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Noir Alley - June 2019
Remind Me
,The Asphalt Jungle

The Asphalt Jungle

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



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