[Cinema Sunday] ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ – Early Marilyn Monroe Classic

Asphalt Jungle
“Haven’t you bothered me enough, you big banana-head?” – Angela Phinlay.

As the weather fluctuates across the country, it’s almost as if the forces of nature are inviting people to stay indoors and relax. As Marilyn Monroe month continues, this week will be covering a different sort of film that Marilyn starred in. To that end, the year being visited will be 1950. During this time, President Harry Truman ordered the development of the hydrogen bomb, the Peanuts comic strip along with lead character Charlie Brown debuted in 7 national papers, and the Rodgers/Hammerstein musical Carousel opened at London’s Drury Lane Theater. In June, John Huston’s noir/crime film Asphalt Jungle opened in theaters, and with it came another step on Marilyn’s road to stardom.

John (left) and Marilyn on set

John Huston was a directorial legend in Hollywood, responsible for helming films like The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Moulin Rouge. Working alongside some of the biggest names at the time, John’s specialty was in directing noir pictures such as Asphalt Jungle, and with this film he took things in a different direction…by portraying criminals as sympathetic, simply going about their work like anyone else does at a profession. A theme that reoccurs, however as in his other films, is that the protagonists inevitably fail in their endeavor. Despite the failure of the plot’s criminals, one success did come out of it all, further elevating Marilyn to stardom.

In 1950, Marilyn was still a long way from becoming the hit star and queen of the screen. Asphalt Jungle was her sixth picture, but it is the one that got her noticed by studio heads. One of eight starlets up for the role, it seemed like it would be the end for her movie career due to John not seeing her “fitting the bill” as Angela Phinlay. Thanks to the intervention of MGM’s chief Louis B. Mayer and hair stylist Sidney Guilaroff, she was given another screen test and the part of Angela was hers. While the role is not big and glamorous like her later ones, there’s a great deal of dramatic acting involved. Particularly her final scene when she breaks down before Louis Calhern and John McIntre’s characters. It is safe to say that Marilyn’s future was secured thanks to this small part.

(Left to right) Louis Calhern, Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, Sam Jaffe

The movie’s main cast consists of many big Hollywood names, including Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, and Sam Jaffe. It’s the kind of cast for a noir/crime film that makes one yearn for more work like these in the modern age. However, thanks to the work of John Huston and the actors, actresses and other parts of the production, this will remain forever a beloved movie.

At the time of its release, Asphalt Jungle killed it at the box office. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote:

This film, derived by Ben Maddow and John Huston from Mr. Burnett’s book and directed by Mr. Huston in brilliantly naturalistic style, gives such an electrifying picture of the whole vicious circle of a crime—such an absorbing illustration of the various characters involved, their loyalties and duplicities, and of the minutiae of crime techniques—that one finds it hard to tag the item of exhibition repulsive in itself. Yet that is our inevitable judgment of this film, now on the Capitol’s screen.

It may be that there are other films out there of the noir/crime genre that have a bigger pull then this one, but there is something appealing about it. Not merely its story or main players, or even with a name like John Huston in front of it. No, for this, its appeal lies within, with Marilyn. She helps drive the story along in her own way, and because of her skills as an actress, this would lead to bigger and better characters. Every person on the road to fame has their Eureka moment. It is that window of time that allows them to be noticed by the big shots who make the wheels run. If it weren’t for Marilyn’s talents and the support from Louis B. Mayer, viewing audiences might never have been treated to such memorable performances from her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Some Like It Hot. Therefore, all due deference must be given to the production and for what it did in giving the world Marilyn Monroe.

While it’s cold outside, people’s hearts can be warmed this month while watching Marilyn movies. Her riles are always spectacular, with lots of heart put into them. Even such a performance as Angela Phinlay brings with it dedication and skill and that has afforded Marilyn the elevated place in Hollywood’s night sky that is hers. After all, everyone got their start somewhere in life and those starts needed to be remembered and recognized for the contribution to success. Make it a point to enjoy Asphalt Jungle this Cinema Sunday, it is a treat that cannot be missed out on.