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.
In the twenties, Charlie Chaplin was sitting on top of the world. An international star and owner of his own studio, he had complete control over the films he made. Chaplin worked at his own pace, taking as much time as he needed to get things right. He might spend days on a single scene, and if later he decided it wasn’t right, he’d go back and shoot it all over again. If he felt like he needed a break in the middle of shooting, he’d shut the production down and go back to it when he was ready to resume. I can’t think of another commercial filmmaker who had the same freedom.
Chaplin started out making shorts in the teens. His early efforts were rough, but by 1920 he’d mastered the medium, and it’s important to understand what the medium was in those days. In the silent era, commercial filmmaking relied on characters that were easily recognizable stereotypes, and stories that were told in the clearest possible terms. Without dialogue to help define more complex characters and situations, filmmakers had to use a visual language that was simple and direct.
When Chaplin came on screen as the Tramp, audiences recognized the character immediately. He was the little guy, the ordinary fellow who didn’t want any trouble, and spent most of his time just trying to get by. Put him next to a burly roughneck or an elegant society woman and the situation was clear right away. Without a word being spoken, it was easy to see he was either dealing with an antagonist or an aristocrat, and audiences would naturally be rooting for Chaplin, the underdog. The plots were just as simple, setting up blunt contrasts between love and hate, kindness and cruelty, selfishness and self-sacrifice. They appealed to the audience’s most basic emotions, and at their best, the silent films of the studio era had a primal power that was irresistible.
City Lights is one of the prime examples of this kind of filmmaking. The story is real simple. The Tramp falls in love with the Blind Girl who sells flowers on the street. When he finds out she needs money, he (sort of) steals the cash to help her out, but ends up going to prison for the crime. You can’t get much more melodramatic than that, but Chaplin uses this soap opera storyline to create a film that’s funny, beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking.
These days there are lots of people who complain that Chaplin’s work is too sentimental, and even in his own time there were critics who held that view. All I can say is, it works for me. If I thought that he wasn’t sincere, that he was just trying to manipulate the audience, then I’d be angry at this fraud who was tugging at my heartstrings. But I think Chaplin absolutely believed in the world he created on the screen. Not to say that he believed it was realistic, because he certainly knew that his movies relied heavily on artifice. The reality he was reaching for was an emotional one. Even if the situations were sheer fantasy, Chaplin tried to make the emotions ring true.
One of the reasons Chaplin was so good at putting us in touch with his characters’ feelings is that he understood the relationship between the performer and the camera. For his comic scenes, he spent endless hours shooting rehearsals so that he could fine tune every gesture, making it fit precisely within the frame. The sequence where we see him gazing at the statue in the store window is a classic example. The whole thing is shot from one angle, but it’s absolutely the right angle. Chaplin shot reel after reel of rehearsals, slowly working out a subtle choreography that can wring laughs out of the smallest gesture. In the scene where he meets the Flower Girl, played by Virginia Cherrill, it starts out sweetly charming, then there’s a sense of wistful longing, and suddenly we’re laughing at a slapstick gag. Chaplin accomplishes all this with the simplest set-ups, but he always makes sure that the camera is positioned to pick up everything the actors are doing. It’s not just the expressions on their faces, it’s the way they stand, the way they walk, the way they move their hands. The storyline may be pure melodrama, but scenes like this are a subtle, complex dance.
City Lights shows how completely Chaplin understood silent filmmaking, but he never figured out how to deal with sound. His art was built on the poetry of popular melodrama. The images were so simple you didn’t need words. When he finally started making films with dialogue, the words seemed like excess baggage, weighing everything down. He certainly has some interesting things to say in movies like The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux, but in those later efforts it seems like he’s trying to explain himself, rather than trusting us to understand. In City Lights he doesn’t need to explain anything. We don’t have to hear what Chaplin is saying. We can feel it.
Jean Renoir was not cut out for Hollywood. Like many European directors fleeing the Nazis, he landed in LA around the beginning of WWII. And like many European directors fleeing the Nazis, he found himself faced with a choice between working on genre films or hardly working at all. He made a few movies that more or less fit the standard Hollywood mold, but that wasn’t really what he was interested in. The studios wanted movies about gangsters, dancers, cowboys and comedians. Renoir just wanted to make movies about people.
In 1944 he got his chance, but it didn’t come easy. According to the AFI web site, Renoir was not interested when he first read Hugo Butler’s screenplay based on the novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand by George Perry Sessions. But he must have seen possibilities in the project, because he ended up rewriting the script himself. Having signed Joel McCrea and Frances Dee for the leads, producers David Loew and Robert Hakim arranged distribution for the film through United Artists. But when McCrea bailed out because of creative differences, UA wanted to bail, too. Loew got them to reconsider by threatening to withhold other productions that the distributor was interested in. Zachary Scott and Betty Field stepped in to replace McCrea and Dee. And Renoir began shooting the film that was eventually titled The Southerner.
You can find a few different stories in The Southerner, but really it’s just about a family trying to scrape by living on the land. At the start of the film, Sam and Nona are picking cotton on a plantation, barely making enough to get by. Sam makes a deal with the boss to take over a nearby farm that’s been lying fallow for years. The film follows the Tuckers as they clear the land, plow it and plant it, always struggling to overcome the obstacles that life puts in their way. Instead of inventing an artificial plot to give the film structure, Renoir allows the passing of the seasons to give The Southerner its rhythm.
Apparently the director had wanted to shoot in Texas, but ended up having to find the locations he needed in California. Cinematographer Lucien Andriot’s handling of the natural light shows both sensitivity and subtlety. We can feel the heat beating down on Sam and Nona as they’re sweating in the dusty fields. We can see the sky reflected in a placid lake as Jot goes wading by the shore. And while there’s a fair amount of studio work, the sets blend almost seamlessly with the real locations. Production designer Eugène Lourié, a longtime collaborator of the director’s, not only makes the Tuckers’ scraggly house seem a natural part of the landscape, it also feels completely lived in.
The film has a wonderful ensemble cast. Charles Kemper disappears into the role of Sam’s amiable friend Tim. Veteran character actor Beulah Bondi is in fine form as Granny. If she’s cranky and difficult, it’s because life hasn’t been easy. Her face and her body appear to have been worn away by the elements. The child actors here don’t seem to be acting at all. Jay Gilpin and Jean Vanderwilt are surprisingly unselfconscious as the Tucker children, Jot and Daisy.
But the movie is centered on Sam and Nona, played by Zachary Scott and Betty Field. They’re an idealized vision of rural Americans, simple, hardworking people who just keep moving forward no matter how hard things get. Usually Hollywood turns characters like these into tedious clichés. Here Renoir uses his gentle, unforced approach to put this humble couple at the center of his poem about the rural South. Betty Field plays Nona with a straightforward simplicity that’s easy to take for granted. I’ve seen the film a number of times, but it’s only recently that I began to appreciate how good her performance is. Field had a long career on stage, screen and TV, but she never called attention to herself or her work. As a result, she was overlooked during her lifetime and now she’s pretty much forgotten. As Sam, Zachary Scott seems like an agreeable, easygoing guy, but there’s a toughness beneath the surface that gives the character strength. Scott was an intelligent, versatile actor, who, like Field, seems to have faded into obscurity. It’s too bad. They both deserve more attention.
While Renoir felt that The Southerner was the best of his American films, it’s never gotten the attention that his earlier work received. These days it’s fallen into the public domain. It’s available on DVD, but the quality isn’t great. My guess is that the distributor started with a faded sixteen millimeter print. This movie deserves better. I have no idea how many prints are out there, or what condition they’re in, and I know restoring and remastering a film can be costly, but I wish somebody would put together a quality re-release of this movie. The Southerner has been neglected for far too long. Won’t somebody adopt this beautiful orphan?
I have no problem with recent 2D films being converted to 3D, as long as the director approves. If James Cameron wants to re-release Titanic in 3D, that’s his business. But Victor Fleming and his numerous collaborators have been dead for many years, so there’s really no way of knowing whether or not the original creators would approve of this update.
It’s not just The Wizard of Oz I’m worried about. The thing that really concerns me is the precedent this sets. If the 3D Oz is a success, does this mean studios will start a stampede to do the same thing with other classics? I’m thinking back to the eighties, when companies were colorizing movies for release on video. Isn’t this the same thing?
If the theatrical re-release of Wizard of Oz in 3D makes a lot of money, what’s next? Lawrence of Arabia? 2001? Psycho? And now that technology has advanced to the point where 3D is available on home video, does this mean we’ll see “enhanced” versions of The Maltese Falcon? The Searchers? Rebel without a Cause?
Does anyone else see this as a problem? And if so, should we be doing something about it? I wonder if the DGA has this on their radar….