Two classic films with Melina Mercouri take us to the Eastern Mediterranean.
The world discovered Mercouri (above and below) with the release of 1960’s Never on Sunday and she, like Mae West, hit stardom as a 40 year old!
Mercouri was 35 when she made the first of her some 20 films, and 40 before she hit it big as the good-hearted, life-affirming prostitute in Never On Sunday. Mercouri pretty much patented a stereotypical role, that of a freewheeling, good-hearted prostitute, and in doing so became perhaps the only Greek actress to achieve real international stardom.
Much of her success was due to her husband of 28 years, director/actor Jules Dassin.
And he is best known for being the husband of Oscar-nominated Mercouri — yes, for her role in Never On Sunday, which he directed and scripted. He also costars with her in the film, playing an earnest classical scholar from Connecticut who visits Greece intent on ‘reforming’ Mercouri’s earthy streetwalker. (It is, of course, HE who winds up ‘reformed.’)
Dassin became Mercouri’s second husband in 1966, and the couple remained together until her death in New York City from lung cancer at age 73 in 1994. They teamed up on at least eight pictures including 1957’s He Who Must Die and 1962’s Phaedra, which introduced costar Tony Perkins to European audiences.
Before meeting Dassin in 1955 Mercouri had carved out a pretty broad swath on the stage in Greece and in Paris, where she emigrated in the early Fifties. A first marriage to a wealthy Greek was on the wane but not yet over (the divorce came through in 1962).
In any case, the Dassin-Mercouri pairing became one of the most successful husband-wife teamings in film history.
Her movie acting career often came second to Greek politics, in which Mercouri’s family was steeped. Her father was a member of the Greek parliament and her grandfather was once mayor of Athens. For her part, the actress was elected to parliament in 1977, and served as Greek Minister of Culture from 1981 to 1990.
Never on Sunday was filmed on locations in Athens and in ancient and picturesque port city of Piraeus near the capital. As more than one critic has commented, seeing the movie will whet an appetite for a future trip to Greece.
Topkapi is a 1964 international thriller that gives us more of Mercouri with a topnotch cast including Peter Ustinov (who won a best supporting actor Oscar for his part), Robert Morley, Akim Tamiroff and, most prominently, Maximilian Schell (above left).
Mercouri plays a sophisticated thief who teams up with an ex-lover (Schell) to steal an invaluable emerald-encrusted dagger from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace museum.
Directed by Dassin and based upon Eric Ambler’s 1962 novel The Light of Day, Topkapi nicely shows off Mercouri as well as its several locations in Paris (mostly studio interiors), in Kaval, Greece, and in Istanbul itself. Conveniently the Topkapi overlooks the Bosphrous and the Sea of Marmara. Enjoy the scenery.