Marilyn Monroe

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


Elvis Presley Challenge No. 52 – Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn always attracted intellectuals.  Elvis had his working class fans, the people he called ‘my crowd’.   Both were instinctive performers whose popular appeal depended on glamour rather than cerebral analysis.   Predictably, their lives ended prematurely.   Marilyn has been exalted by Gloria Steinem and others.  Lisa Appignanesi is extremely clever and level headed but the tone of her marvellous book on psychiatry and women, ‘Mad, Bad and Sad’, changes tone dramatically when she writes about Monroe.  We all know that Elvis and Monroe were flawed, vulnerable at best.  But the fans find sympathy for them irresistible.   The difference with Monroe is that intellectuals have been willing to share these emotions about her celebrity.     True, they often pretend that they are being analytical but not always.  They will talk about a special quality that simply touches them.

I have mixed feelings about ‘Some Like It Hot’.  It is a great movie with sharp lines and great performances.   Sometimes the film appears to be perfect.  Others, I think the humour against Monroe is offensive.   It can depend on Some Like It Hotmood.  ’Bus Stop’ is underrated but it works for me because it is the appropriate fantasy for a vulnerable voluptuous waif that I have always wanted to protect.   The man who takes her away from the real world is strong but stupid.  Only the idiot cowboy, Don Murray, will be able to provide a life of respect without molesting her unique female innocence.   ‘The Misfits’ is different.  It is overrated and plodding but it nags.   Even its opening scenes, where a stunning Monroe heads for the divorce court, convince us that she is simply too beautiful for any kind of life that makes sense.  Howard Hawks had his own view of the world and, although cynical, he could be described as an optimist.  His adaptation of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ is very different from the book by Anita Loos and nowhere near as witty but he accepts that the dumb blonde can triumph just like the male heroes of his action films.   All it requires is a world of stupid rich boys.  Hawkes makes sure that there are plenty in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’.   Maybe the film should be dedicated to George Osborne and David Cameron.  Now there is a thought.

The rise of feminism in the late 60s is a handy explanation for the appeal of Monroe to intellectuals but inadequate.  Norman Mailer was the first to insist Monroe biographyMonroe had significance for human understanding.   Mailer has had his moments and even when being absurd he is readable.  Norman Mailer, though, is no feminist although he was desperate to deify Monroe as a remote existential goddess.  Mailer was obsessed with the unique meaning of America, his troubled homeland, and he sought clues in the lives and appeal of Monroe and Mohammed Ali.   Considering the extent of his epic curiosity it is significant and sad that this literary giant never wrote a word about Elvis.

Monroe and Miller

Monroe and Miller

Monroe married an intellectual and she read James Joyce which must have helped.  She was always curious about intellectuals.  Not that Arthur Miller was any better than the rest.  Supposedly her relationship with the playwright began to perish after she discovered that Miller had written that he would only ever love his daughter.   By the time he was into his next relationship the words were in the public domain.  That relationship prevailed until his death and long after Monroe had self-destructed.  Men like her acting coach, Lee Strasburg, and her psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, rearranged their professional lives so that they could devote themselves to the icon.  Elvis had similar relationships with hairdressers, jewellers and, most famously, his doctor.  Hollywood money played a part but so did the presence of fame and the promise of consequence.   But, unlike Monroe, the intellectuals have mainly scorned Elvis.

Both Presley and Monroe had to make difficult choices that invariably sacrificed integrity and growth for success and money.   Monroe complained more than Presley.   She described the Western ‘River Of No Return’, which is actually not that bad, as unworthy of her.  She called it a ‘Z grade movie’.   Elvis said nothing about his troubles.  Monroe became difficult on the set and Elvis mumbled and froze.  In Hollywood, the two vomited frequently.   The pills contributed.  But despite the similarities, one still has a sense of woman being comprehensively used by men.  It is possible that Monroe had men on an assembly line ready to exploit sexually but nobody really believes that.  We Happy birthday, Mr Presidentimagine her being lied to and we sympathise with her misplaced dependency on her lovers who, as Miller later admitted, were simply overcome by lust.    The more powerful the men, the less they worried about their lust and her dependency.   Her treatment by the Kennedys is not important because it is exceptional.   It is more of the same deceit, just more extreme.   And Mailer is right.   There is something America defining about Monroe singing ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President’ at the birthday gala of JFK.   This is the evening when the arrogant and the powerful willingly shared the stage with a vulgarly dressed, drugged, overweight woman whose sacrifice would concern none of them providing that their secrets and impulses were kept hidden.   And, no, that sentence does not imply that her death was the consequence of conspiracy and murderous intent.   Neither was it accidental.  Marilyn committed suicide.  The sheer scale of the overdose is the ultimate evidence of her angry insistence on oblivion.  The coroner recorded that her dead body had forty to fifty capsules of the barbiturate Nembutal.  A murderer would have been more subtle.

The death of Elvis was like his career.  Without adequate support from others he failed to nurture himself and his talent.  He lost his grip on his life.   Perhaps there was no final self-destructive act but like Marilyn he was impatient for Elvis resolution.   The drugs escalated out of control and the result was waste, as it was with Marilyn.  Both could be stupid and brilliant.  Nobody who takes movies or music seriously would argue that either of them can be ignored.   Monroe is memorable in a film which is so brilliant that she could be excused for being anonymous.  As the girlfriend of Louis Calhern she steals scenes but more than that she defines perfectly not only the weakness at the heart of her sugar daddy but also what makes him sympathetic.   This was a difficult task but Monroe coped so well the world became instantly excited.  In the Henry Hathaway movie, ‘Niagara’, her sexiness is overplayed and absurd and she weakens the film.  There is one scene where the camera follows her walking away into the distance.  The actress, Constance Bennett, said, ‘There is a girl with her whole future behind her.’   Elvis provided the same uncomfortable mix.  Only a bigot, though, would ignore the classic records because of the existence of the dross.

But somehow the sympathy that is automatic for Monroe is withheld for Elvis.  Gender is important.   Most of the women Elvis slept with would have understood his intentions but he would not have had to taste condescension from his lovers.  That only came from the people who owned him.   He may have thought he was making music for his fans but really he was like Marilyn, singing for his supper at the dinner tables of the powerful.    The contempt Monroe experienced riddled her whole identity.  Elvis had more freedom but he still experienced the same contempt.  These two victims had to feed on it throughout their terrible lives.

If you want to read about Elvis, rock and roll and much more click here

If you want to read about Howard in Brazil click here.