Today is Saturday, the day on which I usually publish my first 100 New Code Films article each week. Although we have stopped watching and reviewing American Breen Era (1934-1954) films during August, since we have designated this month #AMonthWithoutTheCode2020, I am continuing my semi-weekly posts in this series. I am continuing writing articles in this series so that I will review 100 films by the end of the year. During August, I am writing about films I watched in July.
Today’s topic is The Asphalt Jungle from 1950. My father watched this film over a year ago and told me about it several times in great detail. I was fascinated, but I didn’t get a chance to watch it myself. In June, he suggested that I review this film for The Epoch Times, relating it to current news of police brutality. I like this idea, and so did my editor, so I watched this film for the first time in July. You can read my Epoch Times article about it here. I have been saving this film as a new Code film review topic until now.
A German criminal mastermind gets out of prison and immediately goes to a Midwestern town, where he contacts a local bookie about planning a major heist. He has been planning the perfect jewel theft for years, and he is now ready to carry out the plot. The bookie is interested in a piece of the action, so he helps him find the team he needs. They need a safe cracker, so they get an Italian man with a wife and baby who know nothing about his crimes. They need a driver, so they get a hunchback who runs a local bar. They need a “hooligan,” so they get a gambler and small-time crook whom the bookie and safe cracker don’t like but who impresses the mastermind; the hooligan confides in his wannabe girlfriend that all he wants is to get enough money together to buy back his family’s farm in Kentucky. They also need a financial backer, so they get a wealthy lawyer, not knowing that he is actually broke. Although he has an adoring invalid wife and a young blonde mistress, he plans with his private detective associate to double-cross the other crooks by pretending to fence the jewels and then escaping with them. Meanwhile, there is a policeman who knows about the German’s presence at the bookie joint, but he is being bribed to let crime run rampant.
This movie stars Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, and Jean Hagen. Supporting actors include James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Marc Lawrence, and Marilyn Monroe.
This movie was directed by John Huston. It was produced by Arthur Hornblow, Jr. The production company was MGM. The screenplay was written by Ben Maddow and John Huston. It was based on a novel by W. R. Burnett. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor for Sam Jaffe, Best Director for John Huston, Best Screenplay for Ben Maddow and John Huston, and Best Black-and-White Cinematography for Harold Rosson. It was also nominated for three Golden Globes, including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Black-and-White Cinematography.
This is a fair Code film. In general, the concepts are handled really well. Although the complex crime is the film’s main focus, the actual theft is not shown in enough detail to inspire imitation. The plan is much too complex to work in other situations. Also, this story is not presented in a way which makes crime look appealing. The Code insisted that, when a film is over, the audience must know that “evil is wrong and good is right.” Although most people involved in this story are involved in crime and other sins, we don’t sympathize with them. All wrongdoers are punished for their crimes and their sins, either by the law or by Providence. The issue of police brutality is handled with perfect Code wisdom. This film is fair rather than good for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there is a bit of excessive violence. There is a little bit more blood than I might like. There also are a couple of violent lines. In addition, Marilyn Monroe wears a couple of low necklines, which are rather revealing. However, the situation of her character’s affair with the married lawyer (Louis Calhern) is handled with discretion. While these elements, particularly the violence, are slightly below ultimate Code compliance, the film is still basically a Code compliant film. Although I had to classify it as fair, in spirit it upholds the Code’s principles.
I highly recommend this film. It is often classified as a definitive example of a film noir. In my Epoch Times article, I explained why I don’t like applying this classification to Code films, since it is a more modern genre name for American films. Since filmmakers from the 1940s and 50s didn’t think of movies they were making as films noirs, it is more appropriate to call them mystery, suspense, or crime films. The Asphalt Jungle would best be classified as a crime melodrama. However, I must concede that, if there is such a thing as a film noir, this is certainly one. The acting is magnificent. Although this truly is an ensemble film, sort of a minor player Grand Hotel of the underworld, Sterling Hayden can best be classified as the leading man. This is the first movie in which I have seen this actor, and I look forward to seeing more of his performances. He delivers a very compelling, complex performance as Dix, the Kentucky farm boy gone bad after his family lost everything. He is the only criminal involved with the caper for whom I felt sympathy. Because of his crimes, I knew that a happy ending was impossible for him, but I couldn’t help wishing that his life could have been different. Jean Hagen is the leading lady of sorts as Doll Conovan, who obviously wants to be his girlfriend. For some reason, he doesn’t seem to return her feelings. She seems to truly love him, since she stands by him during his most difficult times and tries to understand what he feels. Louis Calhern plays a thoroughly despicable character as Alonzo D. Emmerich, the crooked lawyer. As if his business dishonesty isn’t bad enough, we can’t help but loathe the man for his heartless treatment of his bedridden wife (Dorothy Tree). Mr. Calhern does a wonderful job as an actor of creating this part, since he is often a jovial, likable fellow in his films. One of the most complex characters is Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the mastermind who orchestrates the whole crime. He is calm and thoughtful at all times. While all his criminal cohorts are ruled by fear, passion, envy, and anger, he displays remarkable sangfroid at all times. His one vice and thus weakness is a fondness for beautiful young girls. Marilyn Monroe’s performance is often one of the most remembered aspects of this film. Later posters feature her very prominently. However, she was not a star yet, since this was one of her first films. She is good in her small part, and fans of her will enjoy seeing this early part. The cinematography, especially the opening shots of the city, is very effective for conveying the story’s mood. John Huston created the perfect backdrop for the exciting, dramatic story. This film shows the folly of accusing all police of being evil because of one bad cop. This is a very important message for our current social climate. I won’t try to convince you with my words. I will let Police Commissioner Hardy’s (John McIntire) moving speech to the press speak for itself.
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