Never On Sunday tells the story of a touristing American intellectual and Greek scholar (named Homer, naturally), scribbling away in his notebook about the customs and way of life in modern Greece. His first night, his ebullient inquisitiveness gets him into a barroom brawl; the shiner he receives he'll keep throughout the movie. That Dassin casts himself in the role parallels his own joy of discovering the care-free life in Europe,* and by casting his wife, Melina Mercouri, as the effervescent prostitute Ilya, he was able to give her a show-piece that introduced her to the rest of the world.** And the charming score by Manos Hatzidakis topped popular music charts.
Part travelogue, part home movie, part character study, Never On Sunday would prove to be Dassin's greatest hit, and showed off the gifted director's ability to economically make an audience-grabbing film without having to resort to the pot-boiler crime dramas he had specialized in previously. And the tricks he learned to shoot a film anonymously making The Naked City allowed extensive location work, which inspired a tourism boom that still exists today.
It's a wise little film, too, as tourist Homer falls in love with the land of his expertise, and with Ilya, but finds that his academic's view of Greece doesn't fit the reality. And Ilya? He spends a lot of his time trying to rescue her from her life of prostitution, only to find that she doesn't want to be rescued. As with other learned men who find their Shangri-La, Homer regretfully leaves, tossing away his notes on the philosophy of Greece, and looking back as he sails away from the idyllic life he's not ready to embrace. Just as Homer tosses away his travel notebook at the end of the film, Dassin was able to put aside the past, and create a new life in his adapted Greece, and the fiery actress who would become his Muse, activist partner and lifelong companion.
* Dassin, in a 2004 interview included on the Naked City DVD tells the story of why he cast himself in the film--no money in the budget for a star. Once the film was completed, Dassin had conversations with an interested Jack Lemmon, and convinced the producers to give him more money to re-shoot his scenes if, having seen the film, Lemmon agreed to participate. Dassin screened the film for him, and Lemmon's comments damned with faint praise--he said Dassin was so awful in the role that he was actually charming, and told Dassin he didn't need to re-shoot. End of story. When the subject of his performance came up in the Q & A, Dassin put his head in his hands and said "Oy!"
** Mercouri won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival that year, and was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar. She had been nominated at Cannes before, as Dassin was nominated that year for Best Director for Rififi. He won. She lost. Spying her later, nursing her disappointment he went up to her and said "An award's just an award, it doesn't take away from the work," to which she replied "Screw you! You won!!" "It was love at first sight," said Dassin.