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|Index||131 reviews in total|
(FULL DISCLOSURE: My parents, Communist Party members, were blacklisted
out of show business in Los Angeles, where I was born ('49) and raised.
The others theorize, I know: I was there, I lived it and it was very
much more complex than the film school party line would have it)
There was a vogue for caper-gone-wrong films mid-late 1940s,dating from THE KILLERS (1946), but since "noir" (hate that term, see my post in "POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE") only had box office legs '45-'47, this one, perhaps the best of the lot, suffered from a fatal flaw: No stars with b.o. muscle.
For a late cycle film, that's the kiss of death--- I managed theaters NYC and drive-ins in Connecticut '60s-'70s, and I saw good films, exceptional extraordinary films sink like stones for that very reason. Looked at from the viewpoint of (boxoffice take/tickets sold) vs. (capacity seating-per-showing), everything snaps into sharp focus. Movies are show business, emphasis on the *business*. The only post-'47 "noirs" that earned themselves out at the box office had *stars*: CRISS CROSS, SORRY, WRONG NUMBER etc.
*** *** *** The end of the "noir" cycle has been conflated with the onset of the blacklist. This is a primary error in logic---to confuse temporal and proximal similarities with actual cause & effect. That there was a sharp change in American culture was true enough, but "noir" had long since run out of steam at the b.o.
"...the fifties were baffling, a time...without a dominant accent or form." Arthur Miller (TIMEBENDS, 1987, p.363)
"Gut nationalism, all but read out of existence by both Marxist and capitalist rationalism, was now taking center stage." Arthur Miller (op.cit., p.254)
As the 50s dawned, Americans were no longer "Waiting For Lefty"---they were waiting for "Ozzie And Harriet". And that's EXACTLY RIGHT: After 25 years of unremitting crisis---the Great Depression, World War II, Cold War with Communist take-over of East Europe and China and the Korean War--- Americans were sick to death of rancorous conflict and casualty lists, tribulation, privation and bloody horror. THEY'D HAD ENOUGH. THEY DIDN'T WANT TO HEAR IT.
They really meant it *from the guts* when they said "If you don't like it here, move to Russia".
Peace, security and yes, conformity in the sense of this was the best it had been in 25 years and what's YOUR problem?
America made a choice and they chose Lucy and Ricky over the Hollywood Ten. America craved stability---a balance where the center held.
Mom, the flag and apple pie---these are contemptible? I love my mom, salute the flag and devour apple pie with both hands. That makes me contemptible ? OK, I'm cool with that and I'll have another slice of apple pie, with cinnamon, please.
Later it became fashionable among writers and academics of a certain type to denigrate the 1950s with dreary memoirs of alienation, hostility and loneliness---all of which was VOLUNTARY. They had no friends, no steady date, didn't go to parties or the prom, never made the team---they were losers by premeditation.
For the cold fact is these misery mavens would have been miserable in the 1850s, the 1650s, the 1350s, ANY '50s. They were miserable, by definition and predisposition, because they elected to be miserable, they volunteered for a lifetime enlistment in the Misery Corps. They're the same type who are miserable in the '60s, '70s, '80s right down to today. These characters were chronic malcontents ANY TIME ANYWHERE: Raised in unprecedented comfort and security they had multiple personality disorders which made fulfillment at any level impossible, because THEY were impossible. And they LOVED it---they reveled in their self-created alienation and rejection because it validated their self-image as martyrs to the vast herd. Well, boo-hoo.
The greatest 20th century president was General Eisenhower ('52-'60). What happened to make this so ? NOTHING. That's right, NOTHING: After 25 years of crisis-to-crisis existence, America luxuriated in the restful, restorative peace and undisturbed prosperity of the 1950s. THEY EARNED IT: Hundreds of thousands of moms weren't getting Mother's Day cards any more, or have sons to bake pies for. That's not a small thing, to be trivialized or lightly dismissed.
And I grew up in L.A. in the '50s answering the door to the F.B.I. But my parents never tried to indoctrinate me, or turn me into a little Robespierre like some blacklistees and their kids. When the time came they didn't send me to "peace" camp or "progressive" schools. For all their Communist fervor, they were culturally conventional: they sent me to Lutheran parochial school in West L.A., and Y.M.C.A. camp.
What's this to do with ASPHALT JUNGLE, you ask ? EVERYTHING since it has been turned into a launch pad for another film professor exegesis on the blacklist and how bad the '50s were---this from people who simply weren't there. The blacklist and HUAC were topics of interest to the chattering classes only, in several urban postal codes. PERIOD.
I feel blessed that I was born when I was---growing up in L.A. 1950s was the best of all times to be a young boy. And I am doubly blessed to have had MY parents--- they never allowed their problems to become mine. They not only loved me, they PUT UP with me. Later on, when I went wrong for a spell, they loved me still. They were the most forgiving people I ever knew or even heard of, a forgiveness born of strength: they were not soft suckers...EXCEPT for the CP...And thereby hangs a tale: Why the CP, and why them? My mom and dad, as 1950s as Ozzie and Harriet !!!---WHY ? It took a while, but I think I've got it.
TO BE CONTINUED --- in posts for other titles 1948-1958.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Just less than ten years after helping giving birth to the film noir
genre with The Maltese Falcon, John Huston crafted another masterpiece
with The Asphalt Jungle and took the genre to new heights.
Genius criminal Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (amusingly played by Sam Jaffe) comes out of prison and already has a plan to pull off a caper on an insurance company. He just needs a few partners and a fence. This gets him involved with two-bit hooligan Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) and greedy, double-crossing fence Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern).
Like all John Huston movies, The Asphalt Jungle has smart plot twists, likable, rounded characters and cool dialogue. It's hard not to enjoy this movie since it seems to be trying so effortlessly to please the viewer.
As an ensemble movie, the whole is bigger than the parts. But special praise is due to Sterling Hayden for his sympathetic performance as a small-time criminal who dreams of going back to his old family ranch; Sam Jaffe for playing one of the funniest and smartest criminals in cinema; and Louis Calhern for playing a ruthless fence trying to get out of bankruptcy through betrayal. Few villains are as cool as he was in this movie.
Finally, Miklos Rozsa's scarcely-used (just at the start and at the end) but powerful score deserves a mention for the way it quickly sets up the atmosphere of doom the characters will soon find themselves in. It's this combination of good writing, cool performance and music that makes The Asphalt Jungle a joy to watch.
And all courtesy of the great John Huston in spite of the attentive
dictatorial policies of The Hayes Office which oversaw all productions
in this era.
Huston managed to pull the whole thing off by understatement. I have seen this a few times and am more enlightened with each viewing.
This is a story of a jewel heist put together by a bunch of misfits who through the film get to be understandable and even likable, though one knows they are all doomed from the get go. Sterling Hayden, in the lead by a narrow margin, is a sociopathic one note (or grunt) ex con who is incapable of feeling, one thinks, see how it treats the gorgeous Jean Hagen,but an insight into his character comes when he talks of his love of horses on the farm in which he grew up. This accounts for his addiction to the ponies today, he keeps betting and losing. And stealing to feed his habit.
Sam Jaffe and Louis Calhern play gang members also and their characters are fully developed, both have a thing for younger women. Louis Calherns' "niece" ( and I can hear this nudge-nudge wink-wink subterfuge being specifically put in the movie for the Hayes Office along with a tongue-in-cheek speech made by the Police Commissioner about corrupt cops - imagine 1 in a 100 is corrupt? - hold the sirens!) In jokes to get around the restrictions.
A thinner Marilyn Monroe in an early appearance lights up the screen. Star quality all the way. Even when everyone is going down she wants to know if she still gets her free trip, precious.
All are worth watching however as a sympathy and compassion are developed for the little bit of back stories we get. The end is uplifting, Dix finally with his beloved horses, Emmerlich realizing he does love his bed-ridden wife. Schneider delaying his escape to watch a young girl gyrate and being captured - this scene was a little too overstated, we already got the picture with the cops staring in the window. Explicating it all was over the top. One of my few criticisms and oh yes that door in the wall when the jewellery store is broken into, right beside the hole that was created. An architectural foobar for the collection.
A great front-runner for the many heist movies that were to follow. Beautiful bleak sterile black and white shots full of empty streets and an edge of desperation. 8 out of 10. A must see for the fans of The Maestro Huston and of film noirs in general.
This is one real classic and great heist movie. It has all the typical
genre elements present and a great, oh so important, dark and gritty
atmosphere. This is crime/film-noir at its very best!
"The Asphalt Jungle" is a quite typical heist movie with all the formulaic characters and elements present in it. I however really like the approach of this movie on its story. It provides us a view in the dark violent criminal underworld of the '50's and it chooses to not really have a main character. Instead the story focuses on all of the major players that are involved in the heist; before, during and after. It makes every plot line and character just as engaging and interesting as the other. It makes "The Asphalt Jungle" a consistently powerful crime/film-noir that is filled with all the necessary elements, such as backstabbing characters and honor amongst thieves. Combine that with a perfectly dark and gritty atmosphere and the end result is one of the most consistent and engaging heist movies ever created, if not the best of all time.
The story is told really well. Instead of having only fast paced action sequences, the movie maintains a steady pace during its entire running time. It doesn't make one moment slow or the other fast, it instead is a very consistent movie that thanks to its steady pace doesn't ever have any boring or too slow moments, like often is the case with movies from the same period. Also the fact that it focuses on more than one storyline or character, makes the movie even more interesting to follow. Due to this, every event and character in the movie becomes just as interesting and engaging as the other. The formulaic screenplay is made really interesting and powerful thanks to John Huston his refreshing directing and take on the story. He makes the story look more exciting, tense and engaging than it was on paper. It makes the character introductions, the heist itself and its aftermath work all extremely well and the one just as powerful and interesting as the other. It's certainly one of the most consistently great movies I have ever seen.
Like you would expect from a genre movie like this, the atmosphere plays a very important role for the movie. This particular movie does have a great atmosphere. It's deliciously dark and gritty and has some great cinematography and use of light, done by Harold Rosson, who was one of the very best cinematographers of his period. The musical score by Miklós Rózsa is also wonderful, though its unfortunately not often enough present in the movie.
Film-noir's always are very straight-forward and have a certain feel of realism. The movie is not only realistic due to it's atmosphere but it's also mainly very realistic, due to its character treatment, dialog and well cast actors.
The acting in this movie is great. The actors in this movie are by no means some of the greatest that ever lived but they all suite their roles extremely well. Especially Sterling Hayden as Dix Handley is fantastic. Very raw and tough. Also really well cast were Sam Jaffe, Louis Calhern and Jean Hagen. Marilyn Monroe is also really good in this movie. She doesn't play a very large role but her presence is big and impressive enough to leave a lasting impression.
Impressive, realistic, gritty heist movie in typical film-noir style brilliantly directed by John Huston. An absolute must-see for the fans of the genre.
I must take points for creativity and style away from Jules Dassin for
his heist film "Rififi" (1955), since I had no idea when I first saw
that movie how liberally Dassin borrowed from John Huston's "The
Asphalt Jungle," released five years earlier.
Not only is the heist sequence itself in "Rififi" reminiscent of the heist sequence in "Jungle," but the entire tone and theme of Dassin's film is lifted in whole from Huston's picture. "The Asphalt Jungle" stands apart from other films in the crime/thriller genre that enjoyed a boom in Hollywood's post-war years, because Huston sets out to humanize his criminals. The characters that pepper his film are not the hard-boiled smooth operators that normally appear in films of this sort, but rather are a batch of very flawed men who, for one reason or another, latch on to a big-time jewelry heist as a last resort. If I had to pick a theme for "The Asphalt Jungle," it would be the theme of middle-aged male desperation.
The commentary on the DVD for this film is virtually worthless (as happens far too frequently on DVD commentary tracks, the speaker spends all of his time telling you what a great film "The Asphalt Jungle" is without ever getting around to telling you why), but one point that did strike me was the suggestion that World War II was responsible for making the transition from average citizen to underworld criminal easier, because it blurred moral boundaries, and that's definitely present in Huston's film. These guys are dads, husbands and boyfriends; they have jobs, at least one is a prominent citizen. They have people who depend on them: kids, wives, lovers. But they're also criminals, and they don't seem to have any moral qualms about being so. This more than anything is the most scathing critique "Jungle" makes about post-war American life, and it had to be a bitter and even shocking pill for audiences at the time to swallow.
The film's visual style doesn't strike one as overly fancy at a first viewing, but watching it again I was struck more by Huston's mise-en-scene. The opening shots show Sterling Hayden's character walking through an unnamed Midwestern city at dawn---it literally looks bombed out and deserted, hardly a coincidence on Huston's part I'm sure. Huston is fond of claustrophobic compositions: characters' faces are frequently trapped in the frame in extreme close ups. He's also fond of depth of field; there's always some sort of background action competing for attention with what's going on in the foreground. Sometimes I think his style is a bit too grandiose and obvious, like he's trying too hard to create the kind of compositions film classes will study later on, but mostly it's a striking film.
As for the acting, Sam Jaffe walked away with the film's only acting nomination granted by the Academy, playing the mastermind of the jewelry heist, but in my mind it's Louis Calhern who gives the best performance, as a high-society social figure desperately trying to hang on to his standard of living despite bankruptcy and an invalid wife. Sterling Hayden is not as good in his role as the small-time thug, though he has some sweet moments with both girlfriend Jean Hagen and Jaffe. James Whitmore shines in a small role as Hayden's friend and driver of the getaway car. There's a fascinating moment involving him, a cat and a rude customer that is just one example of how Huston adds little brush strokes of humanity and idiosyncrasy to these characters. And Marilyn Monroe has a couple of scenes, doing a horrible job with them as usual.
I really admire "The Asphalt Jungle" without loving it. I always feel that way about John Huston's movies, I think because his approach to creating a visual style is ever so slightly academic---his films feel very studied. But it is a fine film, and should not be missed by anyone interested in the evolution of post-war cinema.
Both of these films have great set-ups and endings, crucial to
successful crime noir, and also crucial slow, tense story development
in the middle. The Killers was written by Ernest Hemingway and TAJ was
directed by John Huston...what could be better? In both, great stars
including Sterling Hayden and(the not-yet star) Marilyn Monroe, great
stories, great tension build-up, and the very best chiaroscuro effect
through the use of B&W film in high contrast. Just outstanding visuals,
also crucial to the best noir.
As most know the film and the story from other reviews, I would like to briefly state what makes great noir, in my opinion. The best noirs develop story tension to an achingly painful level and sustain it throughout, even to the viewer's great discomfort, as TAJ did so well. They build the strength of the main character at the expense of the weak even as they detail the strong one's march toward inevitable destruction we all know is coming but hope against it all the same. The weak and unfortunate fall one by one by the wayside as the story progresses, giving us hope that the protagonist will prevail even if he is unredeemable but, he seldom if ever does. And, even if he does, he is typically severely damaged goods forever after and often hardly even alive, so is it really prevailing if he lives but is a mere shadow of his former and powerful self? Then, there is the "gal"....the one so good that it is hard to believe she can love a man so bad or, the one that is worse than the bad man, playing him treacherously all along for her gain only....no in-between types to confuse the issue of goodness v. badness. These films were made in the morality board days of film-making, and noir got around it in the only way they could....making strong characters very strong and weak characters very weak, and letting the character's looks and glances, but not words, carry the subtle sexual nuances that could not be pinned down as "morally bad" enough to censor. The challenge to make great films under those very oppressive circumstances make their accomplishments even that much more impressive.
TAJ had all these necessary ingredients for great noir and just the right characters in it......the gal, the brain, the muscle, the weak loser crook trying to look like a big shot, the great and loyal wheel man, the double-crosser, the crooked cop, the crooked private eye, the honest cop....they all were here in spades and made for the best crime noir film made, or at least tied for the award, in my opinion.
See TAJ, and see the best of the best crime noir. Also see Sterling Hayden and the great Elijah Cook in The Killing, another terrific noir caper just about as good as this one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The film focuses around Hayden's character, but also gives a lot of
time for characterization to many of the other characters. That's one
area where it has a lot of charm. This film features the classic
"heist" of course, but truly focuses more on the relationships of the
characters, which is where it gets its "noir" aspects. Hayden and
Hagen's characters have a particularly intriguing relationship. Hagen
is great in a very non-"fatale" role -- more reminiscent of the
characters that Claire Trevor played for many years. Calhern is at his
best here, absolutely convincing us he's the type of pathetic man who
would attempt a double-cross. Also features an early cameo by Marilyn
Monroe, very attractive here and in a suitable role.
p.s. additional comments 10/5/07:
This is one of John Huston's best films, admirable for excellent performances and a nearly perfect economy of storytelling. There are many interesting angles to cover when looking at this film each character could almost be the star of his or her own movie, right down to minor ones like the cop Ditrich (Barry Kelley) and desperately needy but sweet glamour girl Angela (Marilyn Monroe). In fact in the end the main thing I take from this film, other than the pleasure of the heist and its tragic consequences, is this sense that each character has his or her own great weakness but also great potential, so that in the end the tragedy of the dissolving caper is heightened enormously by these contradicting motives and desires. For example I just love the resolution for Dr. Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe), taken to prison because he spent a few extra minutes watching a teenage girl shake her hips to the jukebox. And it's absolutely delicious to watch the transition that Louis Calhern affects (as the bankroller/traitor Lon Emmerich) after his accomplice is easily dispatched by "hooligan" Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden).
Hayden is thought of by many, perhaps even among his admirers, as a one-note performer. But he plays that one note so well that when the role is right, as it is here, he's absolutely the best thing in the movie. I really like his chemistry with Jean Hagen, who plays a kind of girlfriend of his. I find it intriguing how so many people dismiss him by using the word "hooligan" as a kind of generic sobriquet also Emmerich's accomplice calls him a "hick." The only characters who treat Dix as an individual instead of a type are Doll (Hagen), Gus (James Whitemore) and Reidenschneider. It was the doctor's idea to involve Dix in the heist, and it's clear he was impressed with Dix's candor and pride when humiliated by the small-time hustler He sees Dix right away as someone who will not tolerate foul play and enlists him to help ensure that Emmerich will pay. The upper-class characters speak very derisively about Dix whenever he's not around, almost portraying him in an inhuman way. And then most surprising (and to me, pleasing) of all even the Police Commissioner (John McIntyre) speaks about him in a way that is totally dehumanizing. He gives a long speech towards the very end which sounds very impressive but is thoroughly stupid if you think about it basically the whole point of his speech is that we shouldn't complain about corrupt policemen because we'd be a lot worse off if there were no police at all. As if no middle ground exists! Huston actually subverts the direct effect of this speech by having the Commish immediately disparage Dix as a person, saying he is a "hooligan" (there's that word again) and that he has "no feelings, no emotions", something that we the audience know to be completely untrue and which is starkly contradicted by the very next scene. The amount of depth that this type of writing brings to the story is impossible to exaggerate.
This film was also somewhat revolutionary in the deliberately relaxed and low-key style of the heist itself, which significantly occurs at about the half-way point in the film and is visually stylized in a way similar to silent film. Rosza's score is pretty unobtrusive throughout the bulk of the film, but even that is silenced for this memorable caper.
The subversive speech by the commissioner is really not an anomaly in this film it's a closing statement of the film's thesis. I'm sure that some moralists in 1950 would have condemned the film for romanticizing ruthless outlaws. But this perspective would only apply to someone who thinks anything other than fire and brimstone moralizing about crime is romantic. The film does not aggrandize the criminals; it humanizes them. The prominent character flaws for each character do not act, as they do in so many "gangster" films, as a barrier to separate us from the criminal element in fact quite the opposite. These people are not, as the commish would have us believe, only a sum total of their violent and anti-social behavior. Nor is their crime itself the sum total or product of their personalities I think this is why Huston so carefully de-emphasized their emotions and desires during the heist. Most heist movies before "Asphalt Jungle" would show us the flaws in the characters and then show at the climactic heist how their weaknesses led to failure. But this film was different in that it allowed for a separation between the criminal and the crime, just as there is a difference between say a Janitor and a pile of garbage. Crime is just their job, a means to an end ("the left handed form of human endeavor," as one character aptly puts it) their downfall is the direct product of their human frailties, and not directly related to the crime itself.
One of the most hurtful discontinuations in the history of cinema is
represented by the style of 'film noir'. While this method of
film-making was all the rage in the forties and fifties; it's now all
but fizzled out, and all we get nowadays, if anything, is the largely
inferior style of 'neo-noir'. However, it's always good to get the
chance to see a true classic of the style, and that is certainly what
this film is. After contributing massively to the success of the style
in 1941 with the classic 'The Maltese Falcon', Huston would prove nine
years later that film noir was still his sub-genre. The film is a
multi-layered crime spectacle, that works as much from it's plot as it
does from the motivations of it's characters. That's the way to a great
crime movie - it must have enough plot to ensure that the film remains
thrilling, while at the same time it must have enough character to make
sure that the audience doesn't become bored. The Asphalt Jungle could
be a blueprint for this idea.
The film is spectacularly well put together throughout, and it aptly shows the immense talent of it's director and all of the stars. While the cast isn't made up of big names, they all perform to their best and the result is an ensemble cast that are all assured enough in what they're doing to do it well. The Asphalt Jungle is one of those great classic films that work as a result of the acting, and not because of any special effects are shocking plot developments. It's just the sort of movie that modern cinema could use more of. John Huston's direction is flawless and the story moves in a way that is constantly inventive and interesting because of this. The film noir style is most famous for it's foreboding atmosphere and dark character actions, and this entry into the style has more than it's fair share of both. The film breathes a sort of cool that is far more subtle than the cool shown by modern day directors such as Quentin Tarantino, and is much more cool for that reason. On the whole, this is a classic motion picture.
Another one of these movies that I hadn't seen in a while, then I'm floored to how GREAT it is. Sterling Hayden, who of course, I only know from Dr. Strangelove, plays such a phenomenal heavy in this movie, that this easily eclipses anything he did in Strangelove. He is part of a gang who tries to pull of heist. The people who are pulling off the heist, which includes the ever amazing Louis Calhern, all play their parts with such gusto. All the secondary parts are great too, including Jean Hagen who almost runs around the entire movie saying 'Sure Dick Sure!" This movie almost cemented John Huston's legacy, and he was just getting started. Wow.
Back in Film Noir's heyday, films released in this style were
considered B-movies. Not in this case. Fresh off his Oscar win for The
Treasure of Sierra Madre, Director John Huston took the helm of The
Asphalt Jungle. The budget may not have been high, but the cast; sharp
dialog and film technique used by Huston is top notch.
TAJ is a caper noir movie. The entire film is shot from the thieves' point of view. Sterling Hayden plays Dix Handley, a real scary bastard. When he shouts "Don't bone me!" to a bookie at the beginning of the movie you can understand why he was hired as the "muscle." Hayden is a mainstay in film noir and he's excellent here. He doesn't seem all that bright. All he seems to care about is the old ranch he grew up on back in his childhood. Between losing money on the ponies and apparently committing small crimes, he and his burger-flipping friend (played by James Whitmore) are hired to help your usual assortment of caper crooks knock over a jewelry store. The heist is great. Shot without music and in real time, Huston not only makes you feel like you're there but you feel like you've just learned how to rob a jewelry store! The great film heist in Rififi was clearly influenced by Asphalt.
The movie also features an early appearance by Marilyn Monroe in just her seventh film. She never looked better.
Hayden is probably best known by modern film viewers as the scary bastard of a police officer in The Godfather. Can anyone forget Hayden being shot by Michael? His gruesome face twitching while choking on blood will stay with me forever.
Without a doubt, The Asphalt Jungle is a classic. I'm trying not to give away too much of the film, because it's worth the rental. TAJ inspired many heist films including Rififi, The Ladykillers, Odds Against Tomorrow and Hayden's The Killing.
"He hasn't got enough blood left in him to keep a chicken alive."
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