Wednesday, December 14, 2016

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE: Blu-ray (MGM 1950) Criterion Collection

 “If you make movies about movies, and about characters instead of people, the echoes get thinner and thinner until they’re reduced to mechanical sounds.”

– John Huston

Few crime thrillers are as unrelentingly bleak about the corruption of the human soul and the future forecast of our contemporary society than John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle(1950); one of the first major pictures to graphically illustrate the old adage ‘crime doesn’t pay’, only this time, from the point of view of the deviants involved in a severely botched jewel heist, orchestrated by the lascivious Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe, genuinely unnerving as the recent parolee, ogling bathing beauty pin-ups and mooning with even more lustful and hungry eyes - the devil’s heart too – after an innocent teenage bobbysoxer); the implication, that his crime likely involved sexual indiscretions with a minor, truly unnerving. Huston’s high concept for this low rent district noir gives us more than a snapshot of the criminal element, happy – or rather, scheming – in their work. Like a Shakespearean tragedy, everything ends in revenge, death, murder and suicide. Based on W.R Burnett’s novel, The Asphalt Jungle is a rogue’s gallery in which, even more remarkably (given the conservative climate of the Eisenhower fifties) we are asked in the screenplay by Huston and Ben Maddow to align our sympathies with the men who do the unspeakable, un-apologetically dark and crudely philosophical.  

The Asphalt Jungle is the antithesis of the ‘American dream’ – or rather, the dream turned asunder by Huston’s gritty sense of realism, poking holes in the balloons of that childhood ensconced hypocrisy: that, with a lot of dedication and a little hard work, we can become anything we desire in this life. “After all,” as oily attorney, Lon Emmerich quips, “crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.” But let us be honest and clear. The starting point in life is not the same for everyone, and, no one except the stark-raving psychotic ever begins in the womb aspiring to become a criminal. Huston once said, “Hollywood is a cage to catch our dreams,” the euphemism fraught with connotations; Huston spending a lifetime exorcising the demons of his own ‘cage’ akin to a sort of artistic entrapment for the rest of us – the audience at the beckoned whim of his mighty hand. Though hardly the religious sort, Huston once joked “I prefer to think God is not dead – just drunk!”, he nevertheless manages to insert some fairly weighty Biblical tomes into this scathing melodrama; a fatalistic nightmare for our protagonist, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden); a small-time hood, wide from shoulder to shoulder, but oh so very dense between the ears; still clinging to the promise of his own bucolic start, taken away after the foreclosure on his family’s farm. 

By 1950, John Huston was already well on his way to becoming a legendary figure in Hollywood. Self-made and larger-than-life, the lanky Missourian, who suffered from predictable vices (drink and the ladies), by 1931, had already built a reputation as a writer; later, to parlay this into even greater repute as one of Tinsel Town’s most revered directors. In retrospect, there is a thread of the damned running through virtually all of Huston’s masterworks, most ominously foretold with a fatalist’s streak in Jezebel (1938) and High Sierra (1941); grimly embittered in The Maltese Falcon (1941), and, Key Largo (1948).  In an era and an industry where only the money men usually wielded such power, Huston created the impression he was nobody’s fool, organ-grinder’s monkey, or workaday workhorse, though not without first suffering a series of mishaps and misadventures.  A near fatal car crash, in which Huston was exonerated of the charge of vehicular manslaughter, nevertheless proved a turning point in his life. After a self-imposed five year exile abroad, living obscurely in London and Paris, Huston’s second coming in Hollywood heralded a no less remarkable back catalog of personal achievements. By 1941, he was twice Oscar-nominated for Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and Sergeant York. The recognition from these two pictures alone afforded Huston his first opportunity to direct: the overwhelming success of that picture, a thrice-removed remake of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) catapulting both Huston, and his star, Humphrey Bogart into the stratosphere as untouchables among their contemporaries. In retrospect, there is a lot of the Falcon in The Asphalt Jungle – some of High Sierra too, and a dash of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948); our anti-heroic Dix and his moll, ‘Doll’ Conovan (the exquisitely pathetic, Jean Hagen) a match made in heaven, if only they could escape from the purgatory of their present-day existence. 

Huston used to say, The directing of a picture involves coming out of your individual loneliness and taking a controlling part in putting together a small world. A picture is made. You put a frame around it and move on. And one day you die. That is all there is to it.” This quote virtually typifies the squalid existence of our heavy in The Asphalt Jungle. Dix Hanley might have been a great man – even a competently put together one: except, he chose a life of crime to supplement his income. Not only this; he seems to relish the smallness of his criminal activities; just a rube who can’t pick a winner at the races, hitting up little ole ladies or beating up drunken rummies to keep his gambling habit alive. Dix wouldn’t even be considered small potatoes – except every once in a while he manages to explode like a volcano; his size able to carry off the impression he could be a ‘big man’ in organized crime…if only he could get organized – or rather, mobbed up.  Authority always impresses. In absence of ‘genuine’ authority, however, any form of intimidation will do. Riedenschneider is, of course, rapt by the way Dix handles himself after racketeer, Cobby (Marc Lawrence) accuses him of running up a tab he will be unable to pay back; Dix lowering his brow like an anvil of gnarled flesh, and with an air of importance, filling the room simply by entering it; broad-shouldered, square-jawed, a pair of meaty, clenched fists ready to knock the block off anyone who disputes his claims. But it is Dix’s integrity Doc finds even more rewarding; a man’s man, beholding to no one, who Doc can trust rather than manipulate, and quite possibly, the only real friend Dix will ever have in this cesspool of rank scum and villainy.  

Sterling Hayden was, in fact, something of a fallen angel in his own right; a mesmerizing figure in Hollywood folklore by the time he committed to Huston and The Asphalt Jungle. Professing a lifelong disdain for ‘acting’, Hayden nevertheless made a rather lucrative career of it throughout his brief 70 years. Sadly, his reputation has not endured today, despite his constant ability to morph into character parts regardless of his age, while quietly accepting what his own self-imposed mileage and the natural ravages of time had done to his brooding 6ft. 5inch frame. Even by 1950, little remained of the ‘blonde Viking god’, some enterprising PR man at Paramount had initially dubbed, ‘The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies’ in 1941. Alas, Hayden’s military service during the war would come to haunt him; his affinity for the Yugoslav communist partisans – and subsequent brief membership in a local chapter of the communist party – forcing Hayden’s hand during the Red Scare and HUAAC’s relentless investigation to weed out communists and communist sympathizers. Ultimately, Hayden would be exonerated of any wrong doing, though even years later he held steadfast to harboring a great self-loathing for having partaken in the naming of names. 

The Asphalt Jungle would be weaker – though still not entirely without its merits – in Sterling Hayden’s absence.  The other linchpin in the picture is undeniably Louis Calhern, as the superficially slick middle-aged tomcat, Alonzo D. Emmerich; an attorney with one-time formidable political affiliations, using his façade of wealth and sophistication to mask his underworld connections, presently chained to a fragile and ailing wife; also, to the sinking ship of a bankroll gone south; desperation setting in and thus threatening his fabulous double-life with the twenty-something platinum vixen, Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe, in a plum cameo destined to draw her that much closer to super stardom).  The parallels between Calhern and Hayden are worth noting; both men considered matinee idols in their prime, each well past their expiration as male hunks du jour in this movie; Calhern, having successfully gravitated to fatherly – even grandfatherly – parts in movies like Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and High Society (1956); still sporting an air of uber-class sophistication, herein capably tainted toward the wicked debaucher. Calhern’s courtly mien is the perfect counterpoint to Hayden’s earthily overwhelming charisma; more diminutive in stature physically, but infinitely towering over everyone else in the room with his air of certainty. Calhern ought to have been a star in his younger years. Nevertheless, he didn’t do so bad for himself after the bloom of youth had worn off; frequently appearing in prominent support – comedic or otherwise – in some fairly high profile movies throughout the 1940’s and 50’s. 

The Asphalt Jungle opens with a series of stark establishing shots under its main titles, shot with the fogginess of an early morning haze by cinematographer, Harold Rosson; an uncharacteristic setting for most any movie financed by MGM in its heyday; though perhaps not one made under the auspices of Dore Schary; appointed to the throne forcibly vacated by L.B. Mayer the same year The Asphalt Jungle went into production. Mayer’s fall from grace had been swift and shocking; the company’s New York chairman, Nicholas Schenck, wielding absolute power to rid himself of Mayer, whom he quietly regarded as a very uncomfortable pebble in his shoe, appointing Schary Mayer’s successor. In hindsight, it was bad casting for the studio celebrating ‘more stars than there are in the heavens’. While the listing from Schary’s appointment as captain of this already beleaguered ship would take several years to truly settle in; in the meantime, Schary dove headstrong into his itinerary of pet projects flying in the face of Metro’s Teflon-coated image as the undisputed and peerless ‘glamour factory’. 

To be sure, The Asphalt Jungle toggles between the grit and grime both Huston and Schary so obviously relish dredging up from the bowels of this naked city ‘under the city’, contrasted with the more courtly and polished Alonzo Emmerich, who does his own embellishing with smoke and mirrors (the Emmerich estate actually the same set used for Metro’s peerless production of The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945); Huston hurtling these two seemingly irreconcilable worlds on a collision course culminating with the film’s climactic ‘betrayal’ scene; Emmerich mismanaging Doc and Dix, come to collect on their payout for the jewel caper, confronted with some ‘cock and bull’ story by Emmerich, who delays long enough for his henchman, Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) to pull a pistol and get in one good shot, forcing Dix to put a period to his enterprising disloyalty. This showdown leads us into the picture’s grand tragedy; the demise of Dix; our hard-headed mule about to buy the farm – literally.

Interestingly, the set piece of the picture is not the heist itself; shot by Rosson with an almost perfunctory disregard for creating suspense, but rather instilling the moment with the dread of gathering storm clouds already setting on the horizon; the blast from safe-cracker, Louis Ciavelli’s (Anthony Caruso) liquid explosives setting off alarms all over the street, though ironically, not inside the jewelry store in which the actual crime is taking place. In the meanwhile, greasy spoon manager, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), the motley crew’s getaway driver, prepares for their speedy escape. Unhappy chance, corrupt Lt. Ditrich (Barry Kelley) has already begun to squeeze the weakest link in Doc’s chain; racketeer, Cobby (Marc Lawrence). Cobby cracks and spills the beans, leading Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) and Officers Andrews (Don Haggerty) and Janocek (James Seay) to Emmerich’s back door; all of it unbeknownst to Lon’s bedridden wife, Mae (Dorothy Tree). Meanwhile, the heist is sabotaged by nothing more than lousy timing: a security guard bursting in on a hunch, knocked unconscious by Dix; his fallen pistol discharging as it hits the ground and fatally wounding Louis. Hurrying their ailing friend into Gus’ waiting getaway car, Dix and Doc race to their rendezvous with Emmerich and Bob while Gus waits for help from Eddie Donato (Alberto Morin); a disgraced doctor, unable to prevent infection and shock from setting in. A short while later, Louis dies and his widow, Marie (Teressa Celli) blames Gus for the foul-up.  

Hardy confronts Emmerich with the folly of his middle-aged dalliances with Angela whom Emmerich asked to lie for him about his whereabouts the night before when Bob Brannom met his maker. After Dix put a period to Bob, Lon ditched the body in a nearby river. Alas, improperly weighted, it resurfaced and was discovered by the police. That, and Cobby’s confession, has conspired to connect the dots and point the finger at Emmerich. With no lies left to tell, Emmerich takes the ‘gentleman’s way’ out of his nasty little situation; committing suicide with the revolver hidden in his desk drawer. After Doc and Dix are assaulted by a nervous policeman who confronts them at the railyards, the pair decides to lay low at Doll’s apartment. But only a short while later, Doc reasons he must cut his losses and leave the city immediately. Dix turns down his percentage from the heist. It isn’t worth it. Even a mug like Dix Hanley can see he isn’t cut out for the big time. Despite Doc’s determination to do right by the only man in this insidious plot he ever trusted, Dix absolves Riedenschneider of his duty to see the payout through. 

Doc bribes a cabbie, Frank Schurz (Henry Rowland); first, to drive him to the outskirts of town – then, all the way to Cleveland; offering him a crisp fifty for his time and fare. Schurz is, of course, only interested in the money – a reoccurring theme in The Asphalt Jungle; the sway and power of the all-mighty dollar and how it can poison even the most altruistic and/or hard-working to commit atrocities, or at the very least, go against their better judgment in order to possess it. Hauled off to jail for his part in the heist, Gus is not altogether surprised to see Cobby already behind bars; attempting to beat him to a pulp after wisely deducing he is the stoolie – as ever weak and greedy to escape the wrap by having unraveled their perfect plan.  Meanwhile, Dix gets Doll to buy a car he can drive to Kentucky. It is a meaningless gesture, as Dix has neither the time to go home nor the money to buy back the land his family once owned. Throughout the ordeal, Doll has been Dix’s gal. In fact, she is desperately in love with him, offering her complicity in his getaway and perhaps, even now, realizing Dix’s seemingly superficial wound has already begun to fatally invade his body with internal bleeding. Stubbornly, Dix refuses to go to the hospital or surrender his dream; making it all the way back to his farm and stumbling across its green pastures as Doll helplessly looks on. He buckles at the knee near the shade of a few trees, the ponies in the pasture quietly gathering around as Doll races in vain toward the main house for help. Dix is home at last. He only had to die to get there. 

In lesser hands, The Asphalt Jungle might have degenerated into maudlin tripe or, at the very least, become just another B-grade film noir with the adage ‘crime doesn’t pay’ stamped across its penultimate plot points for good measure. But Huston’s movie is quite unlike virtually all others in the noir movement; and not simply for being among the most exceptionally well cast, perfectly played by all concerned and expertly scripted to elicit our empathy for the bad guys. While Doc and Emmerich represent the brains of the enterprise, Dix and Doll are the heart of Huston’s sordid tale; to misquote lyrics by Henry Mancini, just “two drifters, off to see the world” – their “such a lot of world to see”Cook’s tour unapologetically cut short by cruel kismet, conspiring to deprive them of their ‘happily ever after’ might have been in an alternative universe of possibilities. The real tragedy here is Dix Hanley was never cut out to be a career criminal – not even with the build for it. The reason: his heart simply isn’t in it. He is not heartless, despite the scowl and his precision with a gun; sparing Emmerich’s life during their confrontation, and not merely because Doc encourages prudence in place of his immediate satisfaction and/or spontaneity to satisfy a fetid thirst for bloody revenge. Dix cannot kill without a reason – nee self-defense. Even an attempt on his own life, perpetuated by the now defenseless Emmerich, is not good enough for Dix to sell his own soul. Huston rewards Dix for this flawed virtue, allowing him his return home. Virtually all his cohorts receive a swifter sentence for their participation in the crime. But Dix is spared real dishonor. Even the ponies in the paddock, where he ultimately marks his own grave, quietly stand guard over his remains as Doll rushes to the main house for help too late to do any good. 

In hindsight, The Asphalt Jungle plays very much like a preamble to the more slickly packaged crime/heist/thrillers it would take Hollywood more than forty years to catch up and make: Reservoir Dogs (1992), The Usual Suspects (1995), Boondock Saints (1999). Yet, despite lacking more bloody entrails and gut-wrenching odes to realism that have steadily become the diet for the genre, Huston’s granddaddy of them all still remains one of the most potently vial and sobering of the lot. Huston’s focus is not on the crime, but the criminals, and, never devoted to that colorful assortment of reprobates one might anticipate as caricatured clichés the movies so readily dispense like Pez candy. The men who do the crime are tenacious, loyal, strong-hearted and determined; but they are also real, fatally flawed and absorbingly genuine; gone far beyond the archetypes to satisfy. Better still, Huston’s payoff for the audience is the picture’s brutal aftermath; the quiet – rather than spectacular – implosions of all of these lives that occur after it is too late to turn back from the brink. These men are undone by nothing more insidious desperation to escape from their respective lives, ironically, leading to their own entrapment.  

But perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is The Asphalt Jungle did not catapult Sterling Hayden to super stardom. In hindsight, he had the makings of a stellar leading man. Ultimately, his career settled into one of the many casually seen and even more casually discarded; respect for his body of work regrettably afforded decades after his best years were already behind him and arguably, only grown to more worthy levels since his death in 1986: Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, Andre de Toth's Crime Wave, Lewis Allen's Suddenly (all of them made in 1954) and Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956); then, some years later, a resurgence in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972). It has been said time does strange things to movie art. If so, than The Asphalt Jungle arguably reveals even more richly satisfying dividends today from the vantage of our own dystopian post-modern maturity. In the fifties, Hollywood rarely made movies as deeply disturbing and for good reason; the country was simply too drunk on its own heady rebirth in the years immediately following the war.  Hence, the general climate of the fifties seemed not only to negate the point of such movies, but as equally to suggest such crime lords operating beneath the surface of the city were anomalies instead of the norm – still an anathema to society at large – but herein, drawn with more empathetic brush strokes from Huston’s creative genius. Removed from all the halcyon and rainbows of this magical decade, and viewed from our present-day moral and cultural bankruptcy, the depraved virtually deified on movie screens everywhere as ‘the new norm’, The Asphalt Jungle very much serves as a point of embarkation and a sign post, pointing toward the ‘then’ future, both in life and in art striving to imitate it - depressingly - come to pass.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray of The Asphalt Jungle is not as impressive or as refined as I had hoped. Not exactly sure where the fault lies, for although it marginally tightens up over the old Warner DVD it never quite attains that elusive and refined crispness we have come to expect from fully remastered B&W original elements. In addition, contrast just seems a tad boosted in spots. This one’s advertised as sourced from a new 2K master; odd in and of itself, since 4K is fast becoming the standard, even for movies yet to have a true 4K ultra hi-def release. One would have thought Warner Home Video (the company providing this source material) would have at the very least future—roofed this transfer by doing a 4K master in anticipation of perhaps someday releasing it to ultra hi-def as well. After all, the wealth of back catalog at Warner’s disposal is mind-boggling; The Asphalt Jungle being one of many crown jewels from the Metro’s fifties output. For those simply looking for improvements of any kind, The Asphalt Jungle on Blu-ray looks marginally better than its DVD counterpart; sporting a relatively clean transfer with a hint of built-in streaking now and then, most noticeable in the opening credits and early sequences. The image is never razor-sharp, and often appears quite softly focused with a decided loss of fine detail. Is this what cinematographer, Harold Rosson intended? Hmmm.  

The DTS mono audio is superior in all regards to its predecessor; remarkably aggressive in spots and with excellent clarity throughout. Not surprising, extras are where this Criterion edition excel. For starters, Criterion has ported over the 2004 Drew Casper/James Whitmore’s audio commentary. It’s good but not great; Casper too infatuated with academic details – cribbing, I suspect, from an itinerary of factoid info with Whitmore chiming in to fill in the gaps. Also included is John Huston’s brief intro; another holdover from Warner’s old DVD release. New to Blu: Pharos of Chaos – a truly bizarre documentary from 1983 on Sterling Hayden. It provides some fascinating backstory with inserts of Hayden in the then present, a recluse living abroad and looking like Euripides. Noir historian, Eddie Mueller and cinematographer, John Bailey offer separate reflections on the movie’s making, longevity, uniqueness and overall importance. We get a 1979 episode of City Lights with host, Brian Linehan trying to be ‘deep’ (with far too much pontificating) as he interviews a very gracious John Huston about his career and life. We also get audio excerpts of Huston set to archival still images and an informative essay by Geoffrey O’Brien. Bottom line: I would have wished for a better transfer on The Asphalt Jungle as it remains definitive John Huston and an uncannily prescient noir-styled crime thriller. The performances are uniformly excellent and Huston’s direction ensures there is never a dull moment to spare. The Blu-ray is competently mastered though nevertheless underwhelming.

FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)




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