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Tag Archives: James Whitmore

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.

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Battleground (Nov. 9, 1949)

Battleground
Battleground (1949)
Directed by William A. Wellman
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

A lot of reviews of Battleground claim it was the first World War II movie to portray servicemen as fully human characters who experience fear and doubt, and not just as inspirational patriotic figures.

Whoever thinks this has probably not seen very many World War II movies made between 1941 and 1945. While Americans have never been great at understanding our enemies, we have always been good at exploring the vulnerability, fears, and doubts that our own soldiers experience in combat. Everything from Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to Lewis Milestone’s film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) presented nuanced views of men under fire.

During World War II, Hollywood films about the war tended to lionize servicemen and depict America’s involvement as vitally necessary, but the better ones, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) (with script by Dalton Trumbo), were also great human dramas.

I think the most significant antecedents to Battleground were two other films about men in the infantry: The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and A Walk in the Sun (1945).

A Walk in the Sun was directed by Lewis Milestone, the man who directed All Quiet on the Western Front. It attempts to depict the mind of the American infantryman, through both dialogue and rambling internal monologues (a technique Terrence Malick would later use in The Thin Red Line). In keeping with the POV of the soldiers, the viewer is kept mostly in the dark about the larger significance of the violence, which punctuates the film in terrifying and confusing bursts.

The Story of G.I. Joe starred Burgess Meredith as embedded combat reporter Ernie Pyle and co-starred Robert Mitchum as the commanding officer of Company C, 18th Infantry. It was directed by William A. Wellman, the man who directed Battleground. Just like Battleground, the scenes of violence were swift and brutal, but the focus for most of the film was on the infantrymen themselves, and the boredom, extreme physical discomfort, and drudgery punctuated by fear that everyone who serves in combat experiences. Also like Battleground, most of the extras in The Story of G.I. Joe were actual soldiers who had served in combat.

Johnson and Hodiak

The big studios dumped most of their existing war movies in theaters not long after V-E Day and V-J Day in 1945, rightly assuming that the public had little interest in war movies once the war was over. In the few years that followed, plenty of movies dealt with veterans’ homecomings (The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, was the finest of these films), but I’m hard pressed to think of any American films from this period that directly dealt with the experience of combat. The only one I can think of is Mervyn LeRoy’s Homecoming (1948), but all of the fighting in that film was just the backdrop for a passionate and illicit romance between Clark Gable and Lana Turner.

So Battleground was unique in that it was a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience. Producer Dore Schary brought the project with him to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when he left RKO Radio Pictures. It was a passion project for him, and he really had to fight to get it to the screen, since MGM head Louis B. Mayer believed that the public was still tired of war films.

Schary’s persistence paid off. His tribute to the “battered bastards of Bastogne” was a huge hit with audiences, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It took home two Oscars, one for Best Story and Screenplay, and one for Best Cinematography, Black & White.)

As I said earlier, Battleground is firmly in the tradition of humanistic portraits of ordinary soldiers like The Story of G.I. Joe and A Walk in the Sun, but it does go further than any films made during World War II depicting how scared many ordinary infantrymen really were, and how strongly they could desire to be far, far away from the fighting.

One character in Battleground is counting the days until he rotates out of the Army, and is furious when he’s told that they’re surrounded by the Germans, and he’s not going anywhere. But typically of the film, he steels his courage and eventually manages to make jokes about how the Germans are committing war crimes by shooting at him, a civilian. Another character has a full set of false teeth, which he loses and then tries to be given medical leave for a few days. (That character is played by Douglas Fowley, who really did lose his teeth in an explosion while serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)

At one point in the film, two soldiers retreat and have to leave behind a wounded man, who hides himself from the Germans by crawling under the wreck of a jeep and covering himself with snow. The film never depicts any of the men’s acts as cowardly; they are badly outnumbered, and doing anything else would have been suicide for all of them.

The Oscar-winning screenplay of Battleground was written by Robert Pirosh, who served as a master sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh based his script partly on his own experiences, but the film details the exploits of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, so Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard, who had been the deputy divisional commander of the 101st at Bastogne, served as technical advisor. More than a dozen veterans of the 101st appeared as extras in the film and worked with the actors to ensure accuracy. (The film is relatively accurate except for a plot about German soldiers moving through the lines who are disguised as Allied soldiers, but this can be forgiven in the interest of creating suspense and tension. It is, after all, “only a movie.”)

SPAM

The actors are all great, and many of them had actually served in combat. James Whitmore, who plays Sgt. Kinnie and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, served in the Marine Corps in World War II. James Arness, who would go on to star in the 20-year run of Gunsmoke on TV, has a small role in the film, and was the most decorated soldier among the cast. (Arness was severely wounded at Anzio, and received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars.)

Consequently, Battleground is one of the most authentic World War II movies you will ever see, even though it might not seem that way to a viewer who has been weaned on the bloody CGI horrors of 21st-century war movies. However, if you’re conversant in the language of film, and can read what is being written on and off the screen, there’s one sequence that’s as brutal as anything you’ll ever see in a war film. Our heroes are surprised by German troops and in a fast-moving sequence, Ricardo Montalban rips a German soldier’s throat out with his teeth, Van Johnson stabs a German soldier to death with his bayonet, and John Hodiak bashes in the skull of a German soldier with the stock of his rifle.

I’ve read reviews of Battleground that refer to it as an “anti-war film.” I don’t know if this point of view springs from Steven Spielberg’s ridiculous assertion, made around the time that the philosophically incoherent Saving Private Ryan (1998) was released, that “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie,” but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although very few Hollywood films can simply be called “pro-war” films, a truly “anti-war” film would have to condemn any kind of armed conflict and celebrate pacifism as a viable and noble alternative. A truly “anti-war” film could not depict death and destruction in a highly aestheticized way, like Apocalypse Now (1979). And it could not celebrate the value of brotherhood under fire, as do Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down (2001). No film that celebrates soldiers nobly putting their lives on the line for the greater good can ever be called an “anti-war movie,” any more than The Passion of the Christ (2004) can by called an “anti-crucifixion movie.”

I’m not condemning Battleground because it’s not an anti-war movie. I even thought the short, moving scene in which an Army chaplain explains why he thinks America’s involvement in the war is vitally necessary was one of the best bits of the movie.

But today is Memorial Day, and I think it’s worth considering, as we honor the sacrifice of people who laid down their lives overseas, that no war movie can ever replicate the experience of combat. No matter how realistic, the viewer is watching from a position of safety. And every war film is a tale told by survivors. The dead no longer have a voice.

The Undercover Man (March 21, 1949)

The Undercover Man
The Undercover Man (1949)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Columbia Pictures

The Undercover Man is a tightly paced, hard-driving procedural that grabbed me from the first few minutes and never let go. It’s a fictionalized version of the federal case against Al Capone in which Capone not only never appears onscreen, his name is never spoken aloud. He’s referred to simply as “The Big Fellow,” even in newspaper headlines.

Director Joseph H. Lewis’s two most enduring films — Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955) — lay ahead of him, but he’d been working in Hollywood for more than a decade and had directed more than two dozen pictures (mostly westerns) before he directed The Undercover Man. The only one I’ve seen is The Swordsman (1948). I never thought I’d enjoy a Technicolor swashbuckler starring Larry Parks that took place in the Scottish highlands, but I really enjoyed The Swordsman.

Lewis made stylish films with great pacing. The Undercover Man has a standard story and stock characters, but it kept me involved because it’s paced really well. It’s loosely based on the career of Treasury agent Frank J. Wilson, who was involved with the 1931 prosecution of Al Capone and investigated the Lindbergh kidnapping. The film takes place in the present day, however, and isn’t specifically about Capone.

Whitmore and Ford

Glenn Ford plays a fictionalized version of Frank J. Wilson, named “Frank Warren.” The title of the film is misleading, since Warren doesn’t go undercover. The only “undercover man” in the film is a contact of Warren’s who’s gunned down by mobsters in the early going.

The film sticks to the tax evasion angle of the Capone case, and most of the drama involves Warren poring over financial records and butting heads with The Big Fellow’s crooked attorney, Edward O’Rourke (Barry Kelley). So if you’re looking for an accountant who picks up a shotgun and blasts mobsters by the dozen, like Charles Martin Smith does in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), then you might find The Undercover Man pretty boring.

But if you’re looking for a hard-nosed flick about cops and criminals made in a semi-documentary style, you can’t go wrong with The Undercover Man.