The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
John Huston loved losers. While he worked in a range of genres and told all sorts of stories, he seems to have a had a special affection for the people who just couldn’t make it. Desperate prospectors looking to strike it rich. Cowboys trying to live in the past when the world was moving on. Fighters who kept climbing back in the ring after everyone else knew they were finished. Huston kept coming back to these people, following them as they lived their lives in the margins, fascinated by the way they kept hanging on after the world had given up on them.
Huston’s 1950 adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s novel The Asphalt Jungle is a terse and unsentimental look at a handful of thieves who plan a jewelry heist. But this isn’t a movie about criminals. It’s about people. These are guys who are trying to make ends meet, one way or the other. They may live on the wrong side of town, but they’re just trying to get by like anybody else. And as the story unfolds, we see that they’re not so different from the guys on the right side of town.
Huston doesn’t preach. (With one key exception, which I’ll get back to.) He just follows the characters as the heist unfolds, letting us get to know each of these men, allowing us to learn what makes them tick, what their frailties are. The director worked closely with screenwriter Ben Maddow on crafting the script. In his autobiography Huston says he had great respect for W. R. Burnett’s novel, and consulted with the author repeatedly while writing the screenplay.
The story centers on Dix, a tough guy from the rural South. He has fond memories of the farm he grew up on, but he’s filled with anger over the way that life was taken away from him. The jewel heist could be the big score that allows him to get it all back. The plan is set in motion by Doc, a courtly German immigrant who’s just gotten out of prison. Doc is the mastermind, the man with a foolproof scheme for the perfect job. On arriving in town, he immediately connects with an underground intermediary and sets about choosing his team and finding someone to front them the money they need to get started. The backer they find is Emmerich, a well-respected lawyer who’s having cash flow problems, which seem to be tied to his young mistress.
The Asphalt Jungle is filled with character actors you may have seen many times, but you’ve probably never seen them better than in this film. Cobby is your classic simpering gangster tool, but Marc Lawrence makes his weakness seem all too human. James Whitmore and Anthony Caruso are both in fine form playing ordinary guys who are just trying to make living. To them the jewel heist is just a job. Jean Hagen’s performance as Doll is impressive in its directness. She doesn’t hide behind mannerisms or theatrics. She seems totally vulnerable, completely exposed. It’s a moving performance. Veteran Louis Calhern plays Emmerich, the crooked lawyer, with a degree of polish that speaks of his many years of experience on stage and screen. To put it simply, he’s a total pro. But he also lets us see the cracks in the smooth veneer, the brief hesitations where we glimpse his fear, the deep sadness in his weary eyes. In contrast to this seasoned pro, Emmerich’s mistress is played by newcomer Marilyn Monroe in her first significant role. She’s fine, but she doesn’t make much of an impression here. You don’t get a sense of the personality that would make her a star just a few years later.
As Dix, Sterling Hayden is forceful and intimidating. In this film just his presence on the screen creates tension, in large part because of the anger burning inside him. It doesn’t take much to set him off. The threat of violence is always just below the surface. This makes for an interesting contrast with Doc. Sam Jaffe plays the older man as a thoughtful, businesslike planner, who (almost) never acts on impulse. The actors have an excellent rapport, and this makes their friendship believable. In spite of their profession, they’re both men of honor. They both have a code.
Huston respects these men, regardless of their faults. They may live by a different set of rules than you and I, but they do have a set of rules, and Huston doesn’t care which side of the law they’re on. Which is why the Commissioner’s stern speech to the press at the end of the film, where he lectures them on the importance of law enforcement, seems so completely out of place. The scene was so out of character for Huston that I wondered if he’d been pushed to insert it by the studio, possibly to counter the film’s portrayal of a crooked cop. But a look at the pages in the director’s autobiography that deal with The Asphalt Jungle don’t reveal any mention of studio interference. Whatever the reason for this scene, it’s a sharp departure from Huston’s usual perspective, and to my mind it’s the film’s only real flaw.
But in scanning Huston’s autobiography, I found out that he did run up against the censors on another scene. When everything comes unravelled and Emmerich is facing arrest, he decides to end it all. Huston initially had him going to his study, pulling out a gun, and blowing his brains out. But depicting a suicide onscreen was not allowed by Hollywood’s production code, unless the character was mentally ill. In order to appease the censors, Huston tweaked the scene to show Emmerich sitting down at his desk, starting to write a suicide note, tossing it away, starting another note, tossing it away, and then finally just pulling the trigger. This satisfied the censors by indicating that the character was unstable, and they gave it the go ahead. The way the scene plays out is a classic example of Huston’s laconic, hard-nosed approach, and he actually felt the changes made it stronger. We see a tight shot of the desktop as Emmerich makes his first, then his second attempt to leave a suicide note. Then his hand reaches into a drawer, removes a gun, and a second later we hear it go off. This one brief shot is an intimate glimpse of a desperate man’s last moments.
One of the ways Huston avoids sentimentality is by keeping the music to an absolute minimum. Miklós Rózsa’s score is limited to brief cues at the beginning and the end. The film has a spare, stark quality to it. Certainly most of it was shot on sets, but Harold Rosson’s visuals give the impression that the run down diners and cheap hotels are defined by whatever light happens to be in the room. And the people are defined by the rooms they occupy. The art direction, by Randall Duell and Cedric Gibbons, gives every space a distinct character, from the bare walls and wooden chairs of Cobby’s office to the lush comfort of Emmerich’s home.
Huston may be telling the story of a handful of criminals, but really he’s letting us take a look at ourselves. These men may be on the wrong side of the law, but they’re trying to find the same things we’re all looking for. They want to pay off their debts, buy a piece of land, escape to a place where life is easy and the sun is always shining. And they make terrible mistakes, because, like us, they’re blinded by pride, overconfidence, and greed. Huston would probably be the first to admit he was guilty of all three of these sins. Watching the films he made about frail, fallible, foolish people, we may end up thinking about our own lives. All our dashed hopes. All the mistakes we’ve made. All our plans gone wrong.
The Other Side of the Wind
Citizen Kane was one of the movies that made me aware of movies. I’d seen hundreds of them, but I’d never really thought about who made them. I’d never really thought about what those words “directed by” meant. Suddenly all that mattered was the director. And Orson Welles was the director that mattered most to me.
Not too long after watching Kane, I was talking to a friend and mentioned that I’d seen it. She said she had a book on Welles, and offered to give it to me. I was thrilled. I hope I thanked her profusely. It was Joseph McBride’s critical study, simply titled Orson Welles. I took it home and started reading it immediately.
One of the most interesting chapters in McBride’s book is the one where he describes his first encounter with Welles. They met for lunch one day, and the next thing McBride knew he was acting in the director’s latest project, a film called The Other Side of the Wind. The details were sparse, but I was thrilled to know that Welles had something in the works. I couldn’t wait til the day when The Other Side of the Wind would be released.
That was around 1972. Welles died in 1985. At the time of his death, The Other Side of the Wind was still unfinished.
I’ve been dying to see this movie for decades. Every so often something would happen to raise my hopes, but nothing ever materialized. Welles recieved an award from the AFI in 1975, and it seemed like his luck might be turning. During the program they actually screened clips from The Other Side of the Wind. I was knocked out. A few years later I saw Welles in person at the DGA, and he showed some more footage. I’m sure he was hoping that one of the industry insiders in the audience would come forward with financing. Didn’t happen. Then after Welles’ death, I’d read things from time to time about how someone was trying to rescue the film, about the bizarre legal tangle that it was ensnared in, conflicting accounts about how much of the footage Welles had actually assembled before his death. It was all very discouraging.
Finally, earlier this year, it was announced that a deal had been made. Royal Road Entertainment had obtained the rights to the footage. Peter Bogdanovich and Frank Marshall would be involved in producing a final cut. Initially, I was ecstatic. My enthusiasm dissipated as I read more, because I realized that Welles had only managed to complete about forty five minutes of a work print. Bogdanovich and Marshall were going to try to assemble the rest.
I don’t mean to say that I don’t trust these guys. They’re both intelligent men with years of experience in the industry, and they both worked with Welles during the filming of The Other Side of the Wind. In fact, Bogdanovich plays a leading role. They’ve also shown their dedication to this project by pursuing the footage for years.
But Welles had an extremely individual approach to editing. In fact, there’s no one else you can even compare him to. The cutting in Citizen Kane looks pretty sophisticated for 1941, but it was only the beginning. If you look at Fake?, which the director made toward the end of his career, you’ll see that Welles had developed an extremely intricate approach to editing. In bringing together footage from a number of different sources, he gleefully plays with space and time, creating a vivid and witty collage. In the clips I’ve seen from The Other Side of the Wind, Welles seems to be continuing in a similar vein, a style you might call fluid fragmentation.
My point being, Welles had a totally unique approach to editing. To make it even more challenging, there was no final shooting script for The Other Side of the Wind. McBride quotes Welles saying that he had written a script that would run for nine hours. He ended up discarding it, and decided to improvise based on what he knew about the characters, This doesn’t mean he had no idea where he was going. I’m sure Welles had the arc of the story clearly laid out in his own mind. But, as close as they were to the director, Bogdanovich and Marshall don’t know what was going on in his head. And while they apparently have access to a script Welles wrote, it’s apparently not the kind of shooting script that would give specific guidance.
And even if they had something that specific to guide them in dealing with the visual side of the film, there’s still the aural dimension. Welles was unique among filmmakers, because before he ever set foot in Hollywood, he’d spent years in radio. In terms of sound, Citizen Kane was by far the most intricate and innovative film Hollywood had made at that time. In later films like Touch of Evil, The Trial, and (even with it’s technical deficiencies) Chimes at Midnight, the use of sound is incredibly subtle and expressive. Approximating a Welles soundtrack would be difficult enough under the best circumstances. But the director relied heavily on looping during post-production, and this requires having actors available for re-recording dialogue. Many of the actors who appear in The Other Side of the Wind, including the star, John Huston, are dead.
I realize now that I’m never going to see the film that Welles envisioned. At best, I’m going to see an approximation. While I know that Bogdanovich and Marshall will do everything they can to honor the director’s conception, whatever they come up with will be their best guess. This isn’t meant to be a criticism. I’m really grateful to them both. It’s just a fact. As talented as they are, they’re not Orson Welles.
I read that Royal Road is planning to have the film ready by the one hundredth anniversary of Welles’ birth, which will be in May, 2015. This sounds like a nice idea, but honestly, I think it’s completely unrealistic. Lacking a shooting script, it could take months for them just to construct an outline to guide their work. Editing the footage in a style that approximates Welles’ approach will be a daunting, time-consuming task. And assembling a soundtrack that comes anywhere near the richness and complexity of the director’s work will be incredibly challenging. We have to remember that Welles usually spent months, sometimes years, editing his work. With all respect to Bogdanovich and Marshall, the idea that they could complete their work by next May seems difficult to believe. While I can certainly understand the desire to have the film ready by Welles’ one hundredth birthday, it seems like it might be better to let them take whatever time is needed to get it right.
I was also wondering if anyone had spoken to Walter Murch. Having worked on the reconstruction of Touch of Evil, Murch has had hands-on experience in assembling Welles’ work. He not only understands images, he understands sound. As an editor with decades of experience, it seems to me his assistance would be invaluable.
Even with all my reservations about this project, I don’t mean to be cynical, and I wish everyone involved all the best as they undertake this monumental task. I’m sure everybody agrees that the most important thing here is to honor Welles’ intentions. I’m really glad this is moving forward, and I know there a thousands of people like me who were rejoicing at the news that a deal had been signed. Here’s a link to the New York Times article that appeared just after the announcement was made.
Orson Welles’ Last Film May Finally Be Released
Profuse thanks to Royal Road, Peter Bogdanovich, Frank Marshall and everyone else involved in the long, difficult struggle to bring The Other Side of the Wind to the Screen. Whatever they come up with, I will be standing in line to see it.
Moby Dick (1956)
You really can’t put a book like Moby Dick on the screen. There’s no way to duplicate the experience of reading Melville’s words and being drawn into the ecstatic chaos and the terrifying poetry of his world. But John Huston was never one to shy away from a challenge, and in fact, he seems to have enjoyed taking on projects that tested him. If his version of Moby Dick isn’t completely successful, it’s still a beautiful and powerful adaptation that preserves much of what was most important in the book.
One of the problems in making a commercial film from Moby Dick is that it’s less a novel than a cosmic meditation on God, man and nature. There’s very little plot. At the beginning an innocent young man gets on a boat with a crazed captain in search of a white whale. At the end they find the whale, the boat is destroyed, and the young man is left floating in the middle of the ocean. In between, Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, offers his musings on life, death, the ship, the sea, and endless ruminations on whales.
Huston hired Ray Bradbury, who at that point had never written a screenplay, to fashion a script from the book. While the two men had great admiration for the other’s talent, apparently they didn’t get along at all. The experience was a traumatic one for Bradbury, but for the most part Huston was very pleased with his work, and the finished product gave the director an admirable adaptation to start with.*
There are moments in the film that capture Melville beautifully, and one of them is the opening sequence where we see Richard Basehart as Ishmael, strolling through the countryside, following the course of the water as he makes his way to the shore. Basehart was the perfect choice for the central character. He keeps us with him all the way, Ishmael playing the fascinated witness to Ahab’s monstrous madness. Basehart is surrounded by a marvelous supporting cast. On his arrival in New Bedford, the young sailor is greeted by Stubb, and Harry Andrews plays the veteran seaman with a vigor that is both intimidating and ingratiating. Orson Welles delivers Father Mapple’s sermon about Jonah with a sober gravity and a heartfelt humility that serves as the perfect prologue to this story of a man who dares to defy God.
Many people have criticized Gregory Pack’s performance as Ahab. Huston defended Peck, and I have to say I side with the director, though with some reservations. I think Peck has all the steely resolve that Ahab should have, and he is convincingly commanding as the captain who seduces his crew into following him to the gates of hell. On the other hand, I feel that there’s a certain weight or depth that’s missing. I don’t know if I would say that Peck is miscast. The role must be incredibly difficult to play, and there are probably few actors who could really take it all the way.
Opposing Ahab is Starbuck, and Leo Genn plays the part with impressive conviction. Starbuck is the voice of morality, a humble man who believes that in doing their work the whalers are serving humanity and serving God. Genn does a fine job of portraying the chief mate’s conflicted feelings as he slowly realizes that the captain has no interest in anything except pursuing the white whale. Starbuck is a Quaker, but he is so deeply disturbed by his captain’s conduct that he finds himself contemplating mutiny, and eventually murder. It’s a striking performance that’s easy to overlook, because the actor is so completely immersed in the role.
Oswald Morris, the tremendously gifted cinematographer who shot the movie, says that Huston wanted to recreate the look of nineteenth century steel engravings. After extensive tests, Morris hit on the idea of desaturating the color image and adding a grey image over it. This approach imbues the film with a dark beauty, giving the sailors’ faces, the weathered boat, and the glowering sea a grim, storybook look. The score by Philip Sainton is good and supports the drama well, but it is the source music, the various songs sung by the crew and the townspeople, that bring us into this peculiar world of whaling towns, whaling boats and whaling men. There is the wild dance at the New Bedford inn, accompanied by a boisterous accordion. There is the solemn hymn sung by the church’s congregation as the prelude to Father Mapple’s sermon. And there is the ringing chant that the whalers shout out as they row steadily towards murder or death. This is the music that these people sing in celebration and in sorrow, the music that is woven into the fabric of their lives.
Huston does a magnificent job of portraying both the wonder and the terror that must have been inextricably intertwined on a nineteenth century whaling ship. The director was an adventurer himself, and was constantly searching for projects that would challenge him and challenge his audience. This didn’t always work out. It’s not easy to combine action with introspection, especially when you’re shooting on the ocean in bad weather and the budget is spiraling out of control. I feel like the final sequence, the whalers’ attack on Moby Dick and the murderous revenge he takes on them, goes by too quickly. Huston has written about the extreme difficulties that his crew had filming at sea, and it’s possible they couldn’t get all the footage they needed.
In the end it doesn’t matter whether Huston pulled it off completely. At its best the film is so rich and so powerful, so subtle and so complex, that it seems foolish to complain of its faults. Most commercial filmmaking is based on familiar formulas because it’s easier to turn a profit when you play it safe. Huston didn’t play it safe. He was always ready to take a chance, and often found himself out on a ledge, dancing on the brink. For an artist, that’s not a bad place to be.
Years later Bradbury wrote a short teleplay titled The Banshee, which is based on his stormy relationship with Huston. It’s both creepy and funny, and Peter O’Toole is devilishly perfect as the autocratic director, whose name happens to be John.