Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A big hit, at least in Arthouse terms, Never on Sunday is an entertaining
but dated star vehicle for Greek powerhouse Melina Mercouri and the music of
Manos Hadjidakis. The song is by now much more famous than the movie, which was
considered daring in 1960 because it openly courted the (not very tenable)
assertion that prostitution was natural and healthy. Despite nice location
shooting and atmosphere, this broken-down fable never faces its own issues. But it charms audiences immediately with its infectious music
and charismatic leading lady.
American writer and Grecophile Homer (Jules Dassin) comes to
Pireaus in search of philosophical truths and dedicates himself to the reform of
Illia, an earthy, independent and very popular prostitute (Melina Mercouri). The
local pimp-master wants Illia out of business so he can continue to charge high
rents to the rest of his girls. Homer uses the gangster's money to buy all of
Illia's time, and dedicates himself to her
re-education. Illia's steady/possible boyfriend Tonio (Georger Foundas) doesn't
mind, as Homer's attentions are platonic, but her customers don't
like the 'closed' sign on her door.
Director Jules Dassin had perhaps the happiest story of any blacklisted Hollywood
director: after kicking around Europe trying to stay afloat, he had a monster
hit bigger than anything he'd done in America,
Rififi. This enabled him
to make the kind of personal films he would never have been able to do back home,
and it also led him to Greece, where he wooed the love of his live, fiery
actress (and later politician) Melina Mercouri.
Dassin was a liberal firebrand whose films Thieves' Highway and
Brute Force were grim criticisms (if not accusations) against American
business and justice. In exile in England, he made one of the most extreme films
noir, Night and the City. Two films after Rififi had highly
poliitcized scripts. By contrast, Never on Sunday is a vehicle meant to
make Melina Mercouri an international star. Compared to his earlier films, it
has no politics.
Illia is the free spirit of Piraeus, a happy hooker who beds hundreds, loves life and
resists the advances of a half-Italian shipworker who wants to take her out of
the business. In the entire port, we see dozens of sailors and dockworkers who
appear to have no families or wives, and just happily visit the prostitutes, of
whom Illia is the queen. The local Uzo hangout is an all-male dive where
Illia seems to be the only woman with visiting privileges; being plump and unsightly,
the other prostitutes would mar the film's idyllic veneer. The only activity we
see them doing is organizing a labor action ( so there is some politics here,
after all) against their landlord-pimps. It's a squeaky-clean life of sin without
alcoholism, drugs, crime, blackmail, or even visible sexual activity. There's also no
sign whatsoever of the Church in this fairy-tale story. We do see Illia take
one homesick English sailor to bed. She treats him so tenderly, we think
she's going to start reading him Winnie the Pooh. Illia has her
Sunday (the day off) boyfriend, and their scenes are little more earthy. Following the
example of Never on Sunday, prostitution is the solution to all problems. I guess
when the women become too old to work, the Mediterranean breeze blows them away.
Melina Mercouri is so confident and hearty, whether jumping into the harbor in her
underwear or facing off with any man in port, that all this foolishness works on
the surface. Mercouri has very hard, extreme features, and a sometimes-scary
smile, but her eyes flash with a playful fire that always looks authentic. She
also has a natural feminine grace of movement that's not dainty in any way - it's
completely opposed to the rules of discreet femme deportment. This makes her very modern,
even when the story is a crock - she stands on her own two feet, isn't ashamed
of her body, and takes nothing from nobody.
Director Jules Dassin must have enjoyed acting; he was excellent in his
Rififi role. As a rule, it doesn't bode well when husbands direct their own
wives, and Dassin goes a step further here and acts a major role as well. I doubt
anybody encouraged him to continue (he has a smaller role in his Phaedra,
again starring Mercouri). He's
certainly not very good-looking, but he is lively in kind of a broad way, popping
his eyes at this and that, and following Mercouri around like a lost dog.
(spoiler) Screenwriter Jules Dassin turns the usual reformer script upside down.
We fully expect Homer's Pygmalion-like education to make a big change
in Illia's life, but she rejects cold culture in favor of the old, harmonious ways, and
Homer is eventually sent packing. As Illia is carried away by Tonio, Homer
finally realizes he did want her for her body all along, making nonsense
of his professed commitment to philosophical truth. Homer's supposed higher
ideals are a life-killer anyway, as shown when he stupidly demoralizes the
local top musician because he can't read music. It's a 100% victory for Illia
and her primitives, who at least know how to live.
Not that audiences ever paid attention to any of these concerns, as the film has a
constant background of seductive Manos Hadjidakis music so attractive and
catchy, it would transform any picture into a feel-good hit. The film is practically
a musical, with Mercouri singing the title tune 1
and a lusty dance or song coming along every ten minutes or so. The only film with
a more inseparable score is Carol Reed's
The Third Man.
Dassin, Mercouri, Hadjidakis and UA gave us another notable film, the comedy-thriller
Topkapi. The other minor
success of Never on Sunday is actor Titos Vandis, a swarthy Zorba stereotype
who found many European roles before coming to America for bits in
Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex and The Exorcist. His
face became familiar in American television series and commercials, too.
MGM's DVD of Never on Sunday is a pleasing non-enhanced transfer that looks too
cramped when cropped to 1:78. The image is in excellent shape and exhibits little
noticeable damage or signs of age. The soundtrack, which was often distorted on older vhs
releases, is cleaner as well, but this may be the result of digital tricks, as opposed to
the location of a better sound element. There's a trailer that touts Dassin as the director
of Rififi and the relatively obscure He Who Must Die!. Alternate tracks are
offered in French and Spanish, but a quick listen to either makes one miss Melina
Mercouri's throaty but youthful voice. Subtitles are removable, for those who understand
Greek ... large portions of the film are in English, by the way.
The cover photo appears to be authentic but doesn't remind us of the movie - Mercouri's
Illia doesn't flirt and isn't coy, so the otherwise pretty image comes off as false.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Never on Sunday rates:
Movie: Very good
Video: Very good
Sound: Very good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 3, 2003
from Greek, the
title song appears to have nothing to do with 'Sunday'. The naughty 'never on sunday' title
may have been a clever United Artists marketing ploy imposed on the film via the rewritten
English lyrics. Never on Sunday was released through UA's side-entrance distribution
arm, Lopert, the arthouse monniker given racy or gruesome product, like UA's import of
Eyes Without a Face, The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. When Billy Wilder's
Kiss Me, Stupid ran into censor trouble, UA avoided direct controversy by using
the Lopert label to disassociate the makers of The Greatest Story Ever Told from a
film Condemned by the Catholic Church.
Note from Matt Hough, 7/08/03:
Hi, Glenn, Enjoyed your Never on Sunday review.
In it you wrote, "The film is practically a musical, with Mercouri singing the title tune and a
lusty dance or song coming along every ten minutes or so. "
Did you know that Dassin, Mercouri, and Hadjidakis turned the movie into a Broadway musical?
Illya Darling was nominated for six Tony Awards in the 1967-1968 season (won none) and
ran 318 performances, not long enough to turn a profit but long enough to generate a cast
album that's today one of the rarest of all Broadway LPs. The film's title song was used in
the stage score, but the rest of the songs were all new with lyrics by Joe Darion. Orson Bean
played the part on stage that Dassin played in the movie. Dassin also wrote the book for the
musical and directed the show on stage. Sincerely, Matt Hough
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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