RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Harold Rosson

The Asphalt Jungle (May 23, 1950)

The Asphalt Jungle
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Directed by John Huston
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I love heist stories. True or fictional, filmed or written; it doesn’t matter. Any tale of a well-planned robbery is catnip to me.

But like any connoisseur, I’m picky. Reading about real-life heists has made me dislike overly complicated fictional heists, like the wackiness on display in the Ocean’s Eleven films. Real-life heists — at least the ones that work — usually involve the smallest possible number of people, and the simplest possible method to get in and get out.

Heist films (and novels) invariably follow the same plot structure. It’s a story in three parts; the planning stages, the heist itself, and the aftermath. The heist itself can take many forms, and it’s always exciting to see a heist that’s creative and fresh, but the overall story is usually as rigidly structured as a haiku.

Sam Jaffe

I also love the heist film’s ability to implicitly or even explicitly comment on America’s capitalist economic system. A group of skilled professionals joining forces to expertly and efficiently make off with the biggest possible haul of cash or saleable goods has resonance in a society that values the almighty dollar over nearly anything else, and in which “legitimate” business endeavors often cross the line that separates the legal from the illegal.

This is addressed explicitly in The Asphalt Jungle. When May Emmerich (Dorothy Tree) says to her husband, Alonzo, “When I think of all those awful people you come in contact with — downright criminals — I get scared.” Emmerich calmly replies to his wife, “Oh, there’s nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

Louis Calhern

Emmerich is the “money man” behind the scheme in The Asphalt Jungle. He’s a wealthy attorney who is outwardly legitimate, but is privately bankrolling a heist led and planned by the recently paroled Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe).

In addition to Jaffe and Calhern, the main players in The Asphalt Jungle are Sterling Hayden as the ruthless career criminal Dix Handley, who provides the muscle on the job; Jean Hagen as “Doll,” Dix’s friend and potential love interest; Anthony Caruso as the safe-cracker, Louis Ciavelli; James Whitmore as the driver, Gus; veteran character actor Marc Lawrence as “Cobby,” the bookie who helps coordinate the heist; and of course the luminous Marilyn Monroe, who was just beginning her career in Hollywood, as Emmerich’s young mistress, Angela Phinlay.

Marilyn Monroe

Every actor in The Asphalt Jungle plays their part perfectly, which is one of the many reasons this is a film I never get tired of watching.

John Huston is at the top of his game here, and not just in terms of directing his actors. Huston and his cinematographer, Harold Rosson, created something that is really beautiful to look at. Nearly every shot in the film is a masterpiece of framing and lighting. Also, the decision to only use Miklós Rózsa’s score at the beginning and end of the film was a really smart decision. Film scores are often the single element that dates the worst, and even though I love Rózsa’s high-tension scores for noir classics like The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947), the absence of a score for most of its running time gives The Asphalt Jungle a sense of documentary realism.

The script for The Asphalt Jungle by Huston and Ben Maddow (based on the novel by W.R. Burnett), is great. It’s full of rich, quotable dialogue. The plot is tightly constructed, but complicated enough that more than one viewing of the film is necessary to see everything that’s going on.

The majority of the film was shot in Los Angeles, mostly in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, but it takes place somewhere in the Middle West. The opening shots of The Asphalt Jungle were filmed in Cincinnati, although the city in which the film takes place is never identified. All we know is that it’s a small city in the middle of the country that’s driving distance from Kentucky and is probably not Chicago.

Hagen and Hayden

The Asphalt Jungle is a groundbreaking heist film. There were plenty of movies about crime and criminals made in the first half of the 20th century, going all the way back to the short film The Great Train Robbery (1903), but The Asphalt Jungle changed the game.

The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949), and Gun Crazy (1950) all detailed well-planned robberies, but we really didn’t see much of the robberies themselves. The Asphalt Jungle depicts its heist from start to finish in ways that pushed the envelope of the Hays Code’s rules about depictions of criminal enterprise.

I’m not sure if we’ll see a heist this meticulously detailed again for a few years, until Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) (which also stars Sterling Hayden and takes a lot of cues from The Asphalt Jungle).

But The Asphalt Jungle is an important heist film not just because of its detailed depiction of a well-planned robbery. It’s an important heist film because its intricate plotting, well-drawn characters, and believable depiction of a professional criminal underworld created a template that is still being followed decades later in films like Thief (1981), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Heat (1995), and Inception (2010).

The Asphalt Jungle will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Wednesday, May 6, 2015, at 9:45 PM ET.

Advertisements

Duel in the Sun (Dec. 31, 1946)

Producer David O. Selznick was never able to equal the success of Gone With the Wind (which received the Oscar for best picture in 1939), but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

His next film, Rebecca (1940), also won the Academy Award for best picture, and his films Since You Went Away (1944) and Spellbound (1945) were both nominated. With the advent of the auteur theory, Rebecca and Spellbound are remembered primarily as Alfred Hitchcock’s films, but Selznick’s power and influence in Hollywood during the ’30s and ’40s can’t be underestimated.

Selznick spent two years making Duel in the Sun, at an unprecedented cost of $6 million. He spent another $2 million on promotion, which was equally unheard-of at the time. (Some of the more novel advertising methods were 5,000 parachutes dropped at the Kentucky Derby and body stickers handed out at beaches that spelled out the title of the film on skin after a day of sunbathing.)

The trailer for the film proclaimed that it was “the picture of a thousand memorable moments,” and that’s true. The problem is that one memorable moment after another doesn’t necessarily add up to a single memorable film. The cinematography by Hal Rosson, Lee Garmes, and Ray Rennahan is occasionally breathtaking, and there are a few shots that are among the best I’ve ever seen on film, but there’s nothing to anchor them.

Like Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun was credited to a single director, but there were more directors who worked on the film who never received credit. King Vidor is the man who got his name in the credits, but Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, Josef von Sternberg, and even Selznick himself sat in the director’s chair at one point or another during production.

Duel in the Sun is a pretentious, overblown mess, but it’s worth seeing at least once in your life. Of course, you have to get through the “prelude” that opens the film. The word PRELUDE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunrise, accompanied by Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. As if that wasn’t enough, the prelude is followed by an overture. The word OVERTURE sits on the screen against a backdrop of a desert sunset. The narrator (an uncredited Orson Welles) gives us a taste of what we’re about to see, but it’s still 12 minutes of nothing but Tiomkin’s music and two static images. Hell of a way to start a picture.

Anyway, if you can make it through that, you can make it through anything, even an insane story about a “renegade Creole squaw-man” named Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall) who’s hanged for murdering his lusty Indian wife and her lover. Before his execution, Mr. Chavez arranges for his half-breed daughter, Pearl (Jennifer Jones), to live with his second cousin and old flame Laura Belle (Lillian Gish).

The kind-hearted Laura Belle welcomes Pearl with open arms, but her husband, the wheelchair-bound Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), is less charitable. “I didn’t spend thirty years on this place to turn it into no Injun reservation,” he growls.

Much of the film is a push-pull between the two McCanles sons, the gentlemanly Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and the brutish Lewt (Gregory Peck, in a rare role as a villain). Pearl is never really accepted into the family, and lives in servants’ quarters. Shortly after she arrives to stay, Lewt swaggers into her room one night and forces himself on her. She kisses him back savagely at the last second, so it’s not quite rape, but the implication is still there.

There are a lot of jump cuts in Duel in the Sun. Some are necessary — like when Cotten slaps Peck across the face and then the scene cuts to a closer shot in which Peck’s cheek is scratched and blood is pouring out of his mouth — but most seem like a byproduct of sloppy filmmaking, or a big-budget epic sprawling out of control.

Lewt promises to marry Pearl, but quickly backs out. When a kindly rancher named Sam Pierce (Charles Bickford) proposes to her, however, Lewt murders him. Afterward, he tells Pearl, “Anybody who was my girl is still my girl. That’s the kind of guy I am. You know … loyal.”

Duel in the Sun came to be pejoratively known as Lust in the Dust, which is a more apt title. Jennifer Jones appears in all manner of undress and compromising positions, and looks great doing it. It’s sometimes called a “Freudian” western, but I didn’t see much that was Freudian about it, except for the stunning final 10 minutes. The finale is the most overwrought and ridiculous expression of the intertwined relationship between Eros and Thanatos that I’ve ever seen.

Duel in the Sun was never a hit with critics, but it was the second biggest box office success of 1947. It ran into more censorship trouble than any film since Howard Hughes’s “roll-in-the-hay” western The Outlaw (1943), which starred Jane Russell and her enormous breasts, and at least some of the notoriety of Duel in the Sun came from the very public knowledge that Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick were both cheating on their spouses with each other.

In 1948, Selznick retired from producing films. Duel in the Sun might not be the apotheosis of his 20 year-long career in terms of quality, but it’s probably the wildest, weirdest, sexiest, and campiest movie that the chain-smoking, amphetamine-popping Lothario ever produced. And it sure is pretty to look at.