Perhaps the best film featuring Greek American characters ever made has gone virtually unknown for more than four decades. That film is Dark Odyssey (l957), a labor of love by Bill Kyriakis, a child of Greek immigrants who grew up in the then heavily Greek area of New York’s Chelsea district. Kyriakis did most of the writing of the film (aided by James Vlamos and Radley Metzger), and he co-produced and co-directed with Metzger. His account of how Dark Odyssey was made and its exhibition history is as harrowing as the fate of the film’s tragic hero.
Rather than a production of a major studio, Dark Odyssey was part of the innovative independent film scene of the time. New cameras had made it possible to shoot on location with natural light, making costly studio rentals unnecessary. Much impressed by Italian neorealism and recent Hollywood fare such as Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) that used location shooting, Kyriakis was determined to make an authentic film about the immigrant culture in which he had been reared.
The plot revolves around Yianni (Athan Karras), a young Greek sailor who illegally leaves his ship to find and slay the man whose sexual indiscretions caused the death of Yianni’s sister in Greece. During his efforts to locate the man’s apartment, Yianni encounters Niki Vassos (Jeanne Jerrems), a wholesome Greek American who works at a waterfront diner. Not knowing the purpose of his visit, Niki guides Yianni to Washington Heights, then a Greek enclave. Unable to immediately confront his prey, Yianni visits the Vassos home.
Niki’s parents, played brilliantly by Ariadne and Nicholas Zapnoukayas, culturally connect with the sailor and are delighted at the bond that they see developing between him and their daughter. Helen (Rosemary Torri), their other daughter, is dating an American, a relationship the parents try to thwart. As the film progresses, we see how the kind parents will eventually accept Helen’s suitor as worthy, but it is not certain that even Niki’s love will deter Yianni from his rendezvous with murder.
Two major components of the story are outstanding. The first deals with the dynamics inside the Greek family. The parents are affectionate but very old country, struggling hard to understand their American-born daughters. Although Yianni becomes privy to certain of Niki and Helen’s secrets, he generally shares the attitudes of the parents. Particularly well done is a low-keyed family party that features Greek dancing casually performed in the manner Greek Americans have experienced in untold numbers of American living rooms. Capping that scene is the most extraordinary Greek dance to appear in any American film. Choreographed and performed by Karras, the dance physically expresses the struggle between the budding love he feels and the abiding hate that has brought him to America.
Just as fascinating are the film’s outdoor locations, which give the film a staying power that its melodramatic plot and some awkward scenes cannot. To this day, Kyriakis remains awed by the generosity of strangers in granting him the right to shoot on their property. A Greek ship owner allowed him to use a ship docked in Brooklyn harbor for the opening scenes. A Greek diner owner allowed him to shoot in his premises on a Sunday morning. The owners of a Greek nightclub on Eighth Avenue allowed him to shoot several scenes, some involving their paying customers and a belly dancer. A Washington Heights resident allowed them to use a rooftop. A priest offered his church for a baptismal scene. And a tugboat captain allowed his boat to be in sequences featuring the Hudson River (the shooting was interrupted when the tug assisted in guiding the liner SS United States out to sea). Still other scenes were set around the George Washington Bridge. The result is a remarkable evocation of New York cityscapes and sounds of the l950s.
The film took nearly five years to move from the first pages of a script to a full-length feature film. All the actors donated their services, so shooting was done only a few hours a week as the cast was available. Erratic cash flow created other gaps at various stages of filmmaking. Once completed the film faced new problems. Major distributors thought the film was too ethnic to reach a mass audience. On the other hand, distributors dealing with the Greek market felt it must be presented in the Greek language. Thus, the usual pattern of Greek films being dubbed into English for American distribution was reversed.
Dark Odyssey opened at the Cameo Theater on 44th Street with the Greek language version alternating with the English version. The New York Times hailed it as, “Thoughtful, unpretentious and creative. . . . Messers Kyriakis and Metzger rate a warm welcome to the movie fold.” Despite similar praise from other American dailies, there was minimal advertising and the film did poorly at the box office. Later, it was shown at the Steinway Theater in Astoria, but again without adequate advertising, the film failed to draw an audience. From that time on, Dark Odyssey remained unseen and unknown. Only in 1999, thanks to First Run Features did the film become available as a modestly priced video. On its release in cassette format, the New York Daily News compared it to the work of John Cassavetes and judged it, ” . . . a thoroughly warm and enduring drama that doubles as an evocative time capsule portrait of l950s Manhattan.”
Although his film’s voyage to a friendly shore took even longer than the fabled voyage of Ulysses, Vasili Kyriakis never gave up on filmmaking, going on to a long and fruitful career as a maker of documentaries. Co-director Metzger garnered considerable notoriety for a series of erotic films that were financial plums. Karras, after appearing on the Broadway stage, moved to Hollywood where he became a fixture in the dance scene as a teacher and film consultant. Ariadne and Nicholas Zapnoukayas continued to perform in Greek theatrical productions until the demise of those acting venues in the l960s. Laurence Rosenthal who wrote the film’s compelling film score went on to Hollywood where he worked on major motion pictures such as The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962).
Made at the birth of a new American independent film movement, Dark Odyssey offers considerable insights into who the Greeks in America were and how they lived in post-World War II America. The film has begun to be shown at film festivals and cultural events interested in understanding how the values of Greek immigrants, their children, and Greek nationals both entwine and compete. At the turn of the century, a film, which did not immediately find its seat at the ethnic table, has been rediscovered and recognized as a precious family heirloom.
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To order Dark Odyssey consult www.firstrunfeatures.com or call 1-800-229-8575.