Film Noir The Asphalt Jungle


John Huston directed The Asphalt Jungle and Stanley Kubrick made The Killing. Despite his convincing performance as the evil Noah Cross, in Chinatown, John Huston likes people. His films, although often genre based, are concerned with character. In Fat City, Huston is sympathetic to the bruised boxers obliged to prevail despite their failure. Poverty does not offend Huston but defeat and the tragedy of individual lives, either poor or rich, draw his compassion. Kubrick responds to concepts more than people. The crooks that perform the heist in The Killing are deluded, selfish and flawed. The Kubrick film is based on a novel by the great gifted misanthrope, Jim Thompson.   The Asphalt Jungle is taken from a book by W R Burnett. Thompson is at his best writing about the paranoid and vicious. Burnett feels for the powerless victims of an oppressive alienating urban society.

There are no bad people in The Asphalt Jungle, which makes it unique amongst film noirs. It qualifies for the genre because it recognises the capricious demands of fate. We need to conquer, which is why endeavour, even when it is crooked, is important, but only fate triumphs. In Singin’ In The Rain, the acting talents of Jean Hagen are used to create a character that we can all hate with pleasure. In The Asphalt Jungle, Hagen plays Doll Conovan, girlfriend of Dix Handley. She begins the film as a burden to tough guy Dix but at the end of the film Dix needs Doll even though she is pathetic and undesirable.   When endeavour fails or is no longer enough, we recognise our limitations in others no matter how pathetic we once thought they were. Dix is the muscle that the planning brain of Doc Erwin would prefer not to need but Dix is a victim farmer of the depression and avaricious bankers. In another time, Dix could have been an upright yeoman. Now the demands of the urban world have corrupted his heroic strength into mercantile violence.

A heist that goes wrong requires betrayal, and in The Asphalt Jungle it is the criminal lawyer to blame. Louis Calhern provides the required sympathetic interpretation. He is betraying his sick wife but who can blame him for being unable to resist Marilyn Monroe who is fabulous as the beautiful young girl. She promises the lost innocence that men with a conscience inevitably regret losing. Indeed, Calhern is patient with both his wife and mistress, and, whilst his morality is inadequate, we are obliged to acknowledge his capacity for compassion and sympathy.

Doc is smart enough to survive the betrayal but he has a voyeuristic weakness for young women, and a harmless dalliance is his undoing. We are not exceptional promise as the fascists proclaim but our own burden. Endeavour is undermined by a perspective framed by our limitations and dependency. W R Burnett understood this well, and if the pastoral paradise is an illusory escape, the yearning it inspires in human beings is what makes them sympathetic.

Howard Jackson has had 3 books published by Red Rattle Books. His collection of horror stories called Nightmares Ahead will be published by Red Rattle Books in 2015.   If you want to read more about American culture click