Hef's Movie Notes: The Asphalt Jungle

By Hugh Hefner

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Hef introduces the caper film that started the genre.


Tonight: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, Marc Lawrence and an aspiring young actress named Marilyn Monroe in John Huston’s five-star crime classic The Asphalt Jungle.

It’s based on a novel written by W.R. Burnett, who also wrote Little Caesar, which inspired the film that made a star of Edward G. Robinson.

And began the cycle of gangster pictures at Warner Bros. in the 1930s.

His credits also include work on the screenplay of Scarface (the film that made a star of George Raft), This Gun for Hire (the film that made a star of Alan Ladd) and High Sierra (the film that gave Bogart his first leading role).

The Motion Picture Guide calls The Asphalt Jungle one of the great crime classics of all time—and it inspired the cycle of similarly realistic crime films of the 1950s.

Huston, the son of the famous character actor Walter Huston and father of actress Angelica Huston, began as an actor in 1929 and was soon writing screenplays, including Jezebel, Juarez and the aforementioned Bogart classic, High Sierra.

His directorial debut came in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon.

After a stint in the Signal Corps during World War II, he turned out a series of unforgettable films, starting with The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Key Largo (1948).

The Asphalt Jungle, released in 1950, was followed by The Red Badge of Courage, The African Queen, Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick. It concerns a single crime caper, the robbery of a swanky jewelry firm.

The film resurrected the faltering career of Sterling Hayden, who had made several forgettable films in the 1940s, including a couple with ex-wife Madelaine Carroll.

His career was sidetracked again briefly by being blacklisted as a member of the Communist party in the early 1950s. He later experienced guilt over having “named names” before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Ironically, Hayden is best remembered now as the deranged anti-Communist Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s classic comedy Dr. Strangelove.

Jean Hagen made her screen debut in 1949 in the Tracy-Hepburn comedy Adam’s Rib. But she’s best remembered for her hilarious role in Singin’ in the Rain, as the silent-screen star who has a problem making the transition to sound.

Louis Calhern’s career spanned four decades, starting with something called The Blob in 1921 and ending with High Society in 1956. He was a consummate character actor and his part as the scheming lawyer in The Asphalt Jungle is one of his most memorable.

Marilyn Monroe’s career began in 1948 with a film called Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!, in which she does not appear. Her part wound up on the proverbial “cutting room floor.”

After three forgettable films in 1949, she was cast in two small, but important, parts in 1950—in tonight’s film as Calhern’s mistress and as George Sanders’ protégé in All About Eve.

In 1952, she was still considered a promising newcomer. Real stardom came in 1953 with Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the arrival of Playboy.

Huston directed her first important film—and her last—The Misfits, made shortly before her death in 1962.

According to one Huston biography, the Monroe role in The Asphalt Jungle was supposed to go to Lola Albright, but she was unavailable.

An agent brought Marilyn to Huston. “I guess it was an interesting moment,” Huston recalled. “But I didn’t know it at the time. ... I can’t claim to have had any notion of where she was headed, but I could feel she was going to be good in this film and I chose her over a number of others. But I still didn’t dream of the places she would go.”

A consummate scene stealer himself, Calhern observed, “John Barrymore used to say, ‘Never do a scene with a kid or a dog.’ After Asphalt Jungle, I amend that to include beautiful tits.”

Film production ran from October 21 to late December, 1949.

The Asphalt Jungle earned Oscar nominations for Best Director (Huston), Best Supporting Actor (Sam Jaffe), Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography, but not a Best Picture nomination. (The nominated films: All About Eve, Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride, King Solomon’s Mines and Sunset Boulevard.)

The Mystery Writers of America gave the film an “Edgar” (for Poe) as the Best Crime movie of the year, however. Along with awards for Calhern, Hagen and the author, W.R. Burnett.

So now, from 1950, The Asphalt Jungle.

 


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