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Category Archives: John Huston

The Asphalt Jungle

Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one’s all right, he turns legit.

It could be said that John Huston created the template for the private eye movie with his version of The Maltese Falcon; I think the same is also true of The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and the heist movie. In terms of plotting and development, this film lays out the pattern that almost all subsequent efforts have followed. Others have played around with the structure and characterization within this sub-genre, but the basic concept of a group of professional thieves assembling to plan and execute a raid before seeing everything fall apart remains the standard formula to this day. Aside from its influential status, The Asphalt Jungle is also a first-rate film noir and a compelling crime drama. Unlike Criss Cross or The Killers, the gang are not foiled by a scheming femme fatale or by having their judgement clouded by emotion. Instead, their downfall is hastened by mistrust born of greed and the little glitches that even the coolest planner couldn’t hope to foresee.

The credits fade from the screen and are replaced by a bleak, deserted and forbidding cityscape where a cruising patrol car prowls ominously. As it does so, a man keeps to the shadows and flits silently from one piece of cover to the next, like prey being stalked by a relentless hunter. The man is Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) and at this stage the only thing we can say with any degree of confidence is that he’s anxious to avoid a brush with the law. Later, we learn that Dix is what’s termed a hooligan, a low-class common criminal using violence and brawn rather than brains and finesse. Dix is the man we follow throughout the movie, and it’s by this means that we’re introduced, one by one, to all the major players in the drama: Gus (James Whitmore), the physically deformed wheelman; Cobby (Marc Lawrence), the bookie with connections in both high and low places; Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the ex-con with a big reputation; and eventually Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the big-time lawyer in need of money. When Riedenschneider emerges from prison with an apparently foolproof plan for a headline grabbing jewel heist, the scene is set for the paths of all the main characters to cross in a game of lies, betrayal and violence. By the time the end credits roll, a daring plan is hatched and put in place, enormous wealth is stolen, promises are broken, and men die abrupt and bloody deaths.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the film is the way the career criminals come across in a far stronger light than the traditional representatives of law, order and respectability. The Asphalt Jungle was made by MGM just as Louis B Mayer’s time in charge was drawing to a close. Apparently, the old mogul wasn’t the least bit impressed by what he saw as a movie peopled by a succession of disreputable types. The fact that the police are portrayed as oafish and corrupt, and that the patrician lawyer is in reality an adulterous confidence man must have raised a few eyebrows at the bastion of wholesome, all-American values that was MGM during the Mayer years. The inclusion of a crusading, moralising police commissioner (John McIntire) looks suspiciously like a sop to silence the protests of the outraged sections of the studio brass. If that was the intention, then I’m not sure it worked out – the almost insufferable, whiter than white sermonizing results in his becoming little more than a cardboard cutout compared to the complex and layered figures ranged against him. Frankly, there’s a lot of John Huston’s fondness for the perverse in this whole setup. The director had a great eye for skewed, noirish imagery throughout his career, and he was also drawn to those dramas that featured characters who were either flawed or were a step or two removed from the mainstream. The film is full up of perfectly realized scenes that highlight the twilight world of these off-centre people: the threatening opening, the charged atmosphere of the planning sessions in Cobby’s back room, and the cool detachment of the heist itself. The latter sequence, with its minimal use of dialogue is a wonderful example of extended tension. In fact, dialogue all through the film is treated as a precious commodity, every word being weighed and delivered to extract maximum effect so that even seemingly throwaway lines are actually loaded with significance. In a similar vein, the use of Miklos Rozsa’s score is rationed too, lending it greater impact when it’s finally allowed to burst forth during Dix’s frantic and fateful drive home.

Sterling Hayden’s performance as Dix is the glue that holds everything together and keeps the narrative focused. Physically, Hayden was ideal casting as the muscle of the gang, and his presence dominates every scene where he appears. His cocksure contempt for the trashy city types that circumstances have forced him to associate with is evident in his arrogant, swaggering manner around the other hoods. The only time he allows the mask of tough insolence to slip a little is when he’s alone with Jean Hagen’s Doll. This fragile woman seems to draw out Dix’s humanity and it’s her presence that encourages him to reminisce with a touching innocence about a happier, cleaner youth growing up on his Kentucky farm. Despite the strident claims of the police commissioner that Dix is a man without conscience or feeling, the viewer can clearly see that he’s an all too human figure. He may be hardened by the necessities of the life he’s had to lead, but the heart of a simple farm boy beats strong below the surface. Although Jean Hagen’s role may have been a small one she is spot on in her portrayal of a lonely and vulnerable woman adrift in the apathetic environment of the big city. The one thing that almost all the characters have in common is their desire to escape the stifling confines of their urban wilderness. Sam Jaffe’s Doc sees the heist as the ideal means to secure a leisured retirement in Mexico and Emmerich views it as an opportunity to dig himself out of the financial and personal wasteland in which he’s mired. Of course both these characters also share a fatal fondness for the company of young women, and that weakness is partly responsible for their coming to grief. Jaffe’s calm inscrutability was well suited to the part of the mastermind who comes to realize that even the most intricate planning and preparation can only take one so far, sooner or later the vagaries of fate step in and throw a spanner in the works. I don’t think I’ve seen Louis Calhern do anything better than his Lon Emmerich, a study in dissipated disillusionment that’s simultaneously sympathetic and repulsive. Huston often shoots him in close-up to catch the shifting emotions and self-doubt that are particularly evident in the eyes – a wonderfully subtle performance. I’d also like to single out Marc Lawrence, whose sweaty turn as Cobby, the real weak link in the chain, is a fine piece of twitchy character acting. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that although she’s prominently featured in the reissue poster I’ve used above, Marilyn Monroe has a relatively minor part in the movie.

The Asphalt Jungle is widely available on DVD from Warner Brothers, and the transfer on the US disc is especially strong. The image is clean and sharp, and the excellent contrast highlights the skills of cameraman Harold Rosson. The disc includes a commentary track by Drew Casper and James Whitmore, along with a short filmed introduction by John Huston. All told, it’s a very nice presentation of the movie and one that I have no complaints about. The film is a highly accessible slice of prime film noir, whose only weakness is the inclusion of the inserts involving John McIntire’s commissioner and his upstanding officers. These bland, colourless figures are an unconvincing addition, however, they do serve to emphasise the authenticity of the playing around them. This one is a great movie that can be viewed time and again without losing any impact. An easy recommendation.

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2012 in 1950s, Film Noir, John Huston, Sterling Hayden

 

Key Largo

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It’s hard to watch a film like Key Largo (1948) without being reminded of endings; it represented the final screen collaboration of Humphrey Bogart with both Lauren Bacall and Edward G Robinson, and it was one of the last movies he would make for Warner Brothers. Not only that, but it was also one of the last hurrahs for the old style gangster picture – but more about that later. It’s also a production that can be viewed from a number of angles: as a character driven drama, a gangster/noir mash-up, a commentary on the situation facing returning veterans, or as an allegory on fascism. Now this kind of multi-faceted approach can either lead to an unfocused piece or add to the rewatch value. I think the latter wins out here.

If the title and written prologue weren’t enough then the opening helicopter shot establishes the fact that the action takes place along the Florida Keys. As the camera zooms in on a bus making its way along the linking causeway we get our first glimpse of Frank McCloud (Bogart), a WWII veteran paying a visit to the relatives of a fallen comrade. McCloud’s destination is a hotel that, owing to the fact it’s the off-season, is virtually closed down. There is, however, one group of guests in residence when he gets there. None of these people seem especially friendly or anxious to welcome another visitor, and one of thier number, a Mr Brown, is conspicuous by remaining closed in his room. By and by, it emerges that McCloud’s companions are actually criminals, although that fact was unknown to the hotel owner, Temple (Lionel Barrymore), and his daughter-in-law Nora (Bacall). If McCloud had any suspicions, they are confirmed by the appearance of Mr Brown. Mr Brown isn’t his real name of course – he is one Johnny Rocco (Robinson), a one-time mob kingpin bent on rebuilding his criminal empire. At this point the already oppressive atmosphere grows heavier, both figuratively and literally, as an approaching hurricane threatens to tear up everything in its path. In the midst of all this, a duel develops between Rocco and McCloud – one that will finally be resolved on a motor launch bound for Cuba.

Reunited for one last time - Bogart and Robinson in Key Largo.

Key Largo was made at what was arguably the height of John Huston’s career, and its success is due to a combination of top class scripting (with Richard Brooks), photography, and acting. Bogart and Robinson occupy centre stage and their war of wills is what drives the whole thing forward. Eddie G’s Rocco is a devious and bullish creation, yearning for past glories that he must surely know in his heart are unattainable. Rocco and his cohorts are seen cowering before nature’s primal force and attempting to brass it out with a show of transparent bravado, pronouncing with unconvincing confidence that prohibition must surely come back and how things will be different this time. But these men are aware that they’re living out of time and it’s interesting to note that Al Capone, on whom Rocco was clearly based, was dead a year at that point. Bogart’s weary vet is one of his more complex characters, and could be compared to his Rick from Casablanca. Both men are initially reluctant to get involved or “stick their neck out” but do so eventually for the right reasons. The difference, however, is that Rick’s passivity was motivated by considerations of profitability whereas McCloud’s was the result of a deep disillusionment. That should have struck a chord with contemporary audiences: a whole generation of young men had marched off and risked their lives (and seen others lose theirs) in order to rid the world of oppression and fascism, only to return home and be confronted by a domestic version.

There are two key scenes that help define McCloud’s character. The first is a wonderfully photographed series of close-ups that show Rocco whispering suggestively into Nora’s ear (not a word is heard, but the inference is clear enough) before she spits contemptuously into his outraged face. With an unspoken dignity, McCloud moves across and quietly puts an arm around her shoulder before gently leading her away. I remember hearing Richard Brooks refer to this scene in a documentary as a moment of simple decency that everyone would like to emulate, and that’s hard to argue with. A similar situation takes place when Rocco humiliates his woman (Claire Trevor) by forcing her to sing unaccompanied as the price for the drink she craves. When he then goes back on his word, McCloud again does the right thing by pouring a whisky for the devastated woman despite the danger to himself. This is not a man who avoids confrontation due to cowardice or fear of personal injury but one who has grown apathetic and merely needs a prod to show his true colours. The aforementioned Claire Trevor deservedly won an Oscar for her role as the faded, alcoholic singer whose pride and self respect have been pushed into the background. That scene where she degrades herself in front of strangers through desperation is toe-curlingly effective and probably clinched the award for her. Lauren Bacall, in the only other significant female role, is much more subdued and is called on to do little more than gaze soulfully at Bogart. Of the four films Bogart and Bacall made together, this one is markedly different. The two Howard Hawks pictures had that director’s breezy playfulness about them, while Dark Passage was almost a study in bizarre coincidence. Key Largo has a grim, downbeat tone throughout that may surprise, or even disappoint, those hoping for a rerun of the couple’s previous work together.

Key Largo has been out on DVD for a long time now but the transfer still holds up well enough. I have the Warner UK version and the image is hard to fault, being pretty crisp all the way. I thought the dialogue levels were a little low but that’s probably just a feature of the film as there are a number of hushed conversations, and anyway Max Steiner’s atmospheric scoring doesn’t suffer. Extras are almost non-existent and are limited to the film’s trailer. The movie itself is a good example of how well Bogart and Huston worked together (it may come up wanting for those seekng out another Bogart/Bacall pairing though) and is the kind of picture that rewards multiple viewings. It gets the thumbs up from me.

 

The Unforgiven

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John Huston has to be one of my favourite directors but I’ve only just realised that, before today, I hadn’t written up any of his films on this blog. A quick browse through his lengthy and wide ranging filmography also drew my attention to the fact that he only made two westerns – I’m not counting The Misfits or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, although some probably would – and I thought that seemed a little odd. The Unforgiven (1960) is a movie that doesn’t get talked up very much (the director professed a dislike of it which may have hurt its reputation some) but I believe it’s worthy of a bit of attention. The movie derives from a story by Alan Le May (The Searchers) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, concerns the fate of captives. What makes The Unforgiven a little different is the fact that the abduction that forms the background is a reversal of the usual white child spirited away by Indians one. In this case the settlers have taken a Kiowa baby and adopted her as one of their own. This storyline offers the opportunity to examine the effects of racism not only within the community but within the confines of the family as well.

The Zachary’s are a close knit frontier family who, with the father dead as a result of a Kiowa raid, are held together by eldest son Ben (Burt Lancaster). He, with the help of brothers Cash (Audie Murphy) and Andy (Doug McClure), has been putting together a herd of cattle to send to Wichita and make their fortune. The family’s future looks secure and there is a chance of marrying the only sister, Rachel (Audrey Hepburn), into a neighbouring family of fellow ranchers, thereby cementing their partnership. However, the Zacharys’ dreams are built on shaky foundations and are soon to be swept away. Into their midst rides a mysterious old man (Joseph Wiseman), clad in a decaying Civil War uniform complete with sabre. In between quoting scripture he tosses out casual innuendo relating to a dark secret held by the Zacharys. Before long, Ben and Cash find themselves having to hunt down this otherworldly figure, knowing as they do that he intends to destroy them. This leads to one of the most memorable scenes in the film, as the two brothers chase their ghostlike quarry through a swirling dust storm – the old man seeming to appear and disappear at will, and then rushing out of the clouds of windswept sand with his sabre swinging murderously. Nevertheless, despite their best efforts, their nemesis evades them and poisons their neighbours and former friends against them. By the time the Kiowa turn up outside the sod covered family home demanding the return of what they claim belongs to them the Zacharys are about to tear themselves apart. Cash is an unashamed racist haunted by visions of his father’s death at the hands of the Kiowa, and barely able to contain his contempt and hatred for the red men. Therefore, Ben must prove himself the rock upon which the others can depend in order to weather the gathering storm.  

Under siege from within and without - The Unforgiven.

I’ve read that John Huston may have been displeased with the final product due to the fact that Audrey Hepburn later suffered a miscarriage, possibly as a result of a fall during production, not to mention that Audie Murphy almost drowned etc. Be that as it may, the film remains a solid, professional piece of work from Huston. He and DOP Franz Planer made excellent use of the wide angle lens to capture the scenery around Durango, and it contrasts well with the dark and claustrophobic interiors of the Zachary home. Apart from the aforementioned dust storm, the action scenes during the climactic siege are quite impressive. The cast as a whole acquit themselves very well, with Lancaster displaying his customary stoicism interspersed with the occasional witticism. Audrey Hepburn would hardly rank as anyone’s idea of a western heroine but I thought she was pretty convincing in a difficult role. Audie Murphy never gets a lot of credit as an actor but this movie, probably more than any other, shows just how capable he was. He invests the character of Cash with a simmering mix of conflicting emotions that enables him to steal almost every scene he’s in. Lillian Gish also has a high old time as the tough matriarch with a steely resolve, and has a wonderful scene where she sits playing the piano outside at night to counter the music of the Kiowa medicine men. Joseph Wiseman chews up everything in sight as the spectral (no pun intended) Abe Kelsey, a genuinely scary yet pitiful husk of a man driven insane by grief and a desire for vengeance on those he deems responsible for past wrongs.

Given the indifferent treatment MGM often handed their catalogue releases the R2 DVD of The Unforgiven is actually quite pleasing. It’s given a handsome anamorphic scope transfer that has little damage on show save for a bit of light speckling here and there. Since this film is not widely regarded as one of Huston’s greatest it’s no real surprise that the only extra available is the theatrical trailer. I think this movie has been unjustly maligned by many and, even if it never comes to be seen as vintage Huston, it does work well as a mature western that at least tries to tackle a complicated issue. All in all, I like it and feel the performances and photography are ample reasons to give it a go.

 
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Posted by on December 11, 2011 in 1960s, Audie Murphy, Burt Lancaster, John Huston, Westerns

 
 
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