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Asphalt Jungle, The (Blu-ray Review)

19 Dec, 2016 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Marilyn Monroe.

The granddaddy of meticulously high-scale robbery pics remains as vital and robust as ever, though gender-wise, there’s nothing too daddy-ish about the way Marilyn Monroe wears a jumpsuit here in the role that jump-started her career. For my money, MM’s what-used-to-be-called “silky” performance as Louis Calhern’s guileless mistress in The Asphalt Jungle is the sexiest she ever was on screen, though it’s an indication of the movie’s greatness (it gets my vote for John Huston’s best ever) that she’s an almost extraneous side bonus who gets everything out of her two scenes.

With so much going for it already, it’s a surprise, then, that Jungle turns out to be another of those occasional “stealth” Criterion releases, in that we also get a huge — and feature-length — extra bang for the bucks. For an antecedent, think of the Criterion version of Stanley Kubrick’s Sterling Hayden starrer The Killing, which unexpectedly threw in the director’s immediately preceding Killer’s Kiss as a bonus goodie. And now here’s Jungle also giving us (maybe the company just has a thing for Hayden) Wolf-Eckart Buhler and Manfred Blank’s 1983 documentary on the actor, Pharos of Chaos — a disturbingly voyeuristic interview with a formidable wreck of a man, and it runs two whole hours. This is really something because Hayden was never an actor who was going to show up to be schmoozed on a talk show with Johnny or Joey or Merv or Mike Douglas. (Dick Cavett, though, would have been good.)

Back to Jungle. This is one of those movies like Freaks — or, more relative to its time, 1949’s Intruder in the Dust — where you wonder how in the world MGM ever made it. Louis B. Mayer, who’d be jettisoned in a year by the studio’s New York-based moneymen, was vocal in hating everything about Huston’s film, which was the opposite of the homegrown Arthur Freed musicals he loved. But otherwise, L.B. had to bite his tongue when Jungle’s production was OK’d by all but studio co-equal Dore Schary, who wouldn’t fare a whole lot better at running Leo the Lion’s cage during rapidly changing postwar times when he subsequently got the top job. Scholar/academic Drew Casper’s voiceover commentary here, shared with an edited-in James Whitmore and carried over from the DVD, has gotten some IMDb.com brickbats for the way it spends a lot of preliminary time with a deep backgrounder about the Mayer-Schary rivalry. But history-wise, this kind of primer is a grownup real deal, and corporate tension is the key to how the movie got made in the first place, at least at MGM.

As many have said, one of Huston’s key strengths over a long career was an ability to cast. Hayden wasn’t exactly on top in 1950; the previous year, he’d been in a couple Pine-Thomas glorified cheapies over at Paramount: Manhandled and El Paso. So how did Huston know he’d be great? Meanwhile, Louis Calhern was an MGM contract player who played Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun the same year; another roster player, James Whitmore, was a recent Oscar nominee but no star; the unjustly forgotten Jean Hagen (no sex appeal but eventually in three of the greatest MGM movies ever, including this one, had just been the assailant/wife in Adam’s Rib and would later be immortalized in Singin’ in the Rain); Sam Jaffe previously had played the Lost Horizon’s High Lama and in Gunga Din, but not too much of note recently; Marc Lawrence and Barry Kelley were no one’s idea of matinee idols — and so on. All are perfect, and in particular, this is the role of Calhern’s long career (he’s the heavy in Duck Soup). I could never figure out how Calhern missed a supporting Oscar nomination here — except that Jaffe got one himself (very deserved) while Calhern was nominated the same year in the lead category for The Magnificent Yankee, playing Oliver Wendell Holmes. He’s also a lawyer in Jungle, but of quite a different stripe.

Though the high-stakes jewel caper takes place in an unnamed “Midwest city,” it’s impossible to see how it could be anywhere but Cincinnati (Geoffrey O’Brien’s Criterion essay says a few exteriors were filmed there, which I didn’t know, a fact that would seem to ice the supposition). Yet beyond the opening and concluding footage, virtually everything here is indoors or outdoors at night, putting the noir in “noir.” Jaffe, the caper’s brains, has planned everything perfectly on paper. But then the gods of fluke-dom take over, and we’re left with one of those mordant “whaddya gonna do?” resolutions, not unlike the one in Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which had recently won Huston Oscars for script and direction. He’d get nominated again in both categories here (screenplay shared with Ben Maddow, adapting a novel by W.R. Burnett of Little Caesar fame).

Harold Rosson was cinematographer (another nomination), but this is a very un-Rosson-like movie (he also shot The Wizard of Oz and got his Oscar for the Technicolor deliriums of The Garden of Allah, which I’d love to see on a Criterion Blu-ray). In excellent bonus-feature featurettes, both noir maven Eddie Muller and cinematographer John Bailey (getting to be the ASC’s resident historian) talk about so many of the actors here are photographed on different planes in the same shot — a testament to Huston’s ability to block and move around actors to the max but without any clutter or disorientation to the eye. Other extras here include brief archival material of Huston discussing the film and an almost hour-long documentary of him on Canadian TV promoting the much subsequent Wise Blood. (I blow hot and cold on the director, who has also just rated an impressive new Moby Dick Blu-ray from Twilight Time, but you have to give it to a guy who did a lot of his most praised work late in his career).

As for the Hayden documentary, you have to be fascinated by its heavily-indulged subject — but, in addition to being an actor, the guy was a lifelong sailor, successful author, ex-Marine and decorated war vet, HUAC informant (which gnawed at his guts for the rest of his life) and someone who wed one of his wives three times (there was also a nasty row with her that I remember well from my childhood when he kidnapped his kids for a year and took them on a sea voyage). As for the movies, and despite a relatively limited output, there were masterpieces Jungle, Johnny Guitar, The Killing, Dr. Strangelove, The Godfather and The Long Goodbye (Crime Wave, Suddenly! and the 1970 Loving are pretty damned good as well, albeit in lower keys). So here he is with a white beard and coming off as a perfect Captain Ahab — alternating lucidity with something close to an addled state from all the substance abuse he’s indulged in on the Parisian-based barge (across from Notre Dame) he called his home.

Though this is one of those tense portraits where you fear the featured player might explode in rage at some point, Hayden is on good behavior, even if we do worry about the guy and all the alcohol he’s consuming (during filming, but not on camera, he fell into he water coming home from nighttime revelry and probably would have drowned had one of his sons not spotted him). The actor is very hard on his HUAC self here for having informed on future Blacklistees — and eternally disgusted that Hollywood then rewarded him with welcome-back hack work in a lot of ‘B’-Westerns (I just caught 1954’s Arrow in the Dust, and let’s just say that it was not worth another person’s livelihood). And beyond the booze, we see Hayden taking pleasure from a hash pipe that’s long enough for Benny Goodman to have played "Let’s Dance on it." It’s a lifestyle one could honestly have earned merely from having had to co-star with Vera Ralston in Republic’s Timberjack, presumably the only movie about logging to feature Adolphe Menjou. But other elements — including, perhaps, too many life detours — were obviously in play as well.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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