Huston explores ‘Asphalt Jungle’ with an unflinching eye

The Asphalt Jungle/1950/MGM/112 min.

Marilyn Monroe

“The Asphalt Jungle” from 1950 by director John Huston is rightly considered a masterpiece. Excellent storytelling and an outstanding cast, including Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen and Marilyn Monroe, have helped it stand the test of time.

But its stark, unwavering realism is not for everyone. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, where Huston made the movie, had this to say about the flick: “That ‘Asphalt Pavement’ thing is full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty things. I wouldn’t walk across the room to see a thing like that.”

Um, did he not see luminous and fragile Monroe as mistress Angela Phinlay? Huston portrays a gang of thieves as flawed humans trying to make a living. “We all work for our vice,” explains menschlike mastermind Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Jaffe). Recently released from jail, Doc has planned every detail of a $1 million jewel robbery and seeks to round up the best craftsmen he can find for one last heist.

A fat wallet means Doc can head to Mexico and court all the nubile girls he can handle. Dix Handley (Hayden), a tough guy with swagger to spare, hopes to pay his debts and return to his beloved horses in Kentucky. Getaway driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) is sick of running his dingy diner. Bookie ‘Cobby’ Cobb (Marc Lawrence) covets booze. Safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) has a wife and kid to support. Alonzo ‘Lon’ Emmerich (Calhern) is a wealthy but overspent lawyer who wants to be solvent again.

“You may not admire these people, but I think they’ll fascinate you,” says Huston in an archive clip included on the DVD. They pull it off, but what heist would be complete without a doublecross and crossing paths with the police?

In this macho, man’s-world movie, there is alas no femme fatale. But rest assured there are flawed women aplenty. Hagen plays the neurotic Doll, a struggling performer, and her vice is Dix. Monroe, as Lon’s barely legal girlfriend, orders mackerel for his breakfast, flips through travel magazines and is fond of saying, “Yipes!” Lon’s bed-ridden wife May (Dorothy Tree) wishes Lon were home more often. Teresa Celli plays dutiful wife Maria Ciavelli.

The actors complement each other deftly. Jaffe, both sage and seedy (when he lusts after pretty young things) is particularly entertaining; he nabbed an Oscar nom for best supporting actor. Helping his rich characterization is the fact that he gets some terrific lines, for instance: “Just when you think you can trust a cop, he goes legit.” [Read more...]

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‘The Asphalt Jungle’ quick hit

The Asphalt Jungle/1950/MGM/112 min.

John Huston‘s classic heist movie, which earned four Oscar noms, broke new cinematic ground by humanizing the criminals rather than writing them off as one-dimensional cheats. A suspenseful ride with stellar performers. The top-notch cast includes Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe and an up-and-coming young starlet named Marilyn Monroe.

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