A truism among classic movie fans — one that has been endorsed in our blogs here — is that 1939 was Hollywood’s best movie year ever.
With all due respect to Gone With The Wind and that year’s many other superb titles, a good case can be made that 1950 ranks every bit as worthy a Hollywood production year as 1939. That’s a view espoused by Turner Classic Movie’s “noir czar” Eddie Muller, a man we always take seriously.
1950, after all, gave us In A Lonely Place, Gun Crazy, Sunset Boulevard, Panic in the Streets, not to mention such venerables as All About Eve, Born Yesterday, Harriet Craig, Born To Be Bad, Where the Sidewalk Ends and the year’s top box office hit, King Solomon’s Mines. Not at all bad.
1950 also gave us what Frank considers as one of the best and most accomplished film noir titles ever made, director John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. Not surprisingly, the head of the studio where the picture was made, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, hated the movie.
As cited in Muller’s seminal book, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, Mayer felt the picture is full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty, ugly things. I won’t walk across the room to see something like that.
Jungle is actually a meticulously constructed tale of an elaborate jewel robbery pulled off by coolly professional criminal specialists, headed by a just-released-from-the-clink mastermind played by Sam Jaffe. The pictures overall point-of-view is articulated by the corrupt lawyer bankrolling the the enterprise portrayed by Louis Calhern.
Says the world-weary lawyer about criminals: There’s nothing so different about them. Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.
Jungle eschews the violent sensationalism of Huston 1948 thriller Key Largo, where Edward G. Robinson tore up the screen as the super-sadistic Johnny Rocco. As Muller notes about Jungle, crime (as depicted in the picture) is as routine as an eight-hour swing shift on the packing line.
Instead of explosive pyrotechnics director Huston draws on process, as the elaborate heist is planned, unfolds and then pulled off. Suspense is generate via the unexpected snafus and double crosses. Emphasized is a depth of characterization regarding each of the crooks involved. And there’s the excellent cast.
Sterling Hayden is utterly credible as the strong-armed gunman-protector, who also has a soft spot for a chorus girl down on her luck, nicely played by Jean Hagen. (There’s the couple shown in a happier moment above.)
Calhern is a revelation as the bent barrister. His performance is tinged with a knowing sadness, as if his character realizes from the beginning that he is doomed. Mark Lawrence is astonishingly good as a sleazy, low-level operator, who specializes in paying off cops. What a superb character-actor turn.
Anthony Caruso is strong as the veteran safe-cracker of the group, and James Whitmore is serviceable as a hump-backed crook who runs a diner on the side.
The picture hangs to a large degree on the performance of Jaffe as the master criminal, who plans and directs the heist. (In his memoir, An Open Book, Huston notes that Jaffe won an award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role. Richly deserved.)
Not to the overlooked is Marilyn Monroe’s performance as the corrupt lawyer’s wide-eyed mistress. As Huston notes, she was damned good…(this is), of course, where (she) got her start. In all, Jungle boasts of a splendid cast delivering collectively in spades.
And speaking of MGM, Jungle was remade by the British arm of the studio in 1963 as Cairo, starring George Sanders in the Sam Jaffe role. The heist this time was of precious gems on exhibit in an Egyptian national gallery. The picture is dreadful despite Sanders’ presence, and a bold reminder of just how good Jungle is.