“The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) starring Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, & Marilyn Monroe

Doc: One way or another, we all work for our vice.

This much-loved and critically-acclaimed crime drama (released June 1st 70 yrs ago) barely broke even at the box-office. MGM only earned $40,000 according to studio records and Louis B. Mayer hated it. Critic Thom Andersen noted it as an example of “film gris,” a sub-category of film noir w/ a left-wing narrative. It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Director and Screenplay. Since its release, it has been remade three times and its realistic storyline copied in many films. There is an ensemble cast- something rare in the 1950s.

Emmerich: …crime is only… a left-handed form of human endeavor.

Director John Huston first met actor Sterling Hayden in DC, during a protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation of “subversives” in the film. Huston said: “I’ve admired you for a long time, Sterling. They don’t know what to make of a guy like you in this business.” Huston was honest with Hayden about his chance for the lead role. Hayden landed the role of Handley, his first major starring role (over the objection of MGM chief Dore Schary). Hayden’s gritty performance proved naysayers flat wrong. According to Huston, Hayden didn’t have anything to worry about: “The next time somebody says you can’t act, tell them to call Huston.”

Dix: Why don’t you quit cryin’ and get me some bourbon?

When an intelligent criminal, Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), is released from prison, he seeks a $50K investment from bookmaker Cobby (Marc Lawrence) to recruit a gang of specialists for a $1M dollar jewelry heist. Doc is introduced to lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern) who offers to finance the operation and buy the gems immediately after the burglary. Doc hires the safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), and Dix Handley (Hayden) who will serve as the hooligan. Handley’s loyal girlfriend, Doll, is played by Jean Hagen. Marlyn Monroe plays Emmerich’s mistress, Angela; she was unknown when the film was made and plays a small role. Monroe regarded this as one of her best performances.

[1] The multi character interplay sticks in the mind…

[2] The mastermind of the heist is not such a bad guy, the getaway driver loves cats, the safecracker has a wife and young baby, the “hooligan” is a misplaced sentimentalist who only wants the old farm his family lost…

[3] Hayden, with his big body and tough demeanor, was perfect for film noir. He is a legitimate tough guy, nobody to fool with.

[4] Stylishly photographed in stunning black & white by Harold Rosson, The Asphalt Jungle has joined the ranks, alongside “The Killers” (1946) and “Out Of The Past” (1947), as the finest noir ever made.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Clash by Night” (1952) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan, & Marilyn Monroe

The title derives from Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach (1867):

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Mae: What do you want, Joe, my life’s history? Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results.

Directed by Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets’ play, Clash by Night, had a short Broadway run from late 1941 to early 1942. The cast included Robert Ryan as Joe Doyle (the character who is Marilyn Monroe’s boyfriend in the film), Joseph Schildkraut as Earl Pfeiffer, Lee J. Cobb as Jerry Wilenski, and Tallulah Bankhead as Mae Doyle. Wow, how cool would it have been to see Cobb (one of Hollywood’s best character actors) perform live!? The production revolved around a Polish family on Staten Island, NY, before the US gets into WWII. In the original play, Jerry (the cuckolded husband) kills Earl (his wife’s lover) in their climactic fight; Hollywood (of course) had a different idea.

Earl: Jerry’s the salt of the earth, but he’s not the right seasoning for you.

Mae: What kind of seasoning do I need?

Earl: You’re like me. A dash of Tabasco or the meat tastes flat.

This was one of Monroe’s starring roles, she was under an acting coach (who worked for 20th Century Fox where Monroe, then only 25, was on contract) and wanted her on the set. The coach would stand behind director Fritz Lang and tell her when a scene was good enough. When Lang (known for his difficult personality) realized this, he demanded the coach leave the set. After Monroe complained and wouldn’t act w/o her, Lang allowed the coach to return, on the condition that she not direct Monroe. The actress was loaned out to RKO Pictures for this film; she shows a lot of potential here (brightening up the mood of the story).

Jerry: I like you – you know that.

Mae: You don’t know anything about me. What kind of an animal am I? Do I have fangs? Do I purr? What jungle am I from? You don’t know a thing about me.

The film noir drama is set Monterey, CA, a town where almost everyone is connected to the commercial fishing industry. After 10 yrs, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home, feeling tired, bitter, and depressed. Her macho/judgmental younger brother, Joe (Keith Andes), wonders what she’s been doing w/ her life. Mae fell for a married politician who died; she has nowhere left to go. Joe’s spunky/beautiful 20 y.o. girlfriend, Peggy (Monroe in an early supporting role), takes a liking to Mae. After a short time dating, Mae decides to marry a fisherman, Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas), a naive/optimistic bear-like man who feels “safe.” Of course, she isn’t in love w/ Jerry (and he knows that). After a year of domestic life and having a baby girl, Mae feels stifled. She has an affair w/ Jerry’s friend, Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan), a film projectionist who is recently divorced. Jerry finds out about their betrayal- he could explode w/ jealousy and anger!

Earl: Mae – what do you really think of me?

Mae: [coolly] You impress me as a man who needs a new suit of clothes or a new love affair – but he doesn’t know which.

Earl: [stung] You can’t make me any smaller. I happen to be pre-shrunk.

There is some great scenery- the ocean waves breaking on the beach, seagulls flocking, seals playing on rocks. We see the rough-and-tumble lives of blue-collar people; Peggy works in a fish cannery while Joe works on Jerry’s boat. People in this community fight loudly and drink heavily (drowning the disappointments of their unfulfilled lives). Jerry’s Sicilian immigrant father drinks b/c he can’t get any work at his advanced age. His bachelor uncle, Vince, also drinks and avoids responsibility.

[1] The power of “Clash by Night” lies… in the no-nonsense acting of Stanwyck and Ryan, tough as nails, but raw at the core. They have an animal eroticism together between them that sparkles like fireworks, but they are also, alas, quite self-pitying.

[2] Stanwyck has never better than she is here, and she dominates the film, vanquishing such heavyweight co-stars… …she is magnificent in this movie, which seems almost to flow from her. As her simple, trusting husband Paul Douglas is almost as good; and Robert Ryan nearly steals the show as a sadistic loser who is somehow magnetic, pathetic and yet highly observant, all at the same time. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

I heard about this movie from a film noir group on Facebook; you can rent it for $2.99 on Amazon. It has some fine/memorable dialogue, which is why many people watch classics. Stanwyck (who was going through a divorce from actor Robert Taylor) inhabits her conflicted character; she is rarely at ease (note her body language, esp. in the early scenes). This is the type of role usually given to an anti-hero man in Hollywood. Instead, Mae is a conflicted woman who must choose between Jerry- the nice guy (security/respectability)- and Earl- the bad boy (danger/uncertainty). Though these are middle-aged people, they are not quite settled in their minds. Mae and Earl expected much more from life; they are drawn to each other like magnets. Jerry is content to be the breadwinner, husband, and father. The younger couple project a different energy in their scenes, but soon we realize that Joe would be a controlling husband (and perhaps diminish Peggy’s spirited personality).

Odets was born/raised in Philly and came from Jewish heritage (Russian and Romanian). He dropped out of HS to work as an actor. He was understudy on Broadway in 1929 to the young Spencer Tracy in Conflict by Warren F. Lawrence. Odets became one of the founding members of The Group Theatre, which became one of the most influential companies in the history of the American stage. They based their acting technique (new to the US) created by Russian actor/director Constantin Stanislavski. It was further developed by Group Theatre director Lee Strasberg and became known as The Method (or Method Acting). From working in the theater, Odets developed a great love of language, and was inspired to write his own plays. His socially relevant dramas, popular during the time of the Great Depression, inspired the several generations of playwrights: Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon, and David Mamet.

“The Narrow Margin” (1952) starring Charles McGraw, Marie Windsor, & Jacqueline Wright

Once in a while a low-budgeted film from Hollywood gives off an unmistakable aura of big-time talent. The screenplay is taut, direction swift and performances crisp and clever. Continuity is paceful and tense, with a touch of glib humor…The New York Post

…pungent performances and inventive direction… the cramped train settings are put to striking dramatic effect through expert camera work and cutting. Refreshingly, there are convincing sound effects and no hammering musical score…The New York Journal-American

...Charles McGraw never relaxes his grim tension in a highly effective performance as a vigilant cop…Marie Windsor, a sultry beauty seething with vicious evil…The other girl is Jacqueline Wright, who cannot be described further without spoiling one of the surprises in the story…The New York Times

This is a B movie (check it out on YouTube for $3.99) shot in just 13 days w/ a mere budget of $230K in 1950, but released by RKO Pictures in 1952. Director Richard Fleischer decided to use a handheld camera; this was one of the first films to do that. To save money, the train sets were fixed to the floor and the camera was moved to simulate the train rocking. When a mobster’s widow decides to testify in front of a grand jury and provide names in a racketeering case, she is forced undercover. Two cops reach Chicago to escort her to LA; the mob are on their trail almost from the start. Several shady/gun-toting men are on the train attempting to make sure the widow never reaches her destination.

Brown: Well, what kind of a dame would marry a hood?

Forbes: All kinds.

Howard Hughes screened it in his private projection room; the film stayed in that room for more than a year b/c he forgot about it! Hughes loved the film, but thought he could improve it by removing the scenes w/ Det. Sgt. Brown (Charles McGraw) and Mrs. Neall (Marie Windsor) and reshooting them w/ Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. However, Hughes sold his interest in RKO before he could carry out this plan. This was Windsor’s breakout part; most casting agents said she was “too tall, too voluptuous, and just too sexy” for any role besides “the other woman”. She was a former beauty queen from Utah who eventually became known as “the queen of the Bs” (as she could very convincingly be the femme fatale). Fans (incl. TCM host Eddie Muller) love the hard-boiled dialogue between McGraw and Windsor (considered some of the best in noir).

Diving Deeper: 10 More Noir Films to Watch

Forget rom coms- noir is where it’s at! Someone (much wiser and succinct than me) noted film noir is about “a woman with a past and a man with no future.” This is a follow-up to my April 10, 2020 post Getting Started with Film Noir:[https://knightleyemma.com/2020/04/10/noir-start]

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

I haven’t seen this (early Hitchcock) movie in a many yrs, BUT I do recall enjoying it! It has Brits in the ensemble cast, and (no doubt) inspired later TV series (which some of you watched on PBS) w/ mysteries/murders happening on train trips.

Gaslight (1944)

[https://knightleyemma.com/2020/03/29/gaslight]

Double Indemnity (1944)

[https://knightleyemma.com/2011/10/30/two-great-classics]

Just try to forgive the terrible (platinum blonde) wig they gave Stanwyck; everything else about this film is top-notch!

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) [https://knightleyemma.com/2010/10/19/recent-views-and-more]

This is domestic noir (in Technicolor) b/c hey, dark events happen in the daylight, too!

Mildred Pierce (1945)

This is an iconic film that packs some punches! Mildred (Joan Crawford) is a smart, beautiful, working-class woman whose goal is to better the life of her daughter (who is the real femme fatale) NO matter what it takes! HBO made a pretty good miniseries in 2011 starring Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, and Evan Rachel Wood.

Gilda (1946)

[https://knightleyemma.com/2012/10/30/gilda-1946/]

This is one of the most famous/successful noirs out there w/ two terrific leading performances; the actors were once romantically involved (and remained lifelong friends)! When Gilda slaps Johnny hard across both sides of his face, Rita Hayworth broke two of Glenn Ford’s teeth. He held his place until the take was finished. Wow!

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

This one is for all of you who think B&W/classic films are too tame; the chemistry between Turner’s working-class housewife and Garfield’s drifter almost pops off the screen! It took 12 years to adapt the explicit material (by 1940 standards) of the novel into a screenplay which would comply with the Production Code prevalent at the time. You can skip the remake; it just doesn’t measure up anything close to the original.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

This is one of the first films that got me interested in the noir genre (before I knew much about it). It’s unique (as one would expect from Orson Welles) and was not a box-office hit; in later years, it has been appreciated by critics and viewers alike. Welles (who does a quite good Irish accent) really knows how to set a mood!

Criss Cross (1949)

[https://knightleyemma.com/2014/02/17/criss-cross-1949]

If you liked The Killers (also w/ Burt Lancaster), you’ll also enjoy this film. I discovered it a few years ago (thanks to film fest). Be on the lookout for Tony Curtis as one of the young dancers in the club!

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

[https://knightleyemma.com/2010/12/19/three-must-see-classics]

Honestly, I didn’t get what was the big deal re: this movie (until I got older)! You need to see it twice to appreciate all that’s going on; it was “meta” before that became popular. William Holden is one of my mom’s faves; he does a fine job here. FYI: Gloria Swanson was only playing an actress 50 yrs old (which is certainly not “old” by our modern standards)!

“Cry of the City” (1948) starring Victor Mature & Richard Conte

In NYC, thief turned cop killer- Martin Rome (Richard Conte)- arrives in the hospital badly wounded. A slimy lawyer, W.A. Niles (Berry Kroeger), tries to convince him to confess to another crime- a jewelry heist and killing the shop owner. Marty’s young girlfriend, Teena Riconti (Debra Paget), secretly visits him while he’s asleep. Later, Niles threatens Marty by saying he’ll find Teena and force her to confess in aiding w/ the robbery (as its known a woman was involved). When Marty is moved from the hospital to the jail, he escapes. Lt. Candella (Victor Mature) and Lt. Collins (Fred Clark) are on his trail. This case is personal for Candella (who is also Italian-American), knows the Rome family, and grew up in the same poor/immigrant neighborhood as Marty.

I had enough of that when I’m a kid. Crummy tenements, no food, no clothes. -Marty explains why he chose a life of crime

Oh, save it for the jury, Marty. Who do you think you’re kidding? l was brought up in the district too. I’ve heard that dialogue from you poolroom hotshots ever since l was ten years old. Get hip… only suckers work… don’t be a square… stay with the smart money. Let the old man get the calluses digging the ditches. No food… no clothes… crummy tenements. You’re breaking my heart, Marty. -Lt. Candella replies

You shouldn’t miss this gem of a film noir from director Robert Siodmak! I had tears in my eyes at the end; it’s captivating from its start to the (powerful) finish. Not only is it very well-made, it has a moral message (which is not dealt w/ in a pedantic manner). The characters (many of whom are European immigrants and first generation Americans) are fleshed out nicely, even the minor players. Veteran film noir-writer Ben Hecht worked on the script, though he is uncredited; this is a common practice in Hollywood even today. Quentin Tarantino is known for punching-up dialogue on several movies from different genres.

Victor Mature is surprisingly competent in the lead in what must be surely one of his best roles. Richard Conte is simply superb in a complex and tricky role. His method is one of economy and subtlety and a lesson to screen actors.

-Excerpt from IMDB review

I’ve haven’t seen Mature before; he’s 6′ 2″ and muscular w/ a striking profile, dark hair, and thick eyebrows. To modern audiences, he resembles Law and Order and SATC actor Chris Noth. Candella is usually on the move; he is a man who commands attention w/ his body and voice. In contrast, Conte (star of the lesser-known noir Thieves’ Highway) is much shorter w/ a slighter build. He is also handsome and has a strong screen presence. Marty is often confined, wounded by cops’ bullets, though his mind and eyes are always moving. There are many fine supporting characters (few who also speak in Italian), adding to the strength of the film. Classic film fans will notice a young Shelly Winters, one of the many ladies Marty has charmed.

Siodmak was a master of noir, as he blended German Expressionism w/ contemporary styles found in American film. He created atmospheric and memorable movies, perhaps most notably The Killers (1946), starring Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. Though born in Memphis, Tennessee to Jewish parents who were visiting on business, Siodmak spent his youth in Germany, and even worked in banking (his father’s business) for a time. He also tried his hand at acting, which didn’t work out. When Hitler came to power, he joined his friend- Billy Wilder- in Paris and worked on editing and filming. In 1940, Siodmak was on the last ship leaving France for America on the eve of Germany’s occupation of Paris. His experience in France enabled him to create quality films which looked good on a low budget.