NEVER ON SUNDAY is basically a tarted-up—so to speak—variation on Pygmalion, in a livelier setting, with a saucier heroine. The wishful element is a bit much, and the lead male character is irritating, lacking charm or sympathy. Fortunately, the teasing frolic has three grand attributes that made for a smash in 1960 and keep much of it delightful decades later. #1 is the leading lady, introduced to a seduced international audience in the form of 39-year-old Greek national treasure Melina Mercouri. Second is the joyous music score and its irresistible title tune, a bouncy siren that launched a thousand covers. Third is the atmosphere element, with the location setting in the Port of Piraeus and Athens. In addition, there was luck of timing: the release coincided with a wave of great foreign films and a more adult approach in movies regarding sex, in particular the illicit, “immoral” kind. Tame now, hot stuff then. Critics crowed, audiences flowed. *
Independent ‘woman of the night’ (and afternoon) ‘Ilya’ (Mercouri) is happy in general and satisfied with her profession and position, dispensing favors to a clientele who adore her. Corrupt in the eyes of the law and moralist hypocrites, honest in her feelings and dealings, and as free with her spirit as she is with her choice of paying partners, Ilya’s course in her port city’s flow seems fixed. Then ‘Homer Thrace’ (Jules Dassin) shows up. American tourist, Greek classicist and self-identified “intellectual”, his search for ‘truth’ revealed through the wisdom of antiquity turns into a personal quest to remake and rescue ‘fallen’ Ilya by teaching her about ‘culture’. Like most pushy prudes, what this Homer non erectus doesn’t know about life could fill the Aegean. Who will get ‘educated’?
Along with acting the fool as Homer, Dassin wrote, directed & co-produced the lark as a showpiece for his inamorata Mercouri, as a valentine to Greece (which he adopted after being blacklisted in the States) and as a goad at puritanical ignorance. Casting her was inspired, capturing the colorful locations (albeit in black & white) was a given, the script is fine, but his performance is as grating as the character. **
Putting up with Dassin’s Homer is part of the plot and also the price you pay for watching the movie, but that’s a cheap fee for admission to the mood conjured by Mercouri, the music and the settings. Though the black & white cinematography—probably chosen to keep costs low—from Jacques Natteau (this fellow had an interesting life) isn’t the optimal choice for extolling Greek locations, the ambiance and flavor comes across (credit Dassin’s direction as well) to let in a sense of the seaside section of greater Athens—busy since the Greeks fought back the Persians 2,500 years ago—and more recognizable sites like the Parthenon. Manos Hadjidakis’ buoyant music caresses from the start, and his lilting main theme later gets a lovely rendition from Mercouri. The scenery and score are servants to the sublime sexiness of the star. Her devilishly bold eyes, alluring smile, blithely confident manner and husky tease of a voice convey not just command of Ilya’s smitten admirers but serve notice to beguiled audiences that Italy and France now had serious competition in the sexcapades. Instantly likable, she’s also formidable, too smart to fool, to fun not to fool with. Since she comes across as real, her appeal extended to women as well as men.
Hadjidakis won the Oscar for Best Song. Mercouri was nominated for Best Actress (losing to Liz Taylor, playing a call girl), Dassin for both Direction and Screenplay, and the Costume Design was also up for mantle adornment. Shoestring made for only $150,000, it was a huge success. In the States, a $10,300,000 gross put it #19 in ’60, the 2nd most attended foreign film after La Dolce Vita. ***
With Giorgos Fountas, Titos Vandis and Despo Diamantidou. 91 minutes.
* The 60s arrive, filling the year’s La Dolce bounty with Purple Noon, The Virgin Spring, La Verite, Two Women, Rocco and his Brothers, Breathless, Sons And Lovers, The Entertainer and The Trials Of Oscar Wilde. Unsurprisingly, sex, in one fashion or another figured in most of these, while American counterparts looked anew at call girls, streetwalkers, kept women and adulterers via BUtterfield 8, The World Of Suzie Wong The Apartment, Strangers When We Meet and Girl Of The Night. Ike & the furtive 50s were in the rearview mirror, Jack & the New Frontier beckoned. Even the newly elected President was beguiling, and that hadn’t happened since, well, look at the pictures…
** Dassin: “I was trying, to criticize in comedy this awful tendency that Americans have in trying to remake the world in their image, in their thinking, in their imposition of what we call the American way of life.” Dassin met Mercouri in 1955. They married in 1966, and stayed together until her death, at 73, in 1994. Dassin passed away in 2008, at 96. He directed her in nine films, including the delightful Topkapi.
*** Hadjidakis’ music complimented the regional and thematic needs of The 300 Spartans, America America and Topkapi. The Never On Sunday title tune became a big instrumental hit for Don Costa, followed by scads of covers from The Chordettes, Lena Horne, Bing Crosby, Billy Eckstein, Ann-Margret, Connie Francis, The Tijuana Brass, Andy Williams, Doris Day, Petula Clark, Julie London, The 4 Seasons, Trini Lopez…
Melina with lifelong friend Despo Diamontidou