Thursday, November 01, 2007

John Houston Part 2: The Asphalt Jungle

By William Hare

The Asphalt Jungle and Another Criminal Ensemble

One of the longest running debates in film noir is over definition. There will never be unanimity over what represents noir and what does not. Certain films such as The Asphalt Jungle will receive seemingly universal agreement due to the fact that essential definable ingredients are in place such as plenty of night photography with an assembly of nocturnal characters, social outsiders, acting out their lives.

The Asphalt Jungle can be broken down into several important story categories:

1) Once again Huston has provided a fascinating criminal ensemble, but the group that assembles in Cincinnati to pull off a jewel heist contains characters from the city’s nether world that are offbeat but in a non-comedic way as compared to those in The Maltese Falcon.

The film consists of two characters that constitute the brains of the enterprise, Sam Jaffe, a cerebral criminal con with a penchant for planning who has just been released from prison and believes he has devised a winning holdup formula to achieve great wealth. He interacts with Louis Calhern, a highly successful lawyer who has made his living defending criminals.

2) How women spell ultimate trouble for the main characters - The Asphalt Jungle provided one of the great early showcase opportunities for blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe. Two great films released in 1950, Huston’s noir epic and Joseph Mankiewicz’s tartly brilliant look at the rapacious world of the New York stage, All About Eve, launched Monroe into the sex symbol role she would craft later in the fifties as a star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire.

In the two later films Monroe portrayed a woman using her considerable sex appeal to secure a wealthy man. In The Asphalt Jungle Calhern takes the big risk of extending beyond the realm of defending shady people into the realm of interacting with them in a criminal enterprise. He does so because he needs more money to please his much younger mistress Monroe while he in his spare time plays cards with his bedridden wife, played by Dorothy Tree.

Jaffe has a penchant for young girls as well and it ultimately prevents him from escaping to Cleveland after police learn about his involvement in the heist and are looking for him. Jaffe, who has paid a cab driver to take him to Cleveland, loses precious escape time and is apprehended by police after he has become mesmerized looking at a young woman in her late teens jitterbugging in front of a restaurant jukebox.

3) The collapse of the enterprise and the fate of the participants - This category results in uniquely astonishing behavior that makes The Asphalt Jungle truly memorable. Viewers get a capsulized look into the worlds of struggling individuals seeking to achieve the same dream of wealth and its comforts while revealing their individual traits.

Anthony Caruso, the adroit safecracker, leads a completely different life away from crime as a devoted family man. Once that he is shot after blowing up the safe at the site of the heist driver James Whitmore asks if he wants to be taken to a hospital. Caruso insists on instead being driven home. The loyal family man dies in front of his sobbing family. When the police arrive following his death the local priest asks that the grieving widow be spared answering moments during such a delicate period, a request that is readily honored.

Mastermind Jaffe, known in local criminal circles as “the professor,” as aforementioned, is captured due to his desire to watch a young woman jitterbug. His goal of escaping to Mexico, where he could hopefully meet pretty young women, is dashed.

Jaffe, an experienced criminal, accepts his capture with a shrug. This is markedly different from Calhern, who, when the police arrive at his home, excuses himself momentarily.

Calhern walks into another room and promptly shoots himself fatally. When Jaffe hears about Calhern’s abrupt decision to end his life rather than face consequences for his actions, he declares with surprise that he would not have been sent away for anymore than two years for his involvement in the crime.

Hayden as Classic Loner


One of the most interesting leading men of film noir was tall, blonde Sterling Hayden, who conveyed the image of the definitive loner, a role he played as well in real life. He would appear after The Asphalt Jungle in Stanley Kubrick’s breakthrough film, the 1956 noir triumph The Killing, which used a similar story structure to that of Huston’s success.

In Kubrick’s film Hayden is the organizer as he leads a group of Los Angeles outsiders in an effort to steal the proceeds from a race track on the day of its biggest race. Hayden also appeared in Nicholas Ray’s interesting foray into western noir as noted gunslinger and Joan Crawford’s love interest in the 1954 release Johnny Guitar. His classic line as befitting a noir loner is “I’m a stranger myself here.”

In The Asphalt Jungle Hayden as a small time stickup artist looms as so hostilely anti-social that Sam Jaffe is warned about including him in the criminal enterprise. Hayden’s dream is to return to his Kentucky home with enough money to buy back the horse ranch that his father was compelled to sell.

When Hayden absorbs a bullet in a shootout at Calhern’s home, after the lawyer has performed a double cross on his criminal partners, he takes fellow loner, girlfriend Jean Hagen, on a determined final ride to Kentucky to visit his roots one last time. Hayden makes it, just barely, dying after getting a brief chance to pet his favorite horse.

Marc Lawrence is so perpetually worried that he sweats all the time. He proves to be the crime team’s weak link as a crooked cop, played by Berry Kelley, angered at not being cut into the action himself, beats him into revealing details of the enterprise including the names of its participants.

Lawrence delivers one of the classic lines of film noir when, after being asked why he perpetually perspires, answers, “Money makes me sweat.”

With two such brilliant noir gems under his belt, Huston as one of the industry’s celebrated veterans tackled the genre two decades later with Fat City.

John Huston Part 3 continued here

1 comment:

  1. It was one of the favorites of the French director J.P Melville.
    Melville praised that film and considered it as a perfect thriler.