Dark Odyssey: An Indie Classic Rediscovered (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Dan Georgakas
Dark Odyssey (1954) is an early manifestation of independent filmmaking in New York City that went virtually unknown for more than four decades. Cowritten and codirected by William Kyriakis and Radley Metzger, the film’s theme largely reflects the ethnic insights of Kyriakis, a child of Greek immigrants who grew up in the then heavily-Greek area of New York City’s Chelsea district. The story of how Dark Odyssey was made and its exhibition history is as harrowing as the fate of the film’s tragic hero and reflective of the perennial problems facing independent cinema.
Dark Odyssey, perhaps the best film featuring Greek American characters ever made, was possible due to the new lighter cameras that enabled the filmmakers to shoot most of the film on location with natural light. This greatly reduced the need to rent costly studio facilities for first-time filmmakers Kyriakis and Metzger. Both directors were much impressed by Italian neorealistic films that used on-site shooting extensively and by recent Hollywood films with New York City locations such as The Naked City (1948), On The Town (1949), and Side Street (1950). Kyriakis thought on-site filming would be ideal in helping him create an authentic film about the immigrant culture in which he had been reared.
The plot revolves around Yianni Martakis (Athan Karras), a young Greek sailor who illegally leaves his ship when it harbors in Brooklyn. His mission is to find and slay the man whose sexual indiscretions caused the death of his sister in Greece. In the course of locating the man’s exact whereabouts, 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 him to Washington Heights, then a Greek enclave. Unable to immediately confront his prey, Yianni visits the Vassos home and is invited to stay in an extra room in the apartment while he is in New York.
Niki’s father and mother, played brilliantly by Ariadne and Nicholas Zapnoukayas, culturally connect with Yianni and are delighted at the bond they see developing between Yianni and Niki. Their other daughter, Helen (Rosemary Torri), is dating an American, a relationship the parents are trying to thwart. As the film progresses, we see the kindly parents eventually accept Helen’s suitor, but, until the final scenes, it is not certain if Niki’s love will deter Yianni from his rendezvous with murder. The broader theme at play is whether the better aspects of Hellenic culture melded with the opportunities in the United States will prevail over the destructive aspects of traditional Greek culture.
The Vassos elders in Dark Odyssey are very old country in their views and must struggle hard to understand their American-born daughters, but they are not foolish and in many respects are quite sophisticated regarding their ethical and social options. Particularly well done is a low-keyed family party which features Greek dancing performed informally in the manner Greek Americans have experienced in untold living rooms throughout the United States for decades. The apartment, a set built by Kyriakis and Metzger, has the physical size of a typical working-class apartment of the 1950s, rather than the incredibly outsized or simply tawdry New York apartments common to most Hollywood productions.. The dress of the various guests, their speech patterns, their interests, and various social details are genuine. These portraits reflect ethnic culture and habits far more accurately than the incredibly popular My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2003) made some fifty years later.
Capping the family party scene is the most extraordinary Greek dance in American film. Choreographed and performed by Athan Karras, the dance physically expresses the struggle between the budding love and the abiding hate that consumes Martakis’s psyche. The Vassos family has placed a sword on the wall as a symbol of ethnic pride. Yianni briefly explains to some of the guests that the sword is associated with a variation of the “tsamiko” style of dance that is extremely personal. Against his better judgment, he is prevailed upon to dance. The movements that follow are all the more dramatic in that Karras skillfully wields the sword as he moves, a reminder that many movements in Greek folk dances are far more meaningful when we understand they were first performed by men armed with rifles or swords who were wearing kiltlike skirts called “foustanellas.” The onlookers are awed by his performance, but only Niki knows the cause of the intense passion Karras has expressed.
The film’s outdoor scenes are as authentic as its interiors. A Greek ship owner allowed Kyriakis and Metzger to use a freighter docked in Brooklyn for the opening scenes. A Greek diner owner in lower Manhattan allowed the filmmakers to shoot in his premises on a Sunday morning. The owners of a Greek nightclub on Eighth Avenue allowed them to shoot several scenes, some involving actual customers. A Washington Heights resident allowed them to use a rooftop. A tugboat captain allowed his boat to be used in a long river sequence that shows the Manhattan skyline from the vantage point of the Hudson River. That particular sequence was interrupted when the tug had to assist in maneuvering the S.S. United States out of its pier on to a European-bound sea lane. Still other sequences were shot below the George Washington Bridge and around Grant’s Tomb. The result is a remarkable evocation of the Manhattan cityscapes and sounds of the 1950s.
The film took nearly five years to move from the first pages of a script to a full-length feature film. All the actors had donated their services, so shooting had to be done only a few hours a week as the cast became available. Erratic cash flow also created gaps at various stages of production. Once completed, the film faced new problems. Major distributors rejected the film as too ethnic to reach a mass audience in America. On the other hand, distributors dealing with the Greek American market felt it would fail if it was not presented in the Greek language. Thus, the usual pattern of a Greek-language film being dubbed into English was reversed.
Dark Odyssey opened at the Cameo Theater on 44th Street, with the English language version alternating with the Greek language version. The New York Times hailed the film as, “Thoughtful, unpretentious, and creatively turned.…Messers Kyriakis and Metzger rate a warm welcome to the movie fold.” Despite similar praise from other American dailies, there were no funds for advertising and the film did poorly at the box office. Later, it was shown at the Steinway Theater in Astoria for a week, but again without adequate advertising, the film failed to draw an audience. From that time on, Dark Odyssey remained unseen and forgotten. That circumstance only changed in 1999 when First Run Features made the film available as a low-cost video as part of a box set featuring the films of Radley Metzger. On its release in the new format, The Daily News compared the film to the work of John Cassavetes and judged it, “…a thoroughly warm and enduring drama that doubles as an evocative time capsule portrait of 1950s Manhattan.” Since then,Dark Odyssey has taken on a second life as a feature in Greek film festivals in America and as a component of various university courses, most often in ethnic studies programs.
The subsequent careers of the filmmakers are of note as they indicate the various pathways opened to artists involved in independent filmmaking even in the 1950s. Rather than being discouraged by Dark Odyssey’s rapid demise, William Kyriakis went on to a long and fruitful career as a documentary filmmaker. He also worked on various Greek films released in America, most notably Michael Cacoyannis’s Stella. Codirector Radley Metzger built an international reputation as a cult director with a series of erotic films that were financial plums. As recently as September 2010, Metzger was honored for his film work by the Oldenburg International Film Festival in Germany. Laurence Rosenthal, who wrote the compelling musical score for Dark Odyssey, went on to Hollywood where he composed for major motion pictures such as The Miracle Worker, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and Becket.
Athan Karras left the Broadway stage where he had been working and moved to Hollywood where he became a much sought choreographer and dance instructor. Over the years, he became recognized as America’s leading authority on traditional Greek dancing. Hollywood producers often consulted Karras about films and television shows featuring Greek music. His prestigious dance studios attracted Hollywood luminaries such as Marlon Brando, Ginger Rogers, Telly Savalas, Bo Derek, and Omar Sharif. Ariadne and Nicholas Zapnoukayas continued to perform in Greek theatrical productions until the demise of those acting venues in the late 1960s.
Made at the dawn of American independent feature filmmaking that employed on-site locations, Dark Odyssey remains a notable example of what genuinely independent film production can accomplish. Despite the obstacles created by an extremely limited budget and resources, the film succeeded in creating a vibrant, visual portrait of New York at a time of great change without recourse to the dramatics of poverty-stricken lives or organized crime. Thematically, the film offers telling insights into ethnic life in post-World War II urban America. The specifics are Greek but the patterns fit experiences common to all immigrants and their immediate offspring.—Dan Georgakas
Dark Odyssey is available in both VHS and DVD formats from amazon.com and other outlets.
Dan Georgakas is author of My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City.
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.