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Film director Jules Dassin has died in Athens. The American-born director, screenwriter and actor is best known for his films like "Topkapi" and "Never on Sunday."

Dassin's films often reflected his interest in moral ambiguity, a likely by-product of the years he was blacklisted. Dassin was 96 years old. He died today of undisclosed causes.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: Jules Dassin's 1948 thriller, "The Naked City," was one of the first police dramas shot on location. And he brought brightness to its shades of gray.

(Soundbite of movie "The Naked City")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) The 10th precinct station is in the Chelsea district of New York, a rather shabby building on a rather shabby street. Acts of violence in Manhattan are reported to the third floor of this building, because here, rather quietly, the homicide squad does its work.

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) Sometimes, I wonder what the human heart is made out of.

ULABY: "The Naked City" was a breakthrough picture for Dassin, and firmly dealt with other highly stylized noir films, including "Night in the City" and "Thieves Highway," says producer and historian Alain Silver.

Mr. ALAIN SILVER (Historian): Dassin's work in the U.S. before the noir pictures was not terribly distinguished; interesting pictures but pretty much studio assignments. Directed like most directors, he came out of theater, a lot of emphasis on performance, a lot of empathy for the actors.

ULABY: Dassin started as an actor in Yiddish theater. It took him a while to develop the eye that would influence the Italian neorealists and French New Wave.

Dassin moved to Europe in the early 1950s, not by choice, but because he had in his youth joined the Communist Party. Dassin told NPR in 2000 his blacklisting drove him from Hollywood.

Mr. JULES DASSIN (Film Director): I was among the lucky ones. I was only unemployed five years. Other just never worked again.

ULABY: In 1955, Dassin filmed "Rififi" in France. The safe-cracking gangster film is often credited as one of the first modern heist movies. Film historian Patrick McGilligan told NPR that in it, Dassin triples the pleasure by writing, directing and acting.

Mr. PATRICK McGILLIGAN (Film Historian): In "Rififi," he plays the weak-willed character, really the kind of informant; really, a commentary, a political commentary that instead of finding the brave, heroic part, he played the kind of party - of the kind of people that at that point in time were hounding.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

ULABY: "Rififi" won Dassin the best director prize at Cannes, where he met his wife, Greek actress Melina Mercouri. The two of them starred together in "Never on Sunday," about an American tourist named Homer who tries to reform a feisty Hellenic hooker.

(Soundbite of movie "Never on Sunday")

Mr. DASSIN: (As Homer Thrace) She is mad. She is dreamy.

Ms. MELINA MERCOURI (Actor): (As Ilya) I agree. Well, how do I know that present

ULABY: Mercouri went on to serve as Greece's minister of culture. Dassin moved to Athens for her and stayed the rest of his life. But he never renounced his American citizenship.

Mr. DASSIN: I'll tell you what I miss. You find yourself in different countries, pretending to understand their cultures, and saying, no, you're an American. You don't know this country. You don't know the people. And that's what you miss the most. But that was gone.

ULABY: After his wife's death in 1994, Jules Dassin turned from directing theater in Athens to one of her great political passions: securing the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum to the Acropolis.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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