Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #29: Noir City (Opening Scene of The Asphalt Jungle)

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The opening scene of this "unnamed city" in The Asphalt Jungle sure looks like Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. Bunker Hill was a very popular location for its seedy and rundown ambiance. Many noir films used Bunker Hill locations - Criss Cross, Joseph Losey's 1951 remake of M and Kiss Me Deadly, just to name a few, quickly come to mind. Sadly, the "old" Bunker Hill is long gone as it has been transformed into downtown LA's sleek and modern high rise district. 

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The opening scene of The Asphalt Jungle definitely uses many familiar techniques of film noir.  A desolate place in which we see a single man walking down the street clearly hiding from the police.  We also know a crime has been committed by the use of the police radios talking about a suspect they are looking for.  Clearly a great way to end our course on the study of film noir and the "heist" of the studio system with films about heists.

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I think the unnamed city works in that it attaches itself to the viewer in an immediate way in that it can be anyone's hometown or nearby city. It also connects with postwar america in that many returning form the war saw burned out and tough cities. so the idea of a ragged city connects with them. The unnamed city also detaches the cast and crew from filming in a familiar surrounding. In this way it appears that the characters are in a gritty and familiar place and not one that is familiar or known.

 

I think the title comes form the fact that it is set in a city where the mentality is kill or be killed. It's a survival of the fittest as each day brings a new struggle.

 

Some of the noir flourishes show here include the us elf jazz in the film as well as the way it uses edits and dissolves. Also the idea of having a character begin a frame by moving towards the front of the camera, but not directly in front of it. So basically dix is walking to us and then off to the side.

​The use of moving vehicles and following motion is also a common noir element. the opening also has a retro feel to it in that it feels like a noir films form the 40s as opposed to 1950.

The heist film is in a way a continuation of the noir theme. Postwar America had a lot of people whip needed to make a buck and a lot of people were down on their financial luck so this film resonates with that aspect of the cultural context of the times.

The fact that Dix is an ex con could be impotent as is the fact that he escaped form prison. Basically Dix has a past that could be deemed suspicious and unsavory. His background could be good fodder for character development.

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Several posts have suggested how the Huston's quasi-documentary depiction of the unnamed city gone to seed recalls the early neorealist films in postwar Italy. I think that's an excellent observation. I love these discussion boards and the way they help me think about the clips!

 

In the Italian movies (Bicycle Thieves, Open City, Germany Year Zero, etc.), we get a sense that some of the social forces that provided the foundation for life in these cities are suddenly laid bare in the blasted and crumbling ruins through which the characters move. It's as if institutional corruption and progressive ideals were both mixed into the mortar of the buildings and then plastered over and ignored. The corruption and the ideals of prewar Italian society seem to seep out of the blasted rubble of these buildings.

 

I think we get a similar sense of seepage from the opening of Asphalt Jungle. Only instead of social ideals and corruption, its more a matter of moral & psychological ideals and corruption. Out of the rubble in this seedy industrial part of town, we see forces of conscience and desire laid bare and put back into circulation.

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The Dark City, Noir City, Urban Jungle, Asphalt Jungle all common vernacular for the urban landscape which conjure the image of the seedy, dark ally, industrial rundown side of urban society, which is the quintessential setting associated with films noir.  These unnamed cities were as rich in the landscape noir filmmakers like Houston and Mann needed to set the grimy, claustrophobic, maze like environment the protagonist and supporting cast inhabited and often mirrored in their performances and the noir narrative. 

 

I think it is telling that one of the other great film movements of this era was the western and how it utilized the wide open expanses of monument valley or the rocky mountains as its landscape.  I think both movements portray America's fear of urbanization.  The urban setting of so many great films noir reflects America's direct fear while the western its longing for the open spaces urban living leaves behind.  In Drew Casper's Post War Hollywood from last week he speaks of the growing suburbs in post-war America, he writes "suburbia approximated the serenity, spaciousness, and greenness of country life". A western out the back door and the dark city out the front.

 

In this opening scene Sterling Hayden reminds me of a rat trapped in the urban maze scuttling about looking for safety. I don't see the low-key or high contrast lighting nor the dutch angles.  Instead he builds a maze of square columns and overhead wires while the patrol car prowls about, before pouncing on our rat.

 

Notice Sterling Hayden never proclaims he's innocent.  That immediately tells us he's guilty.  Everyone knows he's guilty. The line-up is a joke Hayden is 1/2 a head taller than the other two men and is apparently the only one wearing the correct clothes.  Yet he' successfully intimidated the victim and isn't fingered. Houston has identified our protagonist to us in a few short minutes of film and leaves us waiting to learn more.

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Which would be vagrancy, what were the rules in that city at that time?

 

Being an "unnamed Midwest city," we can't say for sure. But I'd imagine that a lot of cities would have had laws against not having a legal residence, and perhaps also laws requiring proof of employment/source of income.

 

These days, based on what I've read, these laws have been spread out into laws that generally work more against homeless people than vagrants. Loitering, being in a park after dark, etc.

 

I feel like police often have a handful of vague charges that can be used to arrest people they don't like or suspect may be up to more. And, when in doubt, some officers (please note that I'm not rampantly anti-police or anything, but these abuses do happen) have definitely used bogus charges of "resisting arrest" or "assault on an officer" when other charges aren't usable.

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He was looking right at a witness and giving him the death stare.  It's a good thing that someone can pick someone out of a line up today behind protected glass.  To have to identify a criminal up close like that, especially someone who isn't afraid to kill, had to be utterly terrifying. 

 

There is no city name given.  Dix and this incident can be anywhere in the world.  The films title says that the city is it's own kind of jungle.  There are predators and prey in a city as there are in small towns and suburbs.  Everywhere you go in a city, there is action.  There is good happening and bad.  Either Dix was asked to do something or he decided to do it.  By that I mean, he could have been paid to hit someone or he went after someone who crossed him.  Perhaps the reason why the café owner helped him by hiding the gun, is he also has some role to play in what event took place.  He may have a stake in the outcome. 

 

Each of the films have some of the classic ingredients of film noir in them.  While one film showed these elements in a rather bland fashion, the rest of the opening scenes still kept to the mystery of noir films.  In Beware my Lovely, the noir element of punishment and fear of that punishment, either for some crime truly committed or one being blamed on an innocent, come about half way through the opening scene.  It's not an obvious noir film right from the start.  In Asphalt Jungle, the noir element of mystery, questions needing answers, detectives trying to find those answers and bring peace out of chaos, are all in this opening.   

 

We learn that Dix is a career criminal.  He has a record and because of that he will no doubt be on police radar for a long time.  The officers don't find his gun, but they take him in anyway as he fits the description of the suspect.  Other than the police car, there is only Dix on the street.  It looks like either early morning or afternoon.  And there should be more cars and people out on the streets, but there isn't.  It reminds me of the film The last Man on Earth.  For all the audience knows, Dix, the police and then the café owner could be the only people living in this Asphalt Jungle.  It's hard on the feet.  Nothing very natural or colorful.  And with crumbling buildings around, there is even more debris for Dix to traverse than only pavement.  He doesn't take a usual path to this café.  Dix goes down alley ways, keeping away from sight.  Unfortunately, he is spotted and hauled in.  I enjoy Sterling Hayden.  He can be a hero or a criminal easily. 

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The opening scene to this movie really epitomizes film noir. The style and substance - police radio as narrative; diagonal lines to the shots; wide angles; small town america as evidenced by the diner; seedy, gritty, depressed. Dix appears to be feeling down and out, perhaps resigned to his fate. Very existentialist.

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Traversing the dangers of the urban jungle:  A diner with a loaded cash register

The Asphalt Jungle utilizes this unnamed Midwestern city by making it anonymous in showing streets, buildings, and railroad tracks that could fit any Midwestern city.  Just like the unnamed city, Dix wishes to remained unidentified or anonymous to the police and its stool pigeon witness.  For a gambler and criminal like Dix, remaining anonymous is key to succeeding in a heist.  The local diner where Gus presides can seem like any number of diners across any unnamed town.  It is brilliant the way Gus  (James Whitmore) hides the gun in the cash register and then conveniently turns up the radio to drown out the interrogating voices of the police officers.  The movie is named The Asphalt Jungle given that the criminals hunt and are hunted in an environment that has no vegetation, only cement and asphalt--a truly urban wilderness where survival of the fittest is based on mental cunning.

 

The Asphalt Jungle displays the film noir characteristics through the shapes of the landscapes:  archways, long columns (for hiding spots), parallel lines of raliroad track and pavement, diagonal camera shot as Dix walks into close view, urban settings with diners and police stations.  We as viewers see the lonely man attempting to evade the law, then being captured and put under the glare of a police station lineup.  Dix maintains his quiet demeanor while underneath we sense his simmering temper.

 

These opening scenes of the urban landscape, the diner, and the police station give the film viewer an intuitive sense of the plot that will unfold:  a man in the lam, associations with the diner who will cover for him, and the possibility of punishment for his lack of conformity to the acceptable standards of society (having a job).  We have the indication that Dix has already experienced prison time but is willing to risk it one more time to get his playback.  He is fully intimidating to the police witness (Frank Cady) as he stares down this meek clerk in order to move on to his last heist.

 

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The opening scene of The Asphalt Jungle definitely uses many familiar techniques of film noir.  A desolate place in which we see a single man walking down the street clearly hiding from the police.  We also know a crime has been committed by the use of the police radios talking about a suspect they are looking for.  Clearly a great way to end our course on the study of film noir and the "heist" of the studio system with films about heists.

 

The desolation you mention is what really struck me about this clip. Other than Dix Handley and the police car playing a game of hide-and-seek, we see no other people until the 1:30 mark. And the city is clearly unforgiving with its bland landscapes and no signs of real life or joy to speak of. That kind of desolation and isolation really reminds me about our discussions on existentialism and that we are alone. But the clip makes some interesting turns and leaves me with more questions than answers, specifically, who is this guy and what kind of power does he actually hold? 

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Just for fun!

 

Speaking of jungles.

 

The song It's a Jungle Out There by Randy Newman is the score for the TV series, Monk. Around 2003 or so.

 

Adrian Monk is a character who suffers from multiple OCD habits, which were triggered by his wife's murder, and is played by Toni Shalhaub. His OCD is so debilitating, that he has trouble going out in public as well as just getting on with his daily life.

 

I quote Wikipedia: "The lyrics allude to Monk's plethora of fears and warn that some degree of cautiouness and attenton is necessary to stay alive, given everyday life's many dangers".

 

I am sure some of you will recognize the series and the score. The series was a comedy, but, at the same time, could be very poignant.

 

I thought I'd throw it out there and create a little bit of a lighter mood.

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Speaking as an attorney doing criminal law, this is a horrible lineup. There are only three people. One of them (the short guy) doesn't match the description at all. The witness is being intimidated overtly by the cop telling him who to ID and covertly by the protagonist giving him the evil eye. I haven't watched the movie yet so I don't know if the protagonist committed the crime, but this is the kind of lineup that could easily produce a false ID.

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I agree with the idea that the city itself is a character in The Asphalt Jungle. The notes indicate that this opening sequence was filmed in Cincinnati, but with the rubble strewn back streets it is reminiscent of the post-war ravage Vienna that we saw in The Third Man. Very effective use of daytime, outdoor shots to evoke the feeling of a place where law and order don't apply.

 

The "unnamed city" in this film noir, The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is a 'character' which encourages crimes to be committed.  Its stark and bleak setting with deserted ruins invites doom and desolation.  The film is aptly named to imply uncivilized, unlawfulness and a violent struggle for survival such as in a jungle but made of brick and mortar instead of trees and plants.

 

 

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I feel like the shadowing of the beginning adds to the idea of the city being a character within the film instead of the setting. The audience watches the police enter this dimly lit dinner and follows the action to the police line-up where more light is used, but it seems to add to the tension. You can clearly see the anger in the questioning policeman's eyes and the stress on the man looking at the line-up

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Stark, intense, lonely, brimming. Everything you want in a film noir. One of the best. Fabulous pick! Sterling Hayden is one of the greats. Equal parts sympathetic and bitter. Love the subtle gun hand-off. The brokenness of the alleyway seems to pierce and mirror the heart of our anti-hero. Light without hope is still darkness.

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Wow! This was definitely not Louis B. Mayer's MGM. I don't think he was on board with this new trend. If he even had any say at this point.

In substance and style, with John Huston behind the camera, it's a stark, gritty portrayal of an urban landscape that gives one a sense of unease.

Some really nice outdoor filming adds realism. In this scene, the unnamed city with it's look of desolation, even abandonment, conveying a sense of fear and danger are possibly what led to the title "The Asphalt Jungle" 

Sterling Haydon's glare and scowl are menacing. I wonder if he did it in one take? Did he come up with it on his own? It's been a long time since I saw this movie. I'll try to watch it again this weekend hopefully. Based on the film clip, this might be one of the best films noir. And maybe the best heist movie ever made.

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Discuss how this film depicts and utilizes this "unnamed city." Additionally, why do you think the film is entitled "The Asphalt Jungle?"

It looks like just a normal street.  Normal day.  I am thinking that the Asphalt Jungle is another team for Mean Streets.

Describe the film noir characteristics, in both style and substance, of these opening scenes.

It has the tough police detective and starts off with a lot intrigue. 

Why are these opening scenes an interesting choice for a "heist film?" What are we learning about one of its major characters (Dix) that might be important for later in the film (and I'm not asking for any spoilers, just character insight)?

 That he might be dangerous.

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-- Discuss how this film depicts and utilizes this "unnamed city." Additionally, why do you think the film is entitled "The Asphalt Jungle?"

Asphalt is what the streets are paved with. The streets are the pathways both for trying to hide from something and also to enable the police to locate someone of interest. We frequently hear, "it's a jungle out there."

 

-- Describe the film noir characteristics, in both style and substance, of these opening scenes.

The film noir characteristics we first hear is the police radio as the police are scouring the city. It feels like a voice over. Then the sound level builds up as if something is going to happen. The alleys are dark and narrow. The lonely diner is a common film noir item.

 

-- Why are these opening scenes an interesting choice for a "heist film?" What are we learning about one of its major characters (Dix) that might be important for later in the film (and I'm not asking for any spoilers, just character insight)?

From the clip dialog, it sounds as there was a robbery last night. This sets the clue that Dix may be involved. Dix handed a pistol to the diner owner for safe keeping. Is the owner involved too.

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Several stylistic elements of film noir are present in this opening sequence from John Houston's, "The Asphalt Jungle"- a long shot of an abandoned city street, a lone vehicle coming around a corner into the shot, a single figure who appears very small as juxtaposed against very high archways and tall pillars, some low camera angles are also employed, as well as a remote diner/café mise en scene. Houston depicts an area of an unknown city away from the hustle and bustle, there is no foot traffic save for one man, and there are no vehicles except one police car. In a jungle we have predator and prey, the hunter and the hunted. Here we have the hunters (police) and the hunted (Dix Handley). The jungle is a very hostile environment- only the fittest survive there. Likewise the city can be a very harsh and unkind environment as well, and people must compete daily for survival there. From the police radio we learn that a robbery has been committed, and from the description we learn that they are looking for someone who is armed and looks like the one figure on the street. When he enters a small café we see that he is in fact armed, and he gives the gun to the proprietor. When he appears in a police lineup for identification we learn that he has already done time for illegal possession of firearms, and that he also escaped from prison, and that he is from Kentucky. If someone were putting together a team to pull off a heist, a guy like Dix with firearms experience and a prior record would be a likely candidate.    

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1.)   The film depicts this unnamed city as appearing almost bombed-out. We see scenes of streets littered with debris.  In fact,  the city almost resembles scenes of bombed-out European cities in other postwar film noirs such as The Third Man.  Huston utilizes this city in decay as the background of a character who may also be in some decline or decay.   The title The Asphalt Jungle suggest  a hybrid of jungle adventure story (like Tarzan) and a gritty urban thriller.   The title suggest that this burnt-out unnamed city is akin to a jungle existing within an urban landscape.

 

 

2.)  The city shown is a urban cityscape based on an existentialistic view;  we see a city that is dark, decaying, morose, depressed with a characters who appears to feel the same wandering through it. the character Dix appears to be in some trouble as he enters the diner and asks the owner to hide his weapon.  He is a disintegrating individual existing in what appears to be an equally disintegrating and disoriented world.   The film shows postwar economic effects on US city. Some cities flourishing in America while others have infrastructure decay. We learnt hat Dix appears to be able to get himself out of trouble with the police quickly and has  a lot of power to influence people to help him.

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Hello, I'm posting my responses later than usual due to a very busy week.

 

The term "Asphalt Jungle", to me, describes just how wild and predictable urban life (or a city in a film noir) is. One particular shot of Sterling Hayden going down the street reminded me of Bicycle Thieves. So far, this noir has crooked cops, a hard-boiled protagonist (Sterling Hayden), and potentially mistaken identity. I recorded this on TCM when it played before the Summer of Darkness, so I will have to give this a watch.

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Personally I always get the title of this movie mixed up with Blackboard Jungle. 

 

I have too! And I get THE ASPHALT JUNGLE confused with THE KILLING quite a bit as well, though I think there's an argument to be had that Kubrick meant for his film to be a reimagining or followup to ASPHALT.

 

Visually, I always thought this opening sequence was reminscent of the TOUCH OF EVIL outdoor set near Grande's "office." Well, given the timeline, TOUCH OF EVIL is reminiscent of ASPHALT.

 

The look on Strother Martin's face when he's in the line-up cracks me up every time.

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A jungle is a frightening place because of the unknown, the multiple elements converged in a place you don't have control of things. You don't know where to go once you're lost in one of them; every way seems to be equally a bad choice. And the composition of the movie's first takes gives us that exact sensation - only that this 'jungle' is made by concrete and asphalt! Terrific title. The city here is as dark as the plot.

 

The first information we have about Dix is that he's hiding from the police for some reason. He's covered by the man at the cafe, and the victim let him go for some reason. We suppose here for sure that they will all be linked somehow in the future of the plot, but how? This plot construction is really common in noir. Besides that we have mystery, diagonal cinematography and a 'bad mood score'.

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This scene opens with the police car turning onto a deserted street as the music behind is suspenseful and the police radio is heard with dispatch calling different cars in the area to different crime events. There is no life evident except for the man seen walking alone. The streets are quiet and the camera shows him at a distance with a great arch behind him. The unnamed city could be anywhere. He hides behind a pole as the police car passes. He does not want to be seen, however he still seems nonchalant in his walk. We see the police car as it continues down the road and the dispatch tells of an armed suspect, tall man, Caucasian, wearing a dark suit." We hear the policeman's voice into the radio say, "Roger" and we know he was spotted as they make a U-turn and head back.

The man continues to walk through, unhurriedly down an alley with all vertical lines and no windows. It makes him seem very tall and very alone. The street looks like a European city after the war with rubble on the edges of the road. The buildings are very old and faded looking. He comes to a nondescript corner of a building that, in faded writing, says, "American Food..Home Cooking...café." The sign outside says, "Pilgrim House."

He walks in and the counterman, is smoking and reading the paper. He looks up and calmly takes the gun from the man and walks over to the register and puts the gun in. He turns up the radio as we hear the police car tires screech to a stop outside and two police come in. "Gus," they call him. They know this man well, but he refuses to answer their questions about when the man came in. "I don't watch the clock," he says. They threaten to search the place when they do not find the gun, but the counterman tells them they need a warrant. They take the man and the next scene is in the lineup where three men, including our man are lined up. Our man is almost 6.5 feet tall, The witness is clearly uncomfortable, and with Dix staring him down, refuses in the end to name him as the man he saw at a stick-up earlier. The policeman, who is bullying him for an answer, loses this round as Dix smirks to himself.

We can tell by this clip that Dix is a seasoned criminal, unafraid of police, but wanting to avoid capture. The counterman is in on whatever Dix is doing. The police know it. Their world is depressed, dying. The police are tough, but are no match for the stress of the realities of their world. There is no civilization - no connection to people. These are animals living by their senses and survival instincts. The Asphalt Jungle. The people in this movie are dangerous and their world is unforgiving, with places to hide that only the animals know about. The survival game is not about who is right or wrong or who is good and bad or on the right side of the law, but who is the most clever at not getting caught by whoever is hunting them at the time. It is all about survival of the fittest here.

The film noir characteristics are the camera angles that show the whole world in a skewed background. The lines of the streets vs the lines of the architecture, the shot of the police car taken from below and barely showing the men inside. It is as if the car is after the man, not men. The sound of the police radio also coming after him. The developing story is of a man who is wanted, an escapee, who has just possibly pulled off a stick-up and we are already aiding and abetting him as we watch him and start to hope he isn't caught because of our selfish desire to know more about him. We have become as complicit as the counterman.

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The Asphalt Jungle (1950) This "unnamed city" is depicted by using desolate locations & no regionalisms to help identify it. I love how it almost looks like a ghost town with no real character or feeling to it. Yet that feeling or emptiness creeps in to the psyche of the viewer.

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