Jules Dassin was born Julius Samuel Dassin to a large Russian-Jewish immigrant family. He grew up in Harlem, New York City, and attended Morris High School in the Bronx, graduating in 1929. In the 1930s, he joined the Communist Party (which he quit in 1939), took acting classes in Europe, and returned to New York to become an actor, originally in Yiddish theater. Dassin played many character roles, mainly in plays by Sholom Aleichem. But deciding that acting was not his calling, he switched to directing and writing scripts. He went to Hollywood in 1940, and served as an apprentice to Alfred Hitchcock and Garson Kanin. In 1941, he made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart for MGM. Dassin's works in Hollywood included dramas such as Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), and Night and the City (1950). During the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted for his past affiliation with Communism and for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activites Committee.
In 1953, he left the USA for France and struggled to work there. His low-budget film Rififi (1955), noted for its long dialogue-free heist sequence, won him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival. There he also met the Greek actress Melina Mercouri, whom he married as his second wife and co-starred with in his film Never on Sunday (1960). It won the award for Best Film at Cannes that year. Dassin was eventually received back in Hollywood and earned two Academy Award nominations for directing and screenwriting for his hit film Topkapi (1964). He also served as member of jury at the Cannes and several other international film festivals.
After 1974, he and Melina Mercouri went to live in Greece, where she was elected a member of the Greek Parliament and appointed Minister of Culture, and Dassin became active in the effort to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece.