find out the truth: Why Greece, the cradle of civilisation and culture, has given in to a life of pleasure. From that very premise, finding out the truth, he sets about improving Ilya (Melina Mercouri), a beautiful, graceful and intelligent, life-loving prostitute he is fond of, to him the personification of Greece herself. The truth is a little different than his perception of life, and than the American way of thinking and seeing the world.
Moralising and redeeming messages are often the weakness of so many good American films. And the fact that Jules Dassin made Rififi in France, having been blacklisted in Hollywood because of his pre-war communist affiliations, is part of what makes Rififi the best noir. As David Cairns wrote in his essay, I’m a Crook at Heart, Rififi confirmed “that outside Hollywood and the constraints of the Production Code, it was unnecessary to prettify the ugly stories with socially redeeming messages and moralising.” Therefore, François Truffaut confirmed, the relative permissiveness of the French censors “allowed Dassin to make a film without compromises, immoral perhaps, but profoundly noble, tragic, warm, human.” The French critic, would-be-New-Wave-director was a big champion of the film. “Out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen. Dassin shot the film on the street during high winds and rain, and he reveals Paris to us (Frenchmen) as he revealed London to the English (Night and the City) and New York to the Americans (Naked City).”
After making Rififi (1955) in France and winning best director at Cannes, Dassin took up residence and filmmaking in Greece. He shot Never on Sunday in Piraeus, in 1960, and just as he had done with Rififi, The Naked City and Night and the City, he revealed the seaport of Piraeus not only to the Greeks, but to the whole world. The whole atmosphere is authentically Greek, the music is traditional bouzouki music and the crew and cast are almost entirely Greek. Melina Mercouri, who would become his wife, was cast in the leading role.
“Never on Sunday”, 1960. Melina Film
“I was trying to criticise in comedy this awful tendency that Americans have,” Dassin explained in an interview with Gordon Gow in Films & Filming, “to try to remake the world in their image, in their thinking, in their imposition of what we call the American way of life. Often half-baked, often without any real understanding of what different countries are about.” About his character of a Homer, which he played only because he couldn’t afford the actors he had in mind, he wrote: “It’s about a man who tries to make people think as he does. He’s a guy who can walk into the happiest environment and by the tine he leaves, success in making everyone miserable. He meets a woman, she’s Greek. And he’s an American. Wherever he goes, he tries to impose the American way of life. He’s not a bad guy. He’s just dangerously naïve. He’s a boy scout. She’s so happy, he can’t stand it. He doesn’t think she should be happy.” With astute vision and humour in equal measures, the film explores the cultural misconception and the expansionism propagated by the Americans and their films. But it is Melina Mercouri that is the best part of the film – she won the award for best actress at Cannes for her role.
With her raspy voice, daring look in the eye, disarming candour and galloping naturalness, she has a magnetic presence. Every man in Piraeus adores Ilya, but she is the one who chooses her partners. She is independent, lives in her own apartment, not sharing accommodation like the other women in her profession, how have to pay an exorbitant rent for it. Forty at the time, Mercouri radiates the kind of beauty and wisdom that only come with maturity and “her charisma and likability elevate her beyond the archetypal figure of the whore with a heart of gold,” as Peter Shelley states in the book Jules Dassin: The Life and Films. The author further reports how Mercouri researched the part of Ilya in Notaras Street, the red-light district of Piraeus: “The girls received us graciously and in the most bourgeois manner. There was tea, little cakes, and polite conversation. They liked me. [In the film] I became the mascot of the whores of the world. I received letters from everywhere thanking me for portraying their profession with dignity.” She is wonderful in the role and one of the finest scenes is when Ilya, alone in the room, sings the theme song of the film, her acting talent and Dassin’s directing sensibility and skill beautifully coming together.
Often referred to as The Last Greek Goddess, Mercouri was not only a great actor, but also a fierce activist, firing “the imagination of a whole generation of Greeks”, as stated in the press release of the Technopolis exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary since the birth of Melina Mercouri (held this spring, two years later because of the pandemic). She was in New York on Broadway performing in Illya Darling, the play adapted from Never on Sunday, at the time of the 1967 military junta in Greece. She was stripped of her Greek citizenship and her films and music were banned in Greece, but she kept on militating for her country, touring Europe to plead the cause of free Greece and building massive international support. She would return to Greece after the coup d’état, and start focusing more on theater. She would later on go into politics and become the Minister of Culture, a position she held from 1981 until 1989. To this day, she remains a symbol of Greece and one of its greatest ambassadors.
Also part of the almost entirely Greek cast and crew of Never on Sunday was costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge (she appears as Deni Vachlioti, her birth name). Born in Thessaloniki, in 1922, she emigrated to the United States to study at the drama school in Chicago and she soon decided she wanted to focus on costume design. A few years after she graduated, she moved to New York with her husband, Tom Aldredge, whom she had met at drama school, and her first job as a costume designer was for Elia Kazan’s 1959 Broadway play Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Geraldine Page and Paul Newman (interestingly enough, Melina Mercouri starred in the Greek adaptation of the same play in 1960, directed by Karolos Koun). Her career would span the worlds of film, theater, musicals, ballet and opera. Her costume credits include The Great Gatsby, Network, Eyes of Laura Mars and many of Jules Dassin’s exile films, from Never on Sunday, to Phaedra and Topkapi. She also did fashion design briefly, including a collaboration with Jane Fonda to create a line of workout clothing during the 1980s fitness craze led by the actress – Fonda said she needed someone who knew how to design for a dancer’s body.
It’s a dancer’s body you think of when you see Melina Mercouri blaze on the screen in Never on Sunday. When she dances, her black sheath dress dances with her. When she walks, her clothes walk with her. Theoni V. Aldredge not only understood film costume (“You don’t stifle a show with your ego. You don’t take over a show.”), she understood costume construction. She rarely used ready-made dresses in her costumes. And this showed on screen. On Melina Mercouri, the clothes stay differently than on the other ladies of the night. Not just because of Mercouri’s silhouette and extraordinary scenic presence, but because her character stands for more than what she is supposed to be… which is also the source of Homer’s confusion. The director clearly separates her “from the other town’s whores,” writes Peter Shelley, “who Dassin will objectify in a repeated and resonant image of four women’s legs walking in unison”, and when the camera finally pans out, it reveals the skin-tight, flesh-revealing costumes they all wear. Ilya’s is not a haughty, uptight clothing. More often than not, when you see a pencil skirt paired with a white blouse, or a body-hugging dress, lightness of movement are not exactly the first words that come to your mind. With Melina Mercouri, the opposite is true. There is only one way to define her elegance: alive and mercurial.
Melina Mercouri in “Never on Sunday”, 1960. Melina Film
Editorial sources: Jules Dassin: The Life and Films, by Peter Shelley; François Truffaut, Le Cahiers du Cinema, 1955; I’m a Crook at Heart, by David Cairns ; Theoni V. Aldredge: Broadway and Beyond, by Nan Cibula-Jenkins
Costumed by Theoni V. Aldredge: Faye Dunaway in “Eyes of Laura Mars”
The undersigned outfit, the new symbol of American maleness:
Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire”
This summer we’re channelling: Paul Newman in “Sweet Bird of Youth”