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Tag Archives: W.R. Burnett

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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Colorado Territory (June 11, 1949)

Colorado Territory
Colorado Territory (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Most plot summaries of Raoul Walsh’s western Colorado Territory mention that it’s a remake of the great Warner Bros. gangster movie High Sierra (1941), but that fact is curiously absent from the opening credits.

The screenplay is credited to John Twist and Edmund H. North, but there’s no mention of W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel High Sierra, and there’s no mention of the earlier film.

This is strange, since the change of setting from the modern day to the Old West could almost qualify this as a “variation on a theme” rather than a straight remake, but there are so many scenes and characters that are nearly identical to scenes and characters in High Sierra.

I recently wrote a piece on producer Mark Hellinger for the annual “giant” issue of The Dark Pages, which was devoted this year to The Killers (1946). (You can order copies of The Dark Pages and subscribe here: http://www.allthatnoir.com/newsletter.htm).

Hellinger frequently worked with director Raoul Walsh at Warner Bros., so I went back and watched a bunch of their collaborations — The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941). (I still haven’t seen The Horn Blows at Midnight, though. Jack Benny made a running joke of it on his radio show, but it can’t be that bad, can it?)

Walsh was a great director who made unabashedly commercial films with a great sense of scope and memorable characters.

Mayo and McCrea

Colorado Territory isn’t ever listed among Walsh’s greatest achievements, but it’s a damned fine western that I think would be better regarded if it didn’t have such a generic title. If one were to scan through a list of westerns from 1949, Colorado Territory screams “B picture.” With a title like that, it easily could have been an RKO Radio Pictures western starring Tim Holt or a Republic Pictures western starring Roy Rogers (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Joel McCrea plays Wes McQueen, an outlaw who escapes from jail and is on the run for most of the movie. (This is essentially the same as Roy Earle, the role Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, except that Earle was released from prison.) He hooks up with a couple of vicious characters who aren’t as smart as they think they are — Reno Blake (John Archer) and Duke Harris (James Mitchell) — and together they plan a daring train heist. (These two criminals were played in High Sierra by Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis.)

There’s also a beautiful woman to makes things complicated. Her name is Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), and she wears lots of flowing low-cut tops and Southwestern-style jewelry because she’s supposed to be part Pueblo. (This is essentially the character Ida Lupino played in High Sierra, although her fashion sense in that film was a lot more conservative.)

And of course, just like High Sierra, there’s a criminal mastermind behind the scenes of the heist and a sweet, innocent-seeming girl whom our criminal protagonist idolizes for a little while before coming to his senses and realizing that he belongs with a straight-up ride or die chick.

There is, however, no cute little stray dog or “comical Negro” character. (You take the bad with the good.)

In Walsh’s filmography, High Sierra will forever be regarded as the superior film. And in 1949, Walsh also directed his masterpiece White Heat, so Colorado Territory suffers by comparison in that department too. (Virginia Mayo is also in White Heat, and her role in that film is a lot meaner and juicier.)

One of the problems with remakes is that no matter how good they are, it’s nearly impossible to lose yourself in them if you’ve seen the original film, since they constantly evoke it. I like Joel McCrea and think he’s a great actor, especially in westerns. But he lacks the nastiness and cynicism Bogart had in High Sierra, which made his more human side stand out in such sharp relief.

On the other hand, when a remake differs from its source material, it can make certain scenes even more shocking and emotionally affecting than they would be on their own, since you’re really not expecting things to go down that way. Colorado Territory has a few bits like that, and it’s exciting and well-made enough to stand on its own.

The Man I Love (Jan. 11, 1947)

The Man I Love
The Man I Love (1947)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Loving the popular music of the ’30s and ’40s isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying Raoul Walsh’s The Man I Love, but it sure helps.

If you don’t like old pop standards (I do, and found myself humming “The Man I Love” constantly for about a day after I watched this movie), then you’d better like “women’s pictures,” because that’s what this is. (I’ve seen The Man I Love called a film noir, but it’s not. Half the movie takes place in nightclubs, and there’s a hint of criminal malice every now and then, but that alone does not a noir make.)

The most prominent tune is the one that gives the film its title, George and Ira Gershwin’s sublime “The Man I Love” — both as a smoky nightclub number and as a constant refrain in Max Steiner’s lissome score — but there are plenty of other great songs, like Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Why Was I Born?” and James P. Johnson and Henry Creamer’s “If I Could Be With You.” There are also tunes just tinkled out on the piano, like George Gershwin’s “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” and Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” suffusing the film with a nostalgic languor that’s a nice counterpoint to all the melodrama.

When New York nightclub singer Petey Brown (Ida Lupino) packs her bags for Los Angeles to visit her siblings, she’ll find love, lose love, flirt with danger, and leave things a little better off than she found them. The poster for The Man I Love features the following tagline: “There should be a law against knowing the things I found out about men!” This is a bit of an overstatement, since most of what Petey finds out about men in this picture is what most clear-eyed women already know; most of them are rotten, some are crazy, some are sweet but naive and dim-witted, and the few you fall for are probably in love with another dame who they’ll never get over.

Petey’s sister Sally Otis (Andrea King) has a young son and a husband, Roy Otis (John Ridgely), who’s languishing in a ward for shell-shocked soldiers. Sally lives with the youngest Brown sister, Ginny (Martha Vickers), who’s 18 and should be enjoying life, but instead spends most of her time caring for the infant twins of their across-the-hall neighbors, Johnny and Gloria O’Connor (Don McGuire and Dolores Moran). Joe Brown (Warren Douglas) — the girls’ brother — is hip-deep in trouble. He’s working for a slimy nightclub owner named Nicky Toresca (Robert Alda) and seems destined for a one-way trip to the big house.

There are a few potentially interesting stories that never really go anywhere, such as Ginny’s attraction to Johnny, whose wife is two-timing him, and Sally’s relationship with her mentally ill husband. For better and for worse, Lupino is the star of The Man I Love, and her dangerous dealings with Nicky Toresca and her doomed romance with a pianist named San Thomas (Bruce Bennett) who’s given up on life dominate the running time of the picture.

The actors are all fine, and the stories are involving, but it’s the music that elevates this picture. Ida Lupino expertly lip synchs her numbers, which were sung by Peg La Centra (who can be seen in the flesh in the 1946 film Humoresque, singing and playing the piano in two scenes in a dive bar).

There’s also at least one allusion to a popular song in the dialogue. When Petey sees the twins and asks “Who hit the daily double?” Gloria responds gloomily, “Everything happens to me,” which is the title of a Matt Dennis and Tom Adair song first made popular by Frank Sinatra when he was singing for Tommy Dorsey’s band. There are probably other little in-jokes like that sprinkled throughout, but that was the only one I caught.

Nobody Lives Forever (Nov. 1, 1946)

Jean Negulesco’s Nobody Lives Forever is far from a great film, but it’s crackerjack entertainment. Warner Bros. had been making crime pictures for 16 profitable years at this point. While the heyday of the Warner gangster film may have been in the ’30s, this is a fine example of the quality product the studio was still churning out in the post-war era.

The screenplay is by W.R. Burnett, whose 1929 novel Little Caesar was made into a film in 1931 starring Edward G. Robinson — the first of Warner’s great cycle of gangster movies. Nobody Lives Forever is based on Burnett’s novel I Wasn’t Born Yesterday, and while it may not be as significant as Little Caesar, it’s still a tight thriller with plenty of snappy tough-guy dialogue.

Besides the good script and excellent direction, the picture works as well as it does because of impeccable casting. When you’re looking for a hard-bitten but essentially decent con man, you can’t ask for a better protagonist than John Garfield. A kindly, doddering old mentor of cons named “Pop”? Who better than Walter Brennan? A sweaty, bug-eyed, paranoid louse named “Doc” who desperately needs one decent score to get back on top? Is George Coulouris available?

Garfield plays Nick Blake, a World War II veteran honorably discharged after being wounded in action. One of his hands doesn’t close quite right, but other than that he’s none the worse for wear. After his sidekick Al Doyle (George Tobias) picks him up from the hospital in Governor’s Island, they take the ferry back to Manhattan, where he reunites with his girl, Toni Blackburn (Faye Emerson). As she sings “You Again” in a swanky nightclub, Nick follows the mustachioed club owner Chet King (Robert Shayne) into his office to settle a beef over money. Rudi Fehr’s editing in this sequence is superb, cutting between Toni on stage, Al standing guard outside the office, and Nick bracing Chet inside.

After Toni finishes her number, Nick confronts her, then kisses her passionately, then smacks her in the face for double crossing him.

The action soon switches to California, where Al has gotten a line on a widow with a $2 million fortune, which — as Pop points out — is a lot of money, even after taxes. Nick, a handsome “diamond in the rough,” is the perfect candidate to pose as a shipping magnate and charm her out of her cash.

Unlike most long cons, Nick, Pop, Doc, Al, and the other members of their crew meet in smoky back rooms as if they’re planning a bank heist. The only problem with the job is that Nick actually starts to fall for the widow, Gladys Halvorsen (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who turns out to be younger than most widows, and a dish to boot.

When Doc pushes Nick to close the deal, he shoots back, “I’m not used to operating with a bunch of cheap, hungry chiselers who should be in the strong-arm racket. Big deals take time.”

Garfield has great chemistry with his co-stars, particularly the ladies, but the relationships take a back seat to the action, especially during the final climactic 20 minutes.

Sure, there are some holes in the plot, and there’s nothing deep about Nobody Lives Forever, but it’s a hell of a way to kill an hour and 40 minutes.

San Antonio (Dec. 28, 1945)

San Antonio, directed by David Butler (with uncredited assistance from Robert Florey and Raoul Walsh), is a journeyman effort from start to finish. A lavish, Technicolor production, the film looks great, and its stuntwork and cinematography are top-notch. The final showdown, a three-way shootout staged at nighttime in the ruins of the Alamo, is especially well-done. But San Antonio never aspires to be anything more than middlebrow entertainment. It’s a star vehicle for Errol Flynn, a showcase for a couple of musical numbers by Alexis Smith, and not much more.

Flynn plays a rancher named Clay Hardin, one of the survivors of a vicious war that has raged for years between ranch owners and the rustlers who decimate their herds by running nightly raids and then rebranding and reselling the cattle at various points along the more than 1,000 miles of border that Texas shares with Mexico. Hardin was falsely branded a criminal, and when the film begins, we find him living in Mexico in exile. He finally has in his possession evidence that could clear his name, a tally book containing records of all the illegal cattle sales made by Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly), the cattle baron of San Antonio. With the tally book and his good friend Charlie Bell (John Litel), Hardin returns to San Antonio prepared to mete out justice. Along the way, he crosses paths with a singer named Jeanne Starr (Smith), as well as her attendant Henrietta (Florence Bates) and her roly-poly manager Sacha Bozic (S.Z. Sakall, who is curiously listed in the credits as “S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall”). Bozic and Henrietta provide comic relief in helpings that are a little too large, and Jeanne provides romantic interest and a couple of songs.

This wasn’t the first time Smith appeared opposite Flynn. The two starred together in Dive Bomber (1941) and Gentleman Jim (1942). I found their chemistry in San Antonio lukewarm. For a man who was reportedly a stone-cold freak in private, Flynn is remarkably wooden in many of his roles. In San Antonio he’s still working the “dashing” angle he perfected in Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but he looks closer to the “world weary” angle that he would later play to perfection in the excellent black and white western Rocky Mountain (1950).

San Antonio doesn’t drag, and it’s solid western entertainment. The production values are high, the action is well-staged, and Victor Francen delivers a juicy turn as a villain named Legare, but overall it’s just O.K., with a run-of-the-mill story and passable performances by the leads. If you love the music of the period, Smith’s performance of “Some Sunday Morning” will be a highlight, but if you’re a fan of more historically accurate westerns, the songs in the film date it about as badly as Flynn’s perfect coiffure and jaunty red neckerchief.