Marilyn: Behind the Icon – The Asphalt Jungle,
Monroe’s Break-Out Performance
In April 1955, Marilyn Monroe appeared on Edward R Murrow’s television series Person to Person featuring celebrity interviews. From his armchair in a studio, Murrow conversed with Monroe, who appeared remotely from the living room of a Connecticut farmhouse owned by her business partner and his wife, Milton and Amy Greene. Monroe had fled Hollywood five months earlier to establish her own production company — Marilyn Monroe Productions — and to study The Method at Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio. “What the best part you’ve ever had in a movie?” Murrow asks. Monroe immediately references The Asphalt Jungle in addition to her latest role in The Seven Year Itch, a film she was promoting.
Five years before this interview and shortly after 20th Century-Fox Studio dropped her as contract player, Monroe dazzled critics for the first time in The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The MGM Studio’s Oscar-nominated drama was one of the most influential crime films of the 1950s.
The plot centers on a corrupt lawyer, Alonzo D. “Uncle Lon” Emmerich (Louis Calhern), who fronts an elaborate jewel heist executed by criminal mastermind Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) and a team of experienced thieves; Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), Gus Ninissi (James Whitmore), and Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso). While the robbery is precisely designed, a series of mishaps, including Emmerich’s betrayal, thwarts its success. Ultimately, each criminal succumbs to his inner weakness and faces prison or death.
Influenced by neorealism, director John Huston combined the naturalism of that genre with the stylized look of film noir & crime films. Huston was nominated for fifteen Oscars over the course of his five-decade career and won the Best Director and Best Screenplay statuettes for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). In the fall of 1949, he began production on producer Arthur Hornblow’s The Asphalt Jungle. Once a successful screenwriter for Warner Brothers, Huston had transitioned to directing with The Maltese Falcon (1941), followed by classics such as Key Largo (1948) and The African Queen (1951).
Angela Phinlay, Emmerich’s much-younger mistress, was a small but featured role in a major film with a veteran cast delivering strong performances. The character was significant in both the film’s plot and theme and had the potential to push Monroe into the limelight. She nearly lost the opportunity to portray Angela when Huston chose Lola Albright. Cher’s mother, Georgia Holt, had also auditioned for the role.
Working alongside Monroe’s agent, John Hyde, was Lucille Ryman, Monroe’s benefactor and — serendipitously — the casting director at MGM. Ryman reminded Huston of Albright’s recent success in the acclaimed Champion (1949) and the actress’s resulting increased fee. When Huston paused, Ryman recommended Monroe as a more affordable and equally effective alternative. Coincidentally, Huston’s gambling debts prevented him from paying his $18,000 bill for the boarding and training of his twenty-three horses at Lucille’s ranch. Allegedly, Ryman agreed to a payment plan contingent upon Monroe’s audition for the role. [
In preparing for her audition, Monroe rehearsed with her acting coach Natasha Lytess for three days and three nights, exploring the character’s inner psychology and relationship to the plot. “I played a vacuous, rich man’s darling attempting to carry herself in a sophisticated manner in keeping with her plush surroundings,” Monroe told columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. “I saw her as walking with a rather self-conscious slither and played it accordingly.”
With Monroe’s performance honed, Ryman called on Sydney Guilaroff, the studio’s official hairstylist, to lend his expertise. “I trimmed her hair carefully,” Guilaroff wrote in his memoir, “curling it under in the beginnings of a pageboy but leaving it free to move and shift with Marilyn’s motions. It was an original style, much shorter than the standard length at that time and structured to follow the contours of her face. It was the look that would help make her famous and become her trademark.” Ryman next called Louis B. Mayer, the head of the studio, to tell him that an important audition would take place the next Wednesday.
Monroe’s audition scene was her character’s introduction twenty minutes into the film. Emmerich stands above his young mistress as she naps on a sofa in an elegant striped pants suit, his expression a mixture of admiration and contempt. “What’s the big idea standing there staring at me, Uncle Lon?” Angela asks. He instructs her stop calling him “Uncle.” Sitting up, Angela seeks his approval by reporting she ordered the delivery of salt mackerel because he enjoys it for breakfast. “Some sweet kid,” Emmerich remarks in a soft voice.
Angela stretches and yawns. Emmerich mentions the late hour and suggests she go to bed. Angela leans over to kiss him goodnight, and he takes her in his arms, pulls her down onto his armchair, and kisses her passionately. Angela gently pushes him away and lowers her eyes from his. Monroe’s expression suggests the melancholy of a young woman being kept by an older man for whom she feels no passion. Angela slinks off the chair, pats his hand, and slowly walks across the room. The camera cuts to a long shot of Angela walking down the hall to her room and slowly closing the door as she shyly smiles at Emmerich. “Some sweet kid,” he repeats.
Monroe recalled trembling with fear when she auditioned for Huston. She had studied her lines the previous evening but could not relax. He invited her to sit on one of the straight-backed chairs in the room, but she asked to lie on the floor. Hoping to increase her comfort, she also asked permission to remove her shoes. Having been told Monroe was unusual, the request did not surprise Huston.
“When it was over,” Huston recalled, “Marilyn looked very insecure about the whole thing and asked to do it over. I agreed. But I had already decided on the first take. The part of Angela was hers.” She impressed him more off screen than on. “There was something touching and appealing about her,” the director remarked in The Legend of Marilyn Monroe. Monroe was convinced her reading was “awful,” but before she could apologize, Huston smiled and announced she had earned the part. He told she would probably develop into a very good actress, the goal to which she aspired.
When Monroe filmed the scene in the fall of 1949, she looked over Huston’s shoulder for Natasha Lytess’s approval. In the finished film, as she walks across the living room and off camera, Monroe can be seen glancing off-camera toward her coach.
Monroe played most of her scenes with 55-year-old actor Louis Calhern who portrayed Emmerich. In 1950, his career peaked with three exceptional performances: as Buffalo Bill in the musical Annie Get Your Gun, as Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and as Monroe’s sugar-daddy in The Asphalt Jungle.
In her second scene, Monroe wears a tight black dress with off-the-shoulder straps designed by Otto Kottke, a diamond necklace, and bracelet. “Uncle” Lon tells Angela that he will be busy with cases and offers to send her on a trip.
With girlish delight, Angela darts to her bedroom to retrieve a magazine advertisement for a vacation in Cuba and rests her head on his lap. Monroe makes the most of a few lines, which now appear dated by slang interjections of the era: “Imagine me on this beach with my green bathing suit. Yipes! I almost bought a white one, but it wasn’t quite extreme enough. Don’t get me wrong. If I’d gone in for extreme-extreme, I’d have bought the French one.”
A pounding on the door interrupts her excitement. Angela becomes frightened by the disturbance at such a late hour and asks “Uncle” Lon to see who is calling. Monroe completed the scene in one take. Her acting ability shines in this final sequence. The police commissioner and detectives have arrived at Emmerich’s home to present the signed confession of his accomplice and arrest him.
One of the detectives knocks on Angela’s bedroom door. When she opens the door, Monroe speaks in a natural voice. “Haven’t you bothered me enough, you big banana-head?” she booms angrily. “Just try breaking my door, and Mr. Emmerich will throw you out of the house.” Her posture is bold and determined.
When the detective announces the commissioner is ready to interrogate her, Angela’s anger turns to little-girl fear as her shoulders cave and she clings to the door- knob. In a slight, tremulous voice, she asks if she can talk to the detective instead. He gently advises her to comply by telling the truth. The policeman leads Angela by the arm into the living room where the commissioner stands over Emmerich as he calmly reads his accomplice’s confession. The commissioner interrogates Angela, who has provided her lover with an alibi, and threatens her with a jail sentence for perjury. She looks pleadingly at Emmerich, who directs her to tell the truth. Breaking down in to tears, Angela buries her face in her hands; the policeman leads her away to sign a statement.
Monroe satisfied Huston on the second take. Angela apologizes through tears as she grabs Emmerich’s hand. He assures that, all things considered, she did well. She asks about the status of their trip to Cuba. “Don’t worry about the trip baby,” Emmerich responds. “You’ll have plenty of trips.”
Monroe would cite her experience of working in The Asphalt Jungle as one of the most rewarding of her career. “I don’t know what I did, but I do know it felt wonderful,” she told Natasha, as told to Jane Wilkie in an unpublished manuscript. Cinematographer Harold Rosson, who had been Jean Harlow’s last husband, lighted and filmed Monroe beautifully.
In her first starring role, Jean Hagen is effective as Doll Conovon, the woman who loves Dix Hanley and remains at his side until the bitter end. Like Monroe, she is best known for comedic roles; Hagen was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
When The Asphalt Jungle premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on May 23, 1950, Los Angeles police officer James Dougherty served with a squad of other officers to restrain the crowds. He looked at the posters advertising the film and saw the image of his former wife, but she was not in attendance.
Photoplay lauded Marilyn’s enormous screen presence: “There’s a beautiful blonde, too, name of Marilyn Monroe, who plays Calhern’s girlfriend, and makes the most of her footage.” New York Herald-Tribune acknowledged Monroe’s performance as lending “a documentary effect to a lurid exposition.”
The next spring The Asphalt Jungle won four Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Sam Jaffe; Best Cinematography, Black-and White, Harold Rosson; Best Director, John Huston; and Best Screenplay, Ben Maddow and John Huston.
–Gary Vitacco-Robles for Classic Movie Hub
Gary Vitacco-Robles is the author of ICON: The Life, Times and Films of Marilyn Monroe, Volumes 1 & 2, and writer/producer of the podcast series, Marilyn: Behind the Icon.