Filmed on location in and around New York City’s Washington Heights, Dark Odyssey (1961) was co-directed by William Kyriakis and Radley Metzger, and like many independent filmmakers during the 1950s, the second greatest challenge after completing a feature length film was securing distribution on theatre screens, which proved sufficiently difficult that DO wasn’t properly released to mass audiences until 1961, via Audubon Films – the company established by Metzger to distribute both sexy foreign imports, and his own work.
Kyriakis, who died in 2006, apparently never directed another feature film, whereas Metzger went to Hollywood and edited Walter Matthau’s only directorial venture, the low budget Gangster Story (1959), before setting up Audubon Films, distributing European erotic classics such as Mac Ahlberg’s I, a Woman / Jeg – en kvinde (1965), Paquale Festa Campanile’s The Libertine / La matriarca (1968), Tinto Brass’ Attraction / Nerosubianco (1969), and Piero Schivazappa’s The Frightened Woman / Femina ridens (1969).
DO is an anomaly within Metzger’s filmography because it’s a neorealist drama about culture clashes and the immigrant experience, but one can hypothesize that the issues of honor, humility, and saving face were themes that the director would wrestle with in his own directorial work. (Honor is particularly important to the characters in Camille 2000, given Camille is a high-end whore in love with the son of a wealthy conservative.)
Essentially a revenge drama, DO begins with the arrival of a merchant ship from Greece, from which Yianni Martakis (dancer Athan Karras) goes AWOL in search of Panos Koupas, a Greek-American businessman who courted Yianni’s sister in Greece before abandoning her for America, after which she tumbled into a deep depression, and committed suicide.
Out to restore his family honor, Yianni seeks out Koupas with the intent of using the same gun with which his sister blew out her brains in the family kitchen, and early into his manhunt the Yianni encounters Niki Vassos (Jeanne Jerrems), a Greek-American diner maiden who innocently helps him find Koupas’ apartment, believing the two men are friends.
With his victim not at home, Nikki invites Yianni to her family’s apartment, where he meets her benevolent father (Nicholas Zapnoukayas), cautious and conservative mother (Ariadne Zapnoukayas), and sister Helen (Rosemary Torri).
Yianni keeps trying to tear himself away from Nikki and her family’s hospitality and get back to his No. 1 goal of tracking down Koupas, but he gradually falls for Nikki, and for a brief period, he seems content; perhaps even contemplating a change in plan, and entertaining the possibility of beginning a relationship with his newfound, liberal-minded American girl - but an event changes everything.
Invited back to Nikki’s home for a pre-Christening celebration, Yianni is convinced by Nikki’s father to perform the Tsamiko, a dynamic folk dance involving acrobatic movements with a lengthy sword. Although he performs the dance to its classical perfection, his psyche is traumatized by his hunger for revenge, and feeling fate can’t be altered, he leaves soon after the dance, and arrives the next day at the church, where Nikki’s family has gathered for the Christening ceremony, with Koupas among the congregation.
If there are any direct influences on the film, it’s the neorealist visual & aural elements in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) and Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City (1957) – two films dealing with socio-economic and racial struggles among seamen in New York City. Like DO, the films were shot on location, used local faces, and aimed for a gritty style using everyday language to reinforce the struggles of hard working folks trapped in low to mid-level economic classes.
DO isn’t a political film nor seeks to make a grand statement on socio-economic dilemmas, but like the work of Morris Engle - such as relationship drama Weddings and Babies (1958) – it’s centrally a film about unglamorous, ordinary people. The lack of a substantive budget restricted scenes to exteriors (parks, docks, a tugboat ride, street scenes, diners, clubs, and a church) and interiors (chiefly Nikki’s family apartment), but the payoffs are rare glimpses of NYC in its everyday activities.
The only classical Hollywood element is perhaps Laurence Rosenthal’s score, which ties together the film’s revenge tale tropes with neorealist scenes, and the folk music which permeates a sequence in a drinking club, and at the pre-Christening gathering where Yianni dances the Tsamiko.
Perhaps the DO’s most arresting aspect is its unpretentious depiction of the American melting pot. Nikki’s parents emigrated from Greece 20 years earlier, set roots, and struggled to raise their daughters with traditional values and a strong sense of their Greek heritage. At least in the family’s local neighbourhood, the comforts of the homeland are aplenty, and the only mass pop culture influences are clothes, work, and the exposure to white bread boyfriends.
Nikki’s father is delighted she’s got eyes for a Greek boy, whereas her mother is wary of Yianni, being a sailor on furlough. Her mother, however, isn’t content with daughter Helen dating an American, Jack Fields (Edward Brazier), and is offended he hasn’t made any visits to express his interest in Helen.
Yianni is the film’s dark influence, but his final actions aren’t tied to the revenge he originally sought. The reasons for his sister’s suicide remain vague – there’s no mention of rape, just a loss of honor – but his decision to return to his manhunt come from a sense of destiny and displacement.
His shipmate tries to explain they’re no longer obliged to follow the hard moral lives of their fathers; scores don’t need to be settled with a gun, which is patently illegal under American law. Yianni is slowly convinced he has an opportunity to change and let go of the pain, but during a spat, he violently slaps Nikki.
In the subsequent Tsamiko scene, as revealed through flash edits and kinetic montages, his conscience convinces him his own violence towards Nikki is no better than Koupas: committed out of anger, it lack any honor, and Yianni recognizes his rage against Koupas has transformed him into the kind of figure he despises. That realization triggers a need to fulfill his task, regardless of whether he survives the act of an honor killing.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan