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Have You Seen…? Episode 19

On this edition of “Have You Seen…?” David Hast and WGVU’s Scott Vander Werf talk about The Asphalt Jungle starring Sterling Hayden and directed by John Huston. It’s a proto-heist film, a police procedural, and a classic crime film.

[Clip from The Asphalt Jungle]

David Hast: Scott, have you seen The Asphalt Jungle?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen it, but you know, I never saw it when I was in film school. I never saw it as a kid that I remember. And then later, after film school, I don't think I'd seen it, which is amazing because it's a John Huston film. He directed it and I love John Huston. So I did watch it for this episode and I've greatly enjoyed it.

DH: Yeah, John Huston, probably better known for The Maltese Falcon, one of the first film noirs. Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and lots of other great movies.

SVW: Yeah, John Huston, a great director, and you could tell right away that this is in his style.

DH: And what is it about it that you would say is John Huston's style?

SVW: It's both a style in terms of having a certain framing and lighting that's, in this case, is a noir film. So there's that noir feel to it. But his style is really an invisible style, To me.

DH: Hmm, yeah. It isn't necessarily like other film noirs. More so, it's in the category of a heist or a caper film. In fact, it's regarded as sort of the grandfather, the prototype for many, many other films that followed it that are, you know, a heist, like a robbery of a bank or a... an armored car or in this case it's a high-end jewelry store and, you know, all these movies have basically three basic things that happen and many movies have followed it. Number one is the team is assembled and they're plotting this complex, in this movie it's the heist of a jewelry store a high-end jewelry store and the team is assembled you know multiple people and it's usually led by some kind of mastermind. And in this picture, it's Doc Riedenschneider. He's a professional career criminal who's just gotten out of prison and has been planning this heist for like seven years. The second part of the movie is the execution of the caper. And the third part is that things never go as planned and something goes wrong.

SVW: And the assembling of the team, the team is always a motley crew. They're always interesting characters and that's the same case here. Starting with Doc, who in some ways is the most interesting character in the movie to me.

DH: Yeah, and the actor Sam Jaffe was nominated for best supporting actor for this film. I think he was the only one that got an Oscar nomination for performances and he is really good. But yes, what's even more interesting about this film, and this I think very much fits into John Huston's other work, is that this movie is even more than being about the heist and the caper, which has done really well and suspenseful, it's about the characters, the individual characters. And in this movie, I think this is really what elevates it to the level of being a masterpiece. Not only is it the model for many movies that came after everything from Kubrick's The Killing to Reservoir Dogs, any movie that involves a complex heist, this one was the first to do it. But it... Every character in it is believable, complicated, has their own backstory and their motivations, and their weird, their kind of obsession that ends up running their plans off the rails. And it's funny because in a way, although they're criminals, they're almost shown as being people just like the rest of us trying to make a living at what they do. And one of the worst characters in it, this corrupt lawyer, has a line where he says, “after all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.” So should we go through who the characters are? Because it's really interesting.

SVW: Yeah, with great actors like Sterling Hayden.

DH: Yeah, so the lead is Sterling Hayden, who is basically this small-time hood who pulls armed robberies and stuff. But all he really wants to do is go back to Kentucky, where he grew up on a horse farm, and get horses and raise them again. That's what he's going to do with his money. And then there's this girl who loves him, played by Jean Hagan, who people best know from a movie that came two years later, she's the ditzy blonde Lena Lamont in Singing in the Rain. But in this movie, two years earlier, you see what a really fine actress she is. And she's in love with the character Dix, the guy from Kentucky, but for some reason he doesn't even notice it, and she really can't save him. Then there's that, the professor, the professional mastermind. who has a weakness too for young women. There's this near nervous, fearful bookie character. Then there's a disabled owner of a diner who loves cats and will attack anyone who does anything bad to a cat.

SVW: Who's played by James Whitmore.

DH: Yeah, what's he best known for?

SVW: Well, I know him from Them.

DH: Oh, okay.

SVW: A giant ant monster movie.

DH: Wasn't he a TV actor in the 60s and 70s?

SVW: Yeah, he was somebody that you would have seen all over the place in the 60s and 70s.

DH: Right. and he's the getaway car driver. Then there's a safe cracker who the poor guy, he has a sick kid, he has several kids, and all he's trying to do is support his wife and children. And then there's this corrupt lawyer who has a mistress, and the mistress is played by a new actress on the scene who doesn't even get billing in the beginning of the movie, Marilyn Monroe, a young Marilyn Monroe. And she is, as one other character puts it, young enough to be the lawyer's granddaughter.

SVW: And there's also what Huston shows is that there's a police officer that's in it from the beginning to the end, who we find out he's corrupt as well. It's not the police chief. It's a- it's a detective who's in with the bookie.

DH: Yeah, he's on the take, you know, he goes to shake down the bookie and says, Oh, I've been getting pressure from the commissioner, we got to do a raid on your place. And the guy's like, no, and puts $100 in his pocket. And he leaves them alone. But in the end, he you know, well, I won't say it, but he ends up, you know, having to do his job as a cop, because he's getting pressure. But this movie doesn't really focus on the police. It's not a police procedural. It focuses on all these individual characters, and what it is about each one of them individually in their own story that drives them. And in some cases, it could have been okay, but you know something's going to go wrong because they have these motivations going in different directions.

SVW: And once they execute the heist, it doesn't take long for something small to essentially trigger something larger that brings the heat down on everybody.

DH: Yeah. And if you think about other heist movies, isn't that what always makes them interesting. If it was just like, oh, super planned, you know, they draw their blueprints and they figure out how to get into the sewers and then they do this incredible heist and then they all get away with it and go off to Mexico and the Bahamas. Where's the interest in that something's got to go wrong and the ways that it goes wrong in this movie are just I mean Everything about this movie is masterful. So it's not like a rough start to the heist genre. It was sort of like the prototype for all the rest because every part of it is good. And I think another thing about Huston, you know, isn't Huston well known for the way he uses close-ups to build his character?

SVW: Close-ups and framing and when I said earlier about him having an invisible style what I mean is he doesn't, the style is all about allowing the actors to act and the story to unfold. And that's how in terms of framing, in terms of camera movement, that's all is in the service of the story.

DH: Yeah.

SVW: And the characters.

DH: Right. Yeah, and I hadn't really thought about that before. I really had to do some reading and then when I went into it, I noticed it much more this time and then. learned that is very much part of John Huston's style. So very often reaction shots, just shots of characters listening or reacting to what's going on in close-up so you really see what they're thinking and feeling. And doing little bits of business that are just so realistic, you know, like there's a part where Jean Hagan is crying and her mascara starts to run and so she awkwardly pulls off one of her fake eyelashes. And on the one side and she's like, oh, this is embarrassing, isn't it? And then she pulls off the other one. Just that bit of business that the director thought of having her do that is really fascinating.

SVW: So anything in closing?

DH: No, just that I strongly recommend it. You know, I guess it is in the noir category. But even if you're not a fan of film, noirs, it's worth seeing just as a kind of action caper film. And it's just beautiful. It's beautifully shot in black and white and can't recommend it highly enough.

SVW: It's beautifully shot in black and white and from the first shot until the last, it's wonderful to watch and all of the actors do a fantastic job.

DH: Yeah. Thanks, Scott.

SVW: Thank you.

[Clip from the Asphalt Jungle]

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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