As one of the most talented Hollywood refugee’s of the blacklist era, Jules Dassin went to Europe and never looked back. He’s responsible for some remarkable films, including “The Naked City (1948)” and “Thieves Highway (1949)” during his Hollywood years, and “Rififi (1955)” and “Topkapi (1964)” during his European “exile.” One should also not overlook “Never on Sunday,” a 1960 Greek film starring Melina Mercouri. Mercouri won the best actress award at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival for her role as Ilya, a happy and confident prostitute in a small Greek port.
Dassin himself stars in the film as an American scholar named Homer Thrace who loves the Greek ideal of learning and understanding the great philosophers, and achieving an advanced appreciation of music. The film opens with Ilya going down to the docks, stripping down to her underwear, and throwing herself into the harbor. As she swims, she calls for the dockworkers and boatmen to join her. She clearly enjoys her life and the many men in her circle worship her despite her profession. Other prostitutes appear in this farce but none of them are as popular as Ilya.
Homer likes Ilya too, but he disapproves of her lifestyle. He criticizes Ilya and the men in the town as he attempts to make her reform. She shows little interest in his plans at first, but agrees to a two-week experiment conducted by Homer about righteous living. Homer introduces her to classical works of music and literature, as well as the paintings of Picasso and others. During this time, she’s not available for hire, which displeases the men in the village greatly. When Ilya sings the “Never on Sunday” song, it makes perfect sense to the plot. Ilya’s love of Greek village life is emphasized, indicating that she never really needed redemption at all.
Mercouri’s outstanding performance carries the movie. She becomes a strong female leader to the other prostitutes while thoroughly delighting every man town. A subplot involves a landlord who provides rooms for the prostitutes but charges too much for rent. A rebellion by the women against the landlord brings some unexpected camaraderie, and provides a logical climax to Homer’s silly experiment. It’s unclear why Homer expected to “save” Ilya, since even her unconventional lifestyle must fall into at least one of the ancient Greek philosophies. It’s lucky for him that the clannish nature of the people in this seaport town didn’t take revenge on him, but Dassin’s script clearly makes Homer out to be the main fool in this farce.