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The Asphalt Jungle

The Asphalt Jungle(1950)

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teaser The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

SYNOPSIS:

A stylish, corrupt lawyer, Alonzo D. Emmerich, puts his money up for an elaborate jewel heist, hatched by criminal mastermind Doc Riedenschneider and executed by a crew of career thieves, made up of Dix Handley, Gus Ninissi, and Louis Ciavelli. But the meticulous planning for the heist begins to unravel, causing the den of thieves to spiral towards its ultimate fate.

Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Ben Maddow, John Huston, from the novel by W. R. Burnett
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Film Editing: George Boemler
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Randall Duell
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Sterling Hayden (Dix Handley), Louis Calhern (Alonzo D. Emmerich), Jean Hagen (Doll Conovan), James Whitmore (Gus Minissi), Sam Jaffe (Doc Riedenschneider), John McIntire (Police Commissioner Hardy), Marc Lawrence (Cobby), Anthony Caruso (Louis Ciavelli), Marilyn Monroe (Angela Phinlay), Brad Dexter (Bob Brannom), Dorothy Tree (May Emmerich).
BW-113m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

Why THE ASPHALT JUNGLE is Essential:

The Asphalt Jungle is a different kind of film noir from John Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Key Largo (1948), two key entries from the heyday of the classic noir period. Instead of the cramped, claustrophobic settings of The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo, Huston adopts an open, smooth, and uncluttered style of framing. This is an ironic gesture, since other films noir, such as The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and the later Killer's Kiss (1955), are oppressive and threatening. But the city is more than an incidental setting of the plot. It is a crucial element to the story, one that influences the story, the characters, and how we respond as viewers. Huston understood that the city was, in a sense, the most important character in the film.

The Asphalt Jungle was also different in that the criminal element is given human dimensions. Huston not only creates sympathy for the gang, but he shows respect for the way they do their jobs. Furthermore, instead of painting them as soulless, murderous brutes, Huston imbues them with human weaknesses, frailties, and certain aspects of humanity that viewers at the time would not expect in a movie about criminals. Gone are the uncomplicated, unethical killers like Tom Powers (James Cagney) of The Public Enemy (1931) and Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) of Scarface (1932). The hoods in The Asphalt Jungle are family men, proud professionals who perform their crimes with proud precision, and essentially good men who happen to steal things. This is a far cry from the psychotic Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in the previous year's White Heat (1949). Additionally, the women in The Asphalt Jungle are not femme fatales, dangerous females that the male protagonists of film noir should usually avoid like a bad habit. Rather, it is the man's obsession with women that causes his downfall.

"Although MGM did not tamper with it, The Asphalt Jungle was criticized for its liberal attitude toward the underworld," wrote film scholar Carlos Clarens in Crime Movies: An Illustrated History. "In Huston's word: 'My defense...was that unless we understand the criminal...there's no way of coping with him.' This is a proposition that Huston conveyed , at its simplest, by having the straights misconstrue the hoods, their dark-mirror images. 'When I think of all those awful people you come in contact with, downright criminals, I get scared,' says the lawyer's crippled wife (Dorothy Tree); to which her husband replies, 'There's nothing so different about them.'

Today, The Asphalt Jungle is regarded by film historians and critics as a seminal movie in the film noir genre and its style and storyline were imitated repeatedly in a string of crime thrillers that followed in its wake. Among the remakes it spawned are The Badlanders (1950), a Western starring Alan Ladd, Cairo (1962) with George Sanders and Cool Breeze (1972), a 'blaxploitation' version featuring Thalmus Rasulala. More importantly, The Asphalt Jungle garnered three Oscar nominations - for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography - and gave Marilyn Monroe one of her first significant roles as the naive mistress of Louis Calhern's crooked lawyer.

by Scott McGee

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teaser The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The Asphalt Jungle marked a departure for director John Huston. As exemplified by his spectacular directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon (1941), Huston rarely took his camera beyond the confines of an interior setting, whether it be a shady tenement or a moody police station. With the The Asphalt Jungle, Huston now had the story to allow him and his camera to move out from under a roof. However, Huston still kept the film behind the walls at MGM Studios in Culver City, California. Most of the urban thriller was filmed there, with the last scene shot in Lexington, Kentucky.

The menacing urban environment inspired other filmmakers to actually set and shoot their tough little melodramas outside the controlled environment of the studio set. The creators behind films like Killer's Kiss (1955), and The Phenix City Story (1955) opted for the city or on-location shooting because it was cheaper than studio shooting and the reality of on-location lent an immediacy to the story being told. Ironically, without having been shot in a real city, The Asphalt Jungle showed how city street realism could make a film noir narrative come alive with a pervasive sense of menace.The Asphalt Jungle has influenced a number of films about elaborately planned heists, like The Killing (1957), also starring Sterling Hayden in a very similar role. Others include Ocean's 11 (1960), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Heat (1997), and more recently, The Score (2001) and Heist (2001).

Another debtor, The Usual Suspects (1995), even alludes to the line of dialogue about crime being a left-handed form of human endeavor. So far, there have been three remakes of The Asphalt Jungle: The Badlanders (1958), Cairo (1963), and Cool Breeze (1972).

The Asphalt Jungle was not the first W.R. Burnett novel John Huston adapted for the screen. In 1941, Huston wrote the screenplay for High Sierra, an adaptation of a Burnett novel and starring Ida Lupino and Humphrey Bogart.

by Scott McGee

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teaser The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Marilyn Monroe's drama coach, Natasha Lytess, stayed by the rising starlet's side while on the set of The Asphalt Jungle. At the end of each take, Monroe would look to Lytess for approval. In the finished film, at the end of her first scene, Monroe can be seen glancing toward her coach as she walks off-camera.

One of John Huston's long-time racetrack friends, Benny Burt, was cast in a bit part as a stool pigeon.

Photography for The Asphalt Jungle was by Harold "Hal" Rosson, who happened to be MGM star Jean Harlow's last husband. The Asphalt Jungle was labeled "A John Huston Film," the first time Huston received such prestigious billing in his long career.John Huston filmed the robbery sequence with the on-set advice of safecracking experts in order to ensure authenticity.

John McIntire, who plays Police Commissioner Hardy in The Asphalt Jungle, played another important law officer ten years later. In director Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), McIntire played Sheriff Chambers, who investigates the strange goings-on at the Bates Motel.

Memorable Quotes from THE ASPHALT JUNGLE

Alonzo D. Emmerich: There's nothing so different about them. After all, crime, my dear, is merely a left-handed form of human endeavor.

Doc Erwin Riedenschneider: Put in hours and hours of planning. Figure everything down to the last detail. Then what? Burglar alarms start going off all over the place for no sensible reason. A gun fires of its own accord and a man is shot. And a broken down old cop, no good for anything but chasing kids, has to trip over us. Blind accident. What can you do against blind accidents?

Doc Erwin Riedenschneider: Hooligans - they're just like left-handed pitchers, all have a screw loose somewhere.

Doc Erwin Riedenschneider: One way or another we all pay for our vices.
Angela Phinlay: What about my trip, Uncle Lon?
Alonzo D. Emmerich: Don't worry, baby, you'll have plenty of trips.

Dr. Swanson: He hasn't got enough blood left in him to keep a chicken alive.

Police Commissioner Hardy: People are being cheated, robbed, murdered, raped. And that goes on 24 hours a day, every day in the year. And that's not exceptional, that's usual. It's the same in every city in the modern world. But suppose we had no police force, good or bad. Suppose we had... just silence. Nobody to listen, nobody to answer. The battle's finished. The jungle wins. The predatory beasts take over.

Cobby: Here's to the drink habit. It's the only one I got that don't get me into trouble.

Doc Riedenschneider: One way or another, we all work for our vice.

Dix Handley: Why don't you quit cryin' and get me some bourbon?

by Scott McGee

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teaser The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

John Huston did not conceive of the The Asphalt Jungle for the screen as he had for The Maltese Falcon (1941) nearly ten years before. Huston was actually hired to co-script and direct a new screen version of Quo Vadis, the penultimate Roman epic, with Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, and Walter Huston, John's father. The younger Huston was not crazy about the idea of a sand-and-sandals epic, but it happened to be a pet project of MGM's executive in charge of production, Dore Schary, so Huston did not have much choice.

Huston earned a reprieve when star Gregory Peck suffered an eye infection and forced the production into a prolonged postponement. To keep Huston occupied while Peck's infirmity cleared up, Schary assigned the director to The Asphalt Jungle, although Huston remembers his initial approach to the project quite differently. As he claims in his autobiography, he was not assigned to it, but rather asked to do The Asphalt Jungle. Huston's rebellious and stubborn reputation makes his version of the story more credulous.

Huston never did go back to Quo Vadis (1951), nor did Peck, Taylor, or Walter Huston. The Roman epic was eventually directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, and Peter Ustinov.

by Scott McGee

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teaser The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

When the script for The Asphalt Jungle was completed, Huston decided to cast the film with relative unknowns. Huston first firmed up the role of Doc with his old friend Sam Jaffe. Huston also handpicked Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, Jean Hagen, and Marc Lawrence, who had played Ziggy, one of the gangsters in Key Largo (1948).

For the lead role of Dix Handley, Huston chose Sterling Hayden, whom the director met in Washington, D.C. during a protest against the House of Un-American Activities Committee investigation. When the pair met to discuss the project, Huston said to Hayden, "I've admired you for a long time, Sterling. They don't know what to make of a guy like you in this business." Huston was honest with Hayden about his chance for the lead role in The Asphalt Jungle. Hayden recounts in his biography Huston's pitch: "Now, Sterling, I want you to do this part. The studio does not. They want a top name star. They say you mean nothing when it comes to box office draw-I told them there aren't five names in this town (that) mean a damn thing at the box office. Fortunately, they're not making this picture. I am. Now let me tell you about Dix Handley....Dix is you and me and every other man who can't fit into the groove." Rumored to be fighting severe alcohol and psychiatric problems, Hayden landed Dix Handley, his first major starring role, over the objection of MGM executive Dore Schary. Hayden's gritty performance proved many Hollywood naysayers flat wrong. For instance, Hayden himself was nervous about the climactic scene in the picture, when Dix breaks down in tears in front of Jean Hagen. According to the director though, Hayden did not have anything to worry about. After the actor delivered the scene beautifully, Huston took Hayden aside and said, "The next time somebody says you can't act, tell them to call Huston."

Marilyn Monroe was a bit actress under contract to Fox and had not yet had a speaking role; Fox eventually dropped her contract. At least two versions exist as to how Monroe came to be cast in MGM's production of The Asphalt Jungle. One version has an employee of MGM's talent department suggesting that John Huston try out Monroe for the part of Louis Calhern's mistress, with Huston immediately recognizing her as perfect for the role after her sensual audition. But another version, as supported by MGM archives, has Monroe as a "dark horse" contender for the role. Huston had reportedly already chosen a blond actress named Lola Albright for the role. When a very nervous Monroe auditioned for the part, Huston was not impressed. But Albright had recently found success with a supporting role in Champion (1949), so it was unlikely she would accept a small role in the crime melodrama. Huston tested eight other starlets, but Monroe stayed in the running, mainly because of the persistence of MGM talent director, Lucille Ryman Carroll. Huston remained adamant that Monroe wouldn't fit the bill, until Carroll prevailed by taking advantage of an ironic coincidence.

It turned out that Huston, an avid horseman, had a team of Irish stallions boarded and trained at Carroll's ranch, and he happened to be $18,000 in arrears for payments to the ranch. On a Sunday afternoon in September, Carroll and her husband invited Huston out to the ranch and made him an offer he couldn't refuse, to borrow a line from another movie. Carroll informed Huston that if he did not allow Monroe another shot at the role, the ranch would sell his stallions and collect the money due. Huston did not refuse the terms, and Monroe got another screen test, only this time, she had the support of MGM chief Louis B. Mayer and MGM hair stylist Sidney Guilaroff. Monroe got the small role, of which she would eventually regard as one of her best performances, particularly the last scene with Calhern. When Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck saw The Asphalt Jungle, he again assumed her contract.

The censors had a conniption over Louis Calhern's suicide as written in the original script. In the rejected scene, Calhern was to write a short, moving letter to his wife, then take a pistol out of his desk and do the deed. While suicide was a top no-no on the list of forbidden acts, what made the scene more objectionable to the censors was the fact that Calhern's character was apparently in his right mind. They reasoned that no man in his right mind would commit suicide. According to John Huston, the rewritten suicide in the final film ironically made for a much better scene.During the production of The Asphalt Jungle, Walter Huston came to Hollywood for his son John's forty-fourth birthday party. Two days later, with John at his side, the legendary actor of stage and screen, died of heart failure at the age of sixty-six.

When The Asphalt Jungle was being prepared for a British bow, the producers hesitated because the film was so full of American slang. At the time, films heavy with slang were usually redubbed for English audiences. Gerard Fairlie, the British author of the Bulldog Drummond adventure stories, was called upon as a consultant, and he advised against redubbing, even though some words would go right over the heads of British viewers. The film was not redubbed and earned boffo box-office in England.

by Scott McGee

back to top
teaser The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a stylish but corrupt lawyer, bankrolls an elaborate jewel heist masterminded by Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) and a crew of professional criminals, including Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), Gus Ninissi (James Whitmore), and Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso). Emmerich, however, plans to double cross the gang as soon as the heist is completed but his strategy fails when Handley murders a private detective hired to sabotage the fencing operation. This action sets off a chain of events which fragments the group and plays havoc with their getaway plans.

The Asphalt Jungle is a different kind of film noir from John Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Key Largo (1948), two key entries from the heyday of the classic noir period. Instead of the cramped, claustrophobic settings of The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo, Huston adopts an open and uncluttered style of framing the narrative within a realistic urban environment. In its meticulous attention to detail, The Asphalt Jungle at times has the feel of a documentary and often shares stylistic similarities to the neorealism films of Italy's post-war period. It also uses the setting of a modern metropolis to accent the sense of despair and alienation that runs through the story. In fact, the gritty urban landscape is a crucial element in the film, one that impacts the narrative, the characters, and how we respond as viewers. Huston understood that the city was, in effect, the most important character in the film.

The Asphalt Jungle was also different in that the criminal element is given human dimensions. Huston not only creates sympathy for the gang, but he shows respect for the way they do their jobs. Furthermore, instead of painting them as amoral thugs and murderers, Huston imbues them with human weaknesses, frailties, and idiosyncratic behavior that viewers at the time would not expect in a movie about criminals. Gone are the uncomplicated, unethical killers from former crime thrillers like Tom Powers (James Cagney) of The Public Enemy (1931) and Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) of Scarface (1932). The hoods in The Asphalt Jungle are family men, proud professionals who perform their crimes with precision, and essentially good men who happen to steal things. Additionally, the women in The Asphalt Jungle are not femme fatales, luring men to their doom. Instead, it is their devotion and commitment to these men which bring them bad luck and misery.

"Although MGM did not tamper with it, The Asphalt Jungle was criticized for its liberal attitude toward the underworld," wrote film scholar Carlos Clarens in Crime Movies: An Illustrated History. "In Huston's word: 'My defense...was that unless we understand the criminal...there's no way of coping with him.' This is a proposition that Huston conveyed , at its simplest, by having the straights misconstrue the hoods, their dark-mirror images. 'When I think of all those awful people you come in contact with, downright criminals, I get scared,' says the lawyer's crippled wife (Dorothy Tree); to which her husband replies, 'There's nothing so different about them.'

Today, The Asphalt Jungle is regarded by film historians and critics as a seminal movie in the film noir genre and its style and storyline were imitated repeatedly in a string of crime thrillers that followed in its wake. Among the remakes it spawned are The Badlanders (1950), a Western starring Alan Ladd, Cairo (1962) with George Sanders and Cool Breeze (1972), a 'blaxploitation' version featuring Thalmus Rasulala. More importantly, The Asphalt Jungle garnered three Oscar nominations - for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography - and gave Marilyn Monroe one of her first significant roles as the naive mistress of Louis Calhern's crooked lawyer.

Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Ben Maddow, John Huston, from the novel by W. R. Burnett
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Film Editing: George Boemler
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Randall Duell
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Sterling Hayden (Dix Handley), Louis Calhern (Alonzo D. Emmerich), Jean Hagen (Doll Conovan), James Whitmore (Gus Minissi), Sam Jaffe (Doc Riedenschneider), John McIntire (Police Commissioner Hardy), Marc Lawrence (Cobby), Anthony Caruso (Louis Ciavelli), Marilyn Monroe (Angela Phinlay), Brad Dexter (Bob Brannom), Dorothy Tree (May Emmerich).
BW-113m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Scott McGee

back to top
teaser The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Awards and Honors

The Asphalt Jungle earned a number of Academy Award nominations, including Best Screenplay, Best Direction, and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Jaffe). The film lost in all categories to All About Eve (1950). The black and white cinematography got a nod, too, but it lost out to The Third Man (1950). Sam Jaffe received the Cannes Award for the Best Performance of the Year for his juicy part in The Asphalt Jungle.

The Critics' Corner: The Asphalt Jungle

Cue raved that "rarely do crime melodramas come through as nearly perfect in writing, direction and performances" as does The Asphalt Jungle. The Hollywood Reporter called it "almost a classic of its type."

Although The Asphalt Jungle was criticized for its liberal attitude towards the underworld, The New Yorker commented favorably when it wrote that "in the end one is tempted to regret that crime doesn't pay, because the malefactors are depicted so sympathetically."

The Variety reviewer wrote that the film was "hard-hitting in its expose of the underworld. Ironic realism is striven for and achieved in the writing, production and direction. An audience will quite easily pull for the crooks in their execution of the million-dollar jewelry theft around which the plot is built."

The film holds up exceedingly today as evidenced by this excerpt from BBC reviewer Paul Arendt which is typical of most contemporary assessments: "As usual with Huston, greed and a yearning for the unattainable brings each character to his downfall...The key to all their aspirations is a bag of gems which, much like the eponymous statue in Huston's The Maltese Falcon, prove to be unusable. Shot with an eye for the grimy beauty of the underworld and utterly merciless to its characters, The Asphalt Jungle is a biting, bitter espresso of a movie."

Darryl F. Zanuck praised MGM's crime melodrama by pinpointing the contribution of his future star, Marilyn Monroe. Said Zanuck, "John Huston gave her a hell of a good role. Jesus, she was good in it. I thought it must have been the magic of Huston because I didn't think she had all that in her. But then I put her in All About Eve (1950) and she was an overnight sensation."Given the fact that MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer's saccharine taste in wholesome movie entertainment was largely out of fashion at the time in Hollywood, his hatred of The Asphalt Jungle might be seen as a sort of compliment. Mayer loved stories where people sang and danced to the tune of a happy ending. He was not amused by stories populated with common thugs. He told MGM's executive in charge of production, Dore Schary, "That 'Asphalt Pavement' thing is full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty, ugly things. I wouldn't walk across the room to see a thing like that." Schary dethroned Mayer as MGM chief in 1951.

by Scott McGee

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