Noir Nook: 10 Things About The Asphalt Jungle (1950) That You May Not Know
Of all of the noirs I’ve seen in my lifetime, one of the absolute best, in my estimation, is The Asphalt Jungle (1950). It has so much going for it – a stellar ensemble cast, hard-hitting dialogue, a simple but riveting story, and a perfect noir ending.
Helmed by John Huston, the film focuses on an intricately planned jewelry heist involving a motley crew of criminals. The mastermind is Erwin “Doc” Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe), who has recently been released from prison and is determined to carry out one last job. With the help of a skittish bookie named Cobby (Marc Lawrence), Doc assembles a team comprised of Gus Minissi, the getaway driver (James Whitmore), safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), and Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a “hooligan” to serve as the muscle of the group. Also on hand is Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), an attorney who’s responsible for fencing the stolen jewels. On the distaff side, we have Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen), who is hopelessly devoted to Dix, and Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe), Emmerich’s mistress (who creepily calls him “Uncle Lon”).
This month’s Noir Nook celebrates this first-rate offering from the film noir era by serving up 10 things you may not have known about this famous film.
1. The film received nearly universally rave reviews upon its release. However, notoriously acerbic New York Times critic Bosley Crowther still managed to throw some shade on the production. While acknowledging that director John Huston had “filmed a straight crime story about as cleverly and graphically as it could be filmed,” he maintained that the picture was “corrupt” because it encouraged the audience to “hobnob with a bunch of crooks . . . and actually sympathize with their personal griefs.”
2. Asphalt Jungle marked the big-screen debut of Strother Martin.
He would later appear in such films as True Grit (1969) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), along with a slew of TV shows, but he may be best known for telling Paul Newman that “what we have here is failure to communicate” in Cool Hand Luke (1969). An excellent swimmer and diver, Martin won the National Junior Springboard Division Championship at the age of 17, attended the University of Michigan as a member of the diving team, and served in the U.S. Navy as a swimming instructor during World War II. After he moved to California to become an actor, he worked for a time as a swimming instructor to Marion Davies and the children of Charlie Chaplin.
3. John Huston’s first choice to play the part of Angela was Lola Albright, who was not available.
In looking at her filmography, she appeared in five films in 1950, the year The Asphalt Jungle was released; perhaps this is why she wasn’t available. She is perhaps best known for playing singer Edie Hart, the girlfriend of TV private eye Peter Gunn.
4. The wife of Louis Ciavelli was played by Teresa Celli.
She was born Teresa Levis in Dysart, Pennsylvania, but her family moved to Italy after her father inherited an estate there. Teresa took her professional name from her great-grandmother, Duval Celli, an opera singer. While in Italy, Teresa was seen in both opera and dramatic productions. After her return to the United States, she made her radio debut on NBC’s Star Theater with Frank Sinatra, and her first appearance on the big screen was in the 1949 noir Border Incident. Celli was married from 1951 to 1965 to actor Barry Nelson; after The Asphalt Jungle, she appeared in only three more films.
5. The film earned four Academy Award nominations, for Best Supporting Actor (Sam Jaffe), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay for John Huston and Ben Maddow, and Best Black and White Cinematography for Harold Rosson. (Harold Rosson, incidentally, was the third husband of actress Jean Harlow.) The film was bested in every category – by George Sanders in All About Eve for Best Supporting Actor; Joseph Mankiewicz in All About Eve for both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay; and Robert Krasker in The Third Man for Best Black and White Cinematography.
6. Actor Frank Cady, perhaps best known for his role as Mr. Drucker in Green Acres, played a small role in the film’s first scene, where he is viewing a police line-up. He was also seen in small parts in several other noirs, including He Walked By Night (1948), The Crooked Way (1948), D.O.A. (1949), Convicted (1950), and Ace in the Hole (1951).
7. The score for the film was written by Miklos Rozsa, who also wrote the scores for such features as Spellbound (1945), A Double Life (1947), and Ben-Hur (1959). In Asphalt Jungle, however, his melodic composition was used sparingly and was only heard for about six minutes in the entire film.
8. Helene Stanley portrayed the young lady whose mesmerizing jive dancing leads to Doc Reidenschneider’s downfall.
Born Dolores Diane Freymouth, Stanley’s screen debut came at the age of 14 when she appeared in Girls Town (1942). She served as the live-action reference for Disney’s Cinderella (1950), Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Anita, the young wife in 101 Dalmatians. In a bit part in All the King’s Men (1949), she played John Derek’s girlfriend, who is killed in a car crash with the drunken Derek at the wheel. She has only two lines (“Come on, Tommy, let’s go faster! Come on!”), and then she’s seen lying on the side of the road after the accident. Stanley was also married to low-level mobster Johnny Stompanato from 1953 to 1955. Three years after their divorce, Stompanato was stabbed to death in the home of screen star Lana Turner. Stanley later married a Beverly Hills physician and retired from show business after the birth of her son in 1961.
9. The film was based on a 1943 novel by W.R. Burnett, who also wrote the source novels for numerous films, including Little Caesar (1931), High Sierra (1941), Nobody Lives Forever (1946), and Yellow Sky (1948).
10. Several internet sources, including the Internet Movie Database, state that Asphalt Jungle marked the big-screen debut of Jack Warden.
I beg to differ, however. Try as I might, on numerous occasions, I have never spotted him. Warden was, however, the star of the 1961 TV series by the same name. Also, there is an actor in the film – James Seay – who bears more than a passing resemblance to Warden. I suspect that the resources have either confused Warden with his association with the television series or mistaken him for Seay. Or possibly both.
And that’s it! I hope this list contained at least a few tidbits that you didn’t already know. Stay tuned for future Noir Nooks for trivia on your favorite noirs!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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