Christopher McDonough: Forgetting and Remembering Jules Dassin’s Phaedra

Last month, I was at the Classical Association meeting in Canterbury and, having heard many fine papers on film reception, was finishing up my meal at the Friday night banquet when the loud music began to play signaling the start of the disco. That was my cue to head to the bar, which some University of Kent students happened to be tending. “What’ll you have?” asked a nice young man whose forearm was tattooed with  Ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς (“With it or on it”). Maybe you’re studying Classics, I said as he poured my beer, but no, he replied, his dad was Greek though he was studying here in Kent. “Do you know this old Tony Perkins film,” I asked, “about another student in England whose father is Greek?” He gave me the look most students do when I begin to talk about old black-and-white movies, but I continued. “His father asks his stepmother, who’s Greek, to come to London to bring him home, but she ends up falling in love with him and they carry on this torrid affair until eventually consumed by shame he commits suicide by driving his Aston Martin off a cliff into the Aegean.” His eyes were wide by this point, as were those of the other bartenders. “What’s the name of this movie?” they wanted to know.

The name of the movie, made in 1962, is Phaedra, an updated version of Euripides’ tragedy of Hippolytus. In a recent post on this site, Anastasia Bakogianni discussed a number of other tragedies translated to film and many of her insights apply to Phaedra, which she doesn’t discuss specifically. Not many people know this film, in fact, though it was the first one Perkins made after achieving worldwide fame in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Like Norman Bates, Perkin’s Alexis here has mother issues. The mother in question is the title character, Phaedra, played by the lovely and lively Melina Mercouri, whose throaty voice was sexy, as was her sense of style. In Euripides’ tragedy, Aphrodite curses the handsome young Hippolytus by having his stepmother fall in love with him. When he rejects her overtures, she kills herself, but leaves a suicide note falsely accusing Hippolytus of trying to rape her. His father Theseus reads the note, believes it, curses Hippolytus (this guy can’t get a break), calls upon Poseidon to kill him, and then sees him one more time before he dies.

It’s a melodramatic story, and the 1962 version churns up the soap opera elements full crank, and while Phaedra is not a subtle film, it’s not without its coyness. Here Alexis accepts Phaedra’s overture, and they proceed to “get it on” in front of a roaring fireplace while a rainstorm rages outside—the further they go, the more out of focus the camera gets (see the clip below).

 

When Alexis’ father, the shipping magnate Thanos (played with debonair brutishness by Raf Vallone), finds out about the affair, he beats his son against his elaborate office doors that are embossed with a high-relief map—quite literally enacting the part of Poseidon the Earthshaker. In addition, everybody in this movie just looks so damned good, from Perkins’ sharkskin suits and skinny ties to Mercouri’s to-die-for (literally) sheath dresses. And then of course, there’s the death car, the uber-cool Aston Martin DB4 that Alexis kills himself in while a Bach fugue plays on the radio at full volume. Some early 60s critics found the film tawdry and others found it pretentious. They’re right, of course, but so what? Phaedra is meant to be an over-the-top, high-kitsch low-pleasure. Greek tragedy can be trashy too, the film seems to say. It’s a rah-rah ah-ah-ah Lady Gaga-style bad romance.

The reason Phaedra remains obscure today, however, is not so much aesthetics as politics. Although some assume he was French, director Jules Dassin (who pronounced his name DASS-in) was an American—that is, until he was declared un-American by the U.S. House Un-American Committee (HUAC) and fled the country for Europe in 1952. While this chapter of Hollywood history was covered in 2015’s Trumbo and lampooned last year in the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!, the harm HUAC caused Dassin and others on the blacklist was severe (you can hear him talk about this painful period in his life in the clip below, from 1:50):

 

For five years, Dassin was out of work, until making the heist movie, Rififi, in France, thereby inventing a genre. By 1960, the anti-Communist fever had broken in America, and Dassin’s love-letter to Greece, Never On A Sunday (in which he starred with Mercouri, whom he would later marry) was nominated by the Academy for Best Picture. But Dassin never forgot his betrayal to HUAC by fellow director Elia Kazan, and when the Academy decided to offer Kazan a Lifetime Achievement award in 1999, Dassin took out a full-page ad in the Hollywood Reporter protesting the move.

It’s difficult to prove, of course, but the years of ignominy seem to have had an unjustly adverse effect on Dassin’s subsequent reputation. In the early 1980s, old films were being converted to videotape for home entertainment as well as for academic use; a field like classical film reception would hardly exist, we should recall, but for the advent of VHS. But while some of Dassin’s oeuvre made it on to tape at this time, much of it remained unavailable. For years, the only version I possessed of Phaedra was a bootleg copy recorded from a TV broadcast that I purchased from a shady seller on eBay. MGM wouldn’t release an official DVD until 2011, a full half-century after the movie had been filmed.

The failure of Phaedra to be canonized among the great renditions of Greek drama is not really a tragedy, I realize. But it is a reminder. As we go through yet another one of those periodic chest-thumping moments of nativism in America and Europe, we should bear in mind the price that is paid particularly in the arts for such patriotism. Careers get ruined and works get lost that sometimes can’t be recovered for several generations. What can a mere classicist do about such things? We should fight the good fight and come back with our shields or on them, I suppose. But we can limit the damage, too, with even the smallest of gestures, perhaps in a conversation with a student while waiting for a beer as the loud music starts to play.

 

Christopher McDonough is a Professor of Classics at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and is writing a book entitled “Pontius Pilate On Screen: Sinner, Soldier, Superstar” for Edinburgh University Press.

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