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Exploring Cracks in the Tarmac: John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle on Criterion

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By Tony Williams.

For the new set of John Huston’s bleak 1950 film noir The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Criterion includes a cover that reproduces a still from the film, rather than the company’s recent fascination with bad artwork design. This suitable choice of coverart reflects how this two-disc DVD edition is a worthy purchase for those who have not acquired the film before. The quality, as with all Criterion releases, looks superb and I will leave any explorations into this reproduction to my colleagues at DVD Beaver and other technologically critical sites. As usual I will instead review this DVD critically in terms of its comprehensive format that includes features in addition to the actual film. This edition offers a wealth of information that covers the film from all relevant aspects.

Accompanying the film is a very comprehensive commentary by Professor Drew Casper whose knowledge of his subject is always detailed and illuminating at its best. In the 2004 commentary included, he begins his analysis by pointing out that the average viewer only gets 40% of the film in a first viewing. This is as it should be since any worthy production necessitates constant viewing for real appreciation, as well as furnishing reasons for film critics and qualified professors in the first place. As the author of several books on cinema and a very dedicated and respected teacher, Drew Casper does not fail in drawing out the background and intricacies of this particular film. Rather than analyzing every scene in specific detail, he provides very important historical and industrial background material during his commentary that may be familiar to most of us but not to the average viewer and many film students today. Also inserted is archive commentary by the late James Whitmore. When Caspar chooses to explore the visual intricacies of each scene he operates at his best leading the viewer to discern the often subtle manner of Huston’s direction where every film he made “adopts its own look.”

asphalt-02As we know, Cahiers due Cinema never regarded Huston highly in its list of auteurs since he appeared to lack a distinctive sense of visual styl. But since we have long passed the days of “dividing the sheep” (auteurs) from the “goats” (metteurs en-scene) we are now much open to what Casper emphasizes as Huston’s more subtle form of authorship involving a “dramatic tension between irony and absurdity” operating here (as in many of his films as well as his distinctive mode of framing actors in “proxemic patterns” that stimulate the eye to work unlike most of today’s films). During his description, Casper aptly defines the film as post-classical. Despite being made by MGM, The Asphalt Jungle features not Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author but rather six different stories with each characters having their own back story in search of an equally elusive goal. Huston adds his own vision and sensibility to the caper story formula in both defamiliarizing it and personalizing it according to his own perceptions. Like Eddie Muller, the Czar of Film Noir, also featured on a 23 minute discussion on disc two, Casper notes the film’s influence on not only attempted Hollywood sequels but French, British, and Italian examples. Both critics emphasize the collaboration between Huston and W.R. Burnett, the author of the original source novel but never mention co-scenarist Ben Maddow. This is one of the commentary’s glaring omissions and could have been corrected if an updated commentary had been added to this DVD. Also, although not really essential, some mention should be made of Strother Martin’s presence in the film’s opening line-up. While now acclaimed as one of Sam Peckinpah’s beloved “rednecked peckerwoods” Martin went on to make three brief, but memorable appearances in Robert Aldrich 50s noirs such as Kiss Me Deadly (1955), The Big Knife (1956) and Attack (1956) before he fell “under (Sam’s) Western eyes.”

Significantly, only Geoffrey 0’Brien mentions Maddow in the accompanying booklet “A Left-Handed Form of Human Endeavor”. This eventually blacklisted talent who returned to Hollywood by “naming names” but who contributed pseudonymously to Anthony Mann’s underrated Korean War film Men in War (1957) is definitely a subject for further exploration. Interviewed by Patrick McGilligan in one of his many Backstory collections (Backstory 2, University of California Press, 1991), uncredited for his contributions to Johnny Guitar (1954), God’s Little Acre (1958), and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) but also writer, director and producer of The Savage Eye (1960) – a film Edward Hopper acclaimed as giving one of the truest visions of America on screen – Maddow’s possible contributions to this film are marginalized. Despite what Casper and Muller may believe, the screenplay may not be exclusively due to Huston and Burnett, especially since Maddow’s name appears first on the screenplay credit. This is something a future edition needs to correct if only to repair cracks in the tarmac of over-emphasis on director and original source novelist to the detriment of other talents working on a film that needs to be seen as a collaborative effort, like the team effort depicted on screen. However, unlike the diverse characters in The Asphalt Jungle, this form of collaboration is more successful.

Other DVD features are no less interesting. As on Criterion’s Cat People DVD feature cinematographer John Bailey contributes a very lucid and informative discussion on the work of cinematographer Harold Rossen as he did for Nicholas Musuraca on that earlier DVD. Unlike today, studios then assigned cinematographers to directors recognizing how important these talents were to making films successful and profitable at the box-office. Working closely with Huston, Rossen added many significant elements of “subtle visual depiction” of the dramatic movements of characters within the frame as well as their placement. As a result, The Asphalt Jungle is not only less expressionistic than most contemporary noirs but less claustrophobic. Bailey regards it as more of a dramatic character-driven film disguised as a noir involving collaborative synchronicity. As with his earlier contribution to The Cat People, Bailey’s 20-minute discussion is well worth the price of this DVD.

asphalt-03Other features are less essential. The brief promo by Huston, the edited Gideon Bachman audio-interview The Huston Method and that mostly vapid October 10, 1979 interview from the Canadian TV City Lights appear to be fillers designed to see how much material a DVD can compress. Yet, the most intriguing additional item on disc two is the 1983 119-minute, German documentary interview with Sterling Hayden (1916-1986), Pharos of Chaos, that follows this bizarre actor (who may have more claim to being regarded as an alternative axiom of American cinema than Charlton Heston). Filmed in and around Hayden’s barge located on a French canal, the actor appears deliberately perverse and sometimes informative acting like his own version of an elusive teasing Captain Ahab figure, articulate and enigmatic, creative and self-destructive clearly admitting his alcoholism and revealing that his enabler son saved him from drowning one night when he fell off his barge. He acts as a tantalizing and teasing, aged American Adam reveling in his eccentricity and alienation from American culture and society. Except for The Asphalt Jungle and Dr. Strangelove, Hayden regards his acting career as “shit”, a term he also uses to describe his HUAC testimony, “I was a shit, an absolute godamned shit.” Between 1951 and 1958, he admits he made six films a year so that he could eventually gain financial independence and sail away with his children on the Wanderer yacht he owned to fulfil his dream of returning to the sea. Well-read and literate, he often quotes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage (1878), his own novel Wanderer (1962) as well as mentioning the alcoholic aspects of his second 1978 novel Voyage: A Novel of 1896 that both exhibit his incisive understanding of the inequalities within American life that led to his brief membership in the Communist Party and his later Civil Rights Activism. These would be enough to describe him as a radical version of Emerson’s Representative Man but within him also was a self-destructive streak that not only appears in his role as Roger Wade in Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1974) but also one of the recurring scenes half-way through the film where he is seen calmly piloting a boat with a staff in the background against the foreground image of a threatening weir. Amazingly, he keeps his balance foreshadowing his later comments about Robert Altman instructing him into balletic movement on the film they worked on. The documentary forms six parts divided into days with the seventh becoming an epilogue since Sterling will never rest on that day – nor any other! – that ends both with recalling the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson and his final resting place at the top of a hill in Samoa, as well as his famous poem Requiem that ends with “Home from the Hill.”

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Contributing Editor to Film international, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor with Esther Yau, of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

2 Comments for “Exploring Cracks in the Tarmac: John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle on Criterion”

  1. Christopher Sharrett

    Tony,

    Thanks for insisting on the necessity of multiple viewings and revaluation, contra Pauline Kael and her ilk, who view cinema with such contempt they pride themselves for watching a film only once.

  2. Chris,

    Thank you. Another malign influence is that of Siskel and Ebert with their instant gratification/dissatisfaction of “Thumbs Up/Thumbs down. The pair did a huge disservice to film criticism in their time especially Ebert whose writings are at best, shallow, lacking any form of critical depth and persuasive evaluation.

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