Criterion Crash Course: Moviemaking Lessons From Criterion’s The Asphalt Jungle

Whether you’re a moviemaker, critic or devoted film collector, lovers of cinema can all agree: A Criterion Collection release is a stamp of cultural importance.

How can the arthouse distributor’s releases be used as tools to help independents hone their craft? Criterion Crash Course, our series focusing on new Criterion titles, considers every aspect of Blu-ray/DVD packages, from the film itself to its special features, as weapons in a moviemaking arsenal. Explore the moviemaking lessons from these packages—gifts that keep on giving.


The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

At the dawn of the 1950s, to see criminals at the movies was to see the figures that lurked in the shadows of American life come out to play. In the first week of 1950 alone, the IPA—that’s the largest police organization in the world known as the International Police Association, not the beer—was founded, and U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver called for a national investigation of organized crime. Audiences found vicarious thrills in the fact that the age-old cinematic cops-and-robbers trope was fast becoming contemporary cultural commentary.

Film noir historian Eddie Muller observes, in his exclusive interview on The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition of John Huston’s 1950 hard-boiled masterpiece, The Asphalt Jungle, that the film “compresses normal society and the underworld and shows the similarities between the two. The film doesn’t condone criminal activity, it accepts criminal activity.” Released amidst this climate of an increasingly normalized criminal underworld, The Asphalt Jungle is the result of Huston and co-writer Ben Maddow’s adaptation of work-a-day author W.R. Burnett’s original novel—the crown jewel of Huston’s many script doctoring jobs on Burnett’s ever-growing stack of crime fiction page-turners. For indie moviemakers, the film is a shining example of how a director-author pairing can tap into their story’s time and place by committing to a fine-tuned process of adaptation.

Criterion’s 2K digital restoration is packaged with a 2004 audio commentary by film historian Drew Casper, featuring archival recordings of actor James Whitmore; Pharos of Chaos, a 1983 documentary about actor Sterling Hayden; new interviews with Muller and cinematographer John Bailey; archival footage of writer-director Huston discussing the film; an episode of the TV program City Lights from 1979 discussing Huston; audio excerpts of an archival interview with Huston; and a booklet essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.

Lessons in Adaptation

Today, The Asphalt Jungle‘s band of outlaw misfits feel like a precursor to the gangsters who inhabit the cinematic world of Martin Scorsese—maladjusted sociopaths with a potent mix of charm and menace who find romance in banding together against the codes set up by law-abiding “everyday people.” With their introduction of “Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe)—who begins assembling a team for the jewel heist of a lifetime moments after being released from prison—Burnett, Huston and Maddow send a clear message to audiences that their story’s anti-heroes are unfazed by punishment for their misdeeds, never held back from persisting in crime by any sentence served. This narrative choice is a marked departure from such defining gangster films of the 1920s and ’30s as The Public Enemy, in which criminals were often softened and ultimately destroyed by their downfall, rather than emboldened after it had taken place.

Adapting this element of Burnett’s literature, Muller says in his interview, was natural for Huston “because he saw himself as an outsider. It’s an observation that [Stanley] Kubrick makes directly in The Killing, when he says, ‘Artists and criminals are the same.’ They’re outlaws in the culture, and that’s definitely how Huston saw himself. He may have been a successful guy and able to call all the shots, but his natural disposition and essential character was to see himself as an outsider who was battling against the establishment in Hollywood. That gave him an affinity for these types of stories, and his sympathy would always go with the underdog.” Moviemakers seeking to maintain a thematic continuity between their source material and screenplay through each phase of adaptation can learn to more effectively do so by understanding Huston’s innate connection to Burnett’s literary universe.

Left to right: Sterling Hayden as Dix Handley, Anthony Caruso as Louis Ciavelli and Sam Jaffe as Doc Erwin Riedenschneider in The Asphalt Jungle. Photo courtesy The Criterion Collection.

The dogged persistence of the criminal in a society that seeks to crush him is echoed strongly in The Asphalt Jungle‘s opening sequence (an iconic shot from which is featured on Criterion’s cover art.) In a series of wide-shots that pan across the film’s seedy Midwestern backdrop, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a human embodiment of a roach or rat who refuses to disappear from the city in which it dwells, scurries and hides behind walls from a surveying police car looking for his whereabouts. Huston’s large-scale yet casually deliberative shooting style, here, lends an air of neorealism a la Vittorio di Sica to The Asphalt Jungle, faithfully adapting the gritty authenticity of crime-riddled urbania that abounds Burnett’s body of work. A more talented novelist than he was a screenwriter, Burnett benefited greatly from relying on Huston and Maddow’s ability to articulate a fluid visual style in their for-the-screen treatment of his novel. Authors who have decided to entrust their source material with a moviemaker peer ought to bear in mind the humble approach Burnett took after recognizing that his novel, though substantive, required an additional layer of cinematographic concepts to make maximum impact as a film.

Special Features

Criterion’s package is well-rounded and exhaustive, and the disc’s new interviews with Muller and Bailey stand out as especially fresh and incisive.

Muller’s discussion of the Burnett family’s involvement in Democratic Party politics in Ohio emphasizes the extent to which Burnett “saw how machine party politics worked and how the gears moved in the system… especially in the ’20s, when crime was influential in Chicago.” His consideration of The Asphalt Jungle‘s atypically unflashy 11-minute heist sequence is instructive for moviemakers who seek to favor the tedium and minutia of criminal activity over its more glamorous highlight reel moments: “[Burnett and Huston] never rushed. They never pandered to the idea of ‘Let’s go, let’s make this more exciting and more suspenseful. Part of what Huston got out of Burnett is, ‘I’m not doing this for the benefit of the audience. I’m doing this for these guys in the movie.'” Both of these observations underscore the importance of each factor that influenced Burnett and Huston’s creative chemistry—specifically, how each informed their handling of a film that lived and died by how it handled its hefty ensemble cast.

Bailey’s breakdown of The Asphalt Jungle‘s “schizophrenic” shooting style, which cribbed from MGM studio musicals and the noir playbook of brooding light and shadow in equal measure, is a trove of technical and aesthetic knowledge from which cinematographers can learn how to bend and blend genres.

Casper’s assertion in his audio commentary track that audiences usually only understand about 40 percent of The Asphalt Jungle on first viewing is a testament to the density of the film’s literary content. Dubbing Huston the “resident existentialist” of his time in Hollywood, Casper’s engages with the absurdist tone that Huston often employed to deviate from studio convention. Among other things, his commentary is a useful tool for moviemakers who are planning to go toe-to-toe with the studio system to preserve the social and ideological consciousness of a film that executives may intend to filter for commercial purposes.

Somewhat disjointed from any cohesive contextualization of The Asphalt JunglePharos of Chaos is a raw glimpse into Hayden’s addled existence as an alcoholic. Perhaps most poignant about this slice of life documentary feature is Hayden’s belligerent recollection of his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, during which he incriminated some of his colleagues in the wake of the Red Scare. Again, echoes of the political atmosphere that permeates The Asphalt Jungle can be felt in such moments, and serve as a reminder to moviemakers of the way in which divisive periods of history can directly impact the lives and careers of creative professionals.

Though the disc’s archival footage is brief, its presence will please completionists who scour every source possible to find any material associated with the film’s reception and promotion at the time of its release. In both interview feature entitled “The Huston Method” and the City Lights episode, Huston reaffirms his insistence on being faithful to his screenplay’s novelistic blueprint, and reflects on the unassuming shyness of Marilyn Monroe during her audition process for the film, which marked her on-screen debut. Huston seldom misses an opportunity to be didactic when addressing moviemakers, and in these features he comes across as especially averse to the pitfalls of “overdressing” a film with background music and elaborate production design.

The Takeaway

Neither Huston nor Burnett saw style and substance as mutually exclusive when setting out to tell stories, be they literary, cinematic or both. Their faith in the idea that the three-dimensionality of the characters in The Asphalt Jungle would be fleshed out by their story’s spot on the timeline of an unfolding American century was unyielding. If the novel you’re reading ends up compelling you to adapt it for the screen, ask yourself what it says about our rapidly changing national body. Once you’ve figured out what the novel has to say, use the process of adaptation to determine how your own visual language can interpret the politics, poetry and power of its prose.

The Asphalt Jungle was released by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD December 13, 2016. All images courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

[i]
[i]