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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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Wonderful set-up for a wonderful film!   The opening well-suits the title, The Asphalt Jungle.   A lone figure, tall, rugged, roams a crumbling urban landscape beneath a dreary sky.  Railroad tracks, barren warehouses, ugly power stations and non-descript, run-down buildings comprise this landscape that's not quite big city and not quite small town...something nameless but all-too-recognizable in between.  

 

The lonely figure navigates the decaying back streets of this man-made 'jungle' that looms oppressively over him; avoiding a squad car that seems to labor going up hills, almost as metaphor for the job.   The description that we hear over the police radio fits the man we see, and the car retraces its route, as if realizing it may have just passed him.  

 

The man ditches his gun at a dilapidated diner; a well-rehearsed drill in keeping with an unspoken code with the proprietor, Gus, against a common enemy--- the law, the 'system' --- just before he's picked-up.   

 

Our loner next towers over poor Strother Martin in a police line-up, defiantly staring down and intimidating the one person who can identify him as part of a hold-up.  A sly smirk crosses Dix's face when the witness cowers and says it wasn't him.   

 

Dix Handley is a both predator and prey in this jungle.  He survives by virtue of his strength, will and street savvy.  He knows the lay, backroads and the ways of his terrain, knows when to be 'big' and when to be 'small', and he can get his point across without even talking.  

 

Like so many characters in noir, we identify with Dix despite knowing he's done wrong and will probably do wrong again.   We identify with his strength, his almost samurai-like adherence to a personal code, and his ability to survive in an openly hostile environment.  

 

The lighting and camera work heightens the sense of environment and surroundings dominating, almost victimizing the people who inhabit it.  There's less a stark contrast of light and dark here than there is varying shades of gray that muddles, obscures and corrupts everything and everyone we see.      

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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”?

 

According to IMDb, the opening scenes of The Asphalt Jungle were filmed in Cincinnati, Ohio, and that is precisely the sort of Midwestern noir city Greil Marcus had in mind in his comments about Iverstown.  Cincinnati actually does have a Camden Square, which is mentioned in the police radio chatter in this opening scene.  The clock in Gus’s café indicates that the time is about 5:30 in the morning, but I am still struck by how little activity there is on the streets.  The film uses older, decaying parts of this “unnamed city” as the milieu for the seamy underside of society – the criminal element, which tends to work behind closed doors, out of sight of law enforcement.  This is the opposite of a well-to-do residential area of the city; this is a mixture of commercial properties, railroad tracks, small manufacturing companies, and run-down residential buildings not far from the river.  Dix is virtually alone on the city streets at this hour looking for a safe place to hole up and trying to avoid the police.  When car 71 receives the description of the armed suspect who held up the Hotel de Paris, we know that the description fits Dix and the hunt is on.

 

To me, the jungle is a wild area teaming with animals struggling to survive.  It represents nature in all its cruel ambivalence: the survival of the fittest.  The city, by contrast, is the rational creation of man and should embody the best of human civilization.  The film’s title superimposes the metaphor of the jungle on the asphalt streets of an unnamed city, emphasizing that civilization of the city is a veneer covering what is actually a jungle of people struggling to survive and pursue their individual desires, more according to the laws of nature than the laws of man.

 

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

 

There is little in the way of chiaroscuro lighting here.  The exterior shots use day-for-day lighting with a gray sky, so the contrasts are not great.  The street scenes have lots of diagonal lines from the rooflines and curb lines of the buildings and from overhead wires.  The vertical buildings constructed on a sloping street create a sort of imbalance or lack of equilibrium.  The three exterior shots of Dix walking all have deep focus and a strong sense of perspective.  In the first one he appears in the distance as he rounds a corner and walks toward the camera as if he were emerging from the vanishing point of the frame.  He pauses to stand behind a pillar while car 71 passes by, then he continues across the railroad tracks toward the camera.  In the next two shots Dix proceeds away from the camera toward the vanishing point of the frame, first down a decaying row of buildings, then across an open area toward the door of Gus’s café.  The effect is that the lines of the frame appear to be converging on Dix as the only moving figure.  Throughout all three of these shots Miklós Rózsa’s score adds a mood of suspense.  In terms of noir substance, this is a lone lawbreaker traversing the metaphorical “asphalt jungle” while being hunted by the police.

 

In the scene in the café Dix and Gus exchange not a single word.  Gus calmly hides Dix’s weapon in the cash register and then thwarts the police by avoiding their questions and refusing to allow a search without a warrant.  Gus thus makes himself complicit and establishes himself as one of the morally ambiguous denizens of the “asphalt jungle.” 

 

The police lineup scene uses low-key lighting in the audience, deep focus, and close-ups.  Here we see two other marginalized inhabitants of the “asphalt jungle” standing in the lineup alongside Dix.  The scene serves (1) to show us how the eyewitness is too intimidated to identify Dix in person as the perpetrator of the hold-up, despite his own accurate oral description of the culprit and (2) to give the viewer back story information on Dix through the reading of his rap sheet.  Significant there is the fact that Dix came from Kentucky.  We know that Kentucky is a rural state famous for its bourbon and thoroughbred horses.  Without going beyond the scope of this opening scene then, we may begin to suspect that Dix, a man with no known occupation, is at heart a country boy who does not really belong in the city, that he may be alienated by the “asphalt jungle.”

 

– 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)?

 

What is missing in these opening scenes is any visual identification or even verbal description of what is to be heisted.  Nothing is dangled before the viewer as the potential object of a daring heist.  Instead, what we get here is the aftermath of a low-level hold-up:  the police find the perpetrator, but he will probably walk for the lack of a willing witness or evidence.  What seems interesting here for a “heist film” is the focus on the urban milieu from which the plan and the perpetrators of the heist will emerge.  The title might even imply a sort of sociological interest in the marginalized people involved.

 

See previous response regarding Dix’s background.

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“Jungle” calls to mind a dangerous place, full of wild, untamable creatures.  “Asphalt” is hard, mundane, and gritty.  Putting the two together creates a mental picture of a dark place, where concrete has replaced the trees and vines, and humans are the most dangerous predators.  It is not a place where the young and innocent can live safely.  These few minutes in the clip match the title perfectly.  Dix is being hunted by the police, who patrol the area much like one of the big cats would seek out its next meal.  He hides, but they eventually find him.  I find the alliance between Dix and Gus the dinner owner intriguing.  The police clearly know him, but Gus aides Dix.  Maybe because, as we see during the line-up, Dix is more dangerous to have as an enemy than the police are.  It might have been tempting to set this is New York or Los Angeles, but making it into a Midwestern town gives the setting a sense of everyplace that is further added to by the harsh realism of the cinematography.  This is, as Rockmetteller Todd would say, a “city without pity”.

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The town looks old, gray, grimy, run down, with its better days behind it.  The scene is stark and grim, with shades of gray, the police in the car and the fugitive in shadow;  an occasional archway, angles formed by the architecture and overhead wires--all of this is noir style. Where is everybody?  There's a feeling of loneliness, isolation, alienation, bleak despair, hopelessness, an asphalt jungle where everyone fights to survive without anyone to help.  You are on your own.

 

The scene is total different from the scene in Kansas City Confidential.  There we had a robbery done during the day with lots of people present, lots of police pursuing a getaway car.  Here we have an isolated fugitive on foot, being pursued by an isolated police car. No spectators....

 

Dix is a career criminial, although apparently not a very good one, judging by all of the time he's spent in prison.  He has connections in town, as shown by the lunch counterman hiding the gun without blinking an eye and then refusing to let the police search the shop.  It was like it was all in a day's work for him.....

 

The connections also seem evident because of  the robbery victim's fear of indentifying Dix as the robber.  When the victim refuses to indentify him, Dix gives a smile, indicating confidence in being able to put one over on the police, confidence that his connections will protect him.  We'll see....

 

 

 

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

 

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

I noticed two details about this urban landscape: (1) its decay and crumbling architecture and (2) the absence of pedestrians. Except for the police car and the suspect on the street, the city feels empty. It gave me the impression that nothing good is going on here and that a resident or a visitor could only expect crime. In fact, anyone found on the street must be doing something illegal! Crumbling architecture + crime = asphalt jungle. It’s an easy equation for me!

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

Noir characteristics, in substance: urban decay; empty streets; police radio barely audible over the opening music (because nobody cares in this city?); criss-cross patterns of the actors, police car, and the city streets (to give the feeling of being trapped?).

Noir characteristics, in style: documentary realism in the shots of the city; rough handling of both suspect and witness by the police; not-so-subtle intimidation by the suspect glaring at the witness, which we see in the editing between close-ups of the suspect and medium shots of the witness; the feeling of loneliness and apathy evoked by the empty streets and the decay all around.

• 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)?

Dix has a police record, one that is lengthy enough to prompt one of the officers to cut it short when a clerk in the witness identification room was reading it. And he intimidates the witness from a distance, from the lineup on the stage. He seems like the likely candidate for suspicion, for just about anything, when he’s not locked up. But this could set the viewer up for making assumptions that just aren’t true. It should be interesting to see what Dix is up to after he’s out on the street again.

 

By the way, were all suspect identifications done this way, with the witness in full view of the suspect? I’ve seen it in other films and television shows from the 1950s and 1960s. How did anyone ever finger the do-er with this method?!

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The town looks old, gray, grimy, run down, with its better days behind it.  The scene is stark and grim, with shades of gray, the police in the car and the fugitive in shadow;  an occasional archway, angles formed by the architecture and overhead wires--all of this is noir style. Where is everybody?  There's a feeling of loneliness, isolation, alienation, bleak despair, hopelessness, an asphalt jungle where everyone fights to survive without anyone to help.  You are on your own.

 

The scene is total different from the scene in Kansas City Confidential.  There we had a robbery done during the day with lots of people present, lots of police pursuing a getaway car.  Here we have an isolated fugitive on foot, being pursued by an isolated police car. No spectators....

 

Dix is a career criminial, although apparently not a very good one, judging by all of the time he's spent in prison.  He has connections in town, as shown by the lunch counterman hiding the gun without blinking an eye and then refusing to let the police search the shop.  It was like it was all in a day's work for him.....

 

The connections also seem evident because of  the robbery victim's fear of indentifying Dix as the robber.  When the victim refuses to indentify him, Dix gives a smile, indicating confidence in being able to put one over on the police, confidence that his connections will protect him.  We'll see....

I too notice how lonely this unnamed city looks as if it has been abandoned by all except the crooks and cops.  Kansas City Confidential in contrast is buzzing with activity.

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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?"

 

How many times have you heard or read, “It’s a jungle out there.”  You’re going to year it a lot more today.  Jungles are notorious fodder for story telling – full of dangerous animals, even more dangerous native tribes (especially if cannibalistic or worshiping strange large animals or Pagan Gods who horde treasure), and also usually host to adventurous white men (the big white hunter) along with even more deadly white men seeking not adventure, but fortunes through exploitation of the jungle.  The caption under the YouTube clip indicated this was shot in Cincinnati, but it could be anywhere  -- looked a lot like the Skid Row District in downtown Los Angeles, or Chicago, or New York.   Anywhere there are abandoned, run down, forgotten districts that look twenty years past their prime.  The electric streetcar (or electric bus) wires overhead are reminiscent of jungle vines clinging to the dense, overgrown bush.   The jungle is a cut throat world, ruthlessly playing out its game of survival.  “Normal” citizens do not enter. 

 

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

 

This scene reeks of film noir characteristics, starting with the police car patrolling the empty streets while the radio loudly broadcasts the police calls to the deserted streets.  Stylistically, the use of abandoned, desolate streets gives the feeling of lonely emptiness and the run-down buildings with their rubble still piled up against their walls a sense of abandonment and hopelessness. There is no music, only the police radio (the call of the jungle). The light looks to be early morning, adding to the eerie, stillness of the scene.  In substance, the police car and Dix are playing a game of cat and mouse (or hide and seek) throughout the grim emptiness.  Dix hides behind a pillar when he hears the police car, then walks at an angle from the left across the screen, disappearing on the right.  Right after that the police radio broadcasts a hotel hold-up and gives Dix’s description, “Tall, dark suit, wearing a wide brim hat”.  Dix walks to a beaten down café that looks like it’s been there since the Twenties, enters, and wordlessly hands his gun off to the man behind the counter (James Whitmore), who hides it in his cash register.  The café owner turns up the volume on the radio (as a warning sign?)  as two uniformed policemen enter and begin asking questions.  Dix says nothing, the café owner does all the talking to the police (clearly protecting Dix) but the police decide to take Dix in on vagrancy.  Next is the line-up, where the camera slowly pans across the faces (did you catch young Struther Martin?) to Dix, stoic, self-possessed, calm, and exuding a sense of danger.  He is staring directly at the witness, who looks like a frightened rabbit staring at a predator.  Dix’s silent message to the witness is, “Don’t do it.”  As soon as the witness balks and says he can’t identify anyone in the line-up, Dix slowly and subtly relaxes, and barely smiles, but it is a wicked, nasty smile, showing very little relief.  

 

-- 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)?

 

As I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that this opening could easily be the next episode from a prior heist, which it is, in a way, because Dix just committed a robbery.  The events that unfold during this scene reveal a native inhabitant of this particular jungle, one who knows his territory and his way around it.  He doesn’t just not show fear - he has no fear.  You know right away this is going to be one of the players in whatever it is that’s going to happen.   But you also realize he walks the razor’s edge, taking risks every day of his life and accepting the consequences.

 

This scene has a documentary (without commentary), realistic feel as the events play out in their inevitable matter-of-fact orderliness.

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It's been a long time since I last saw this film so I am going into this viewing with fresh eyes. This is a great film which has influenced other great heist flicks such as The Killing, Rififi, The Usual Suspects to name a few.

 

My initial thought was predator and prey, which makes the title Asphalt Jungle appropriate. The city is like a jungle with the predator lurking about and the prey hiding at every corner. The paved streets are the main trails and the mesh of cables above like that of a web. The taller buildings, the columns and alleyways provide a temporary refuge before reaching safety at a diner.

 

I loved how cool Gus (the diner owner) is as he hides the gun and puts the lawmen in their place demanding a warrant before they proceed with an illegal search and seizure. He's a pro at this and knows the drill.

 

Prey can also turn predator as Dix does during his line-up seen. His intimidating stare causes the accuser to renege on his suspect ID.

 

The absence of the city's formal name makes the point that this could be Any Town, USA.

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This desolation of decay and abandoned buildings, the pursuit of prey and the diner or oasis could apply to The Naked Prey with that "jungle" analogy.

 

It strikes me how often this type of scene is used and for the diverse reasons it has been portrayed. I always think something I experienced on the freeway driving through Buffalo's industrial area a couple of years ago. Buildings with broken windows, cars abandoned in parking lots, no sign of people and no evidence that there as been anyone there in years. It could be typical industrial decay, a post war zone from the 40's to current or a post apocalyptic scene where the zombies come out at night. From the street scene alone, it could be The Asphalt Jungle or The Omega Man.

 

In opening scenes like this, until you see the stars, who knows?

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Yikes...poor Sam Drucker.  Would you pit Sterling Hayden against Sam Drucker...Sterling who clearly towered over Sam and with that look of "you rat me out and it'll be the last thing you ever do" look!  Yikes.

 

Clearly Sterling was caught in a maze, one step in front of the law.  I like the way they entered the Pilgrim House and took him away.  Seems like they had a lot of power.

 

This is a very good move on so many levels.

 

I actually rooted for Sam Jaffe and Sterling and Jean Hagen.

 

Great noir!

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The city in this scene seems abandoned. It kinda reminds me of a town that has to be evacuated for nuclear testing. It just seems so lonely and desolate as Dix and the cops are navigating their way through it. The piles of bricks at the bottom of some of the buildings reminded me of pictures of Europe after WW2. It was comforting when Dix walked into the bar and there was music and another human.

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The daylight scene lays out all the decay and decrepitude of this midsize factory town whose best days are surely long past. It may have been a booming center of industry once. But now the streets are empty. There are no throngs of people going to factories or offices or schools or stores because those are all shut down. The low-angle long shots make the dismal abandoned structures appear overwhelming, like a gray unhealthy place from which there's no escape. This city is unnamed because it could be anywhere, even close to us, the viewer. It reminds us that the wave of postwar economic prosperity missed large swaths of the USA.

 

IN this bleak cityscape we see only one patrol car and one man on foot hiding from it. The hunter and the hunted. An apt illustration of the "law of the jungle." The jungle is used as a metaphor for a place devoid of law and order, like in the later high school movie BLACKBOARD JUNGLE where rebellious teenagers break down the authority of teachers and principals. (I think the power of the "jungle" metaphor may be diminishing today as we have a more enlightened view of rainforests and wilderness in light of their ecological significance. But back then people's view of the jungle was shaped by colonial-era literature ... there was "Heart of Darkness", King Kong, WEST OF ZANZIBAR, Tarzan, maneating tigers, white missionaries boiled alive in cannibals' pots .... all that fun stuff.) :)

 

We know that in communities poor in legitimate economic activity, crime moves in to fill the vacuum. People have to live and after all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor. Enterprising like-minded people are going to form alliances and underground networks toward the common goal of getting what they want or need. So it comes as no surprise that the hunted man, Dix Handley, has a friend in Gus the cafe owner who hides his gun and turns up to radio to confound the cops. In their brief, quietly effective interaction, we see that Dix and Gus have an understanding. 

 

The cops, on the other hand, have strong-arm tactics at their disposal. No one in this scene is their friend. They can't pressure a witness to identify Dix in the lineup, even if they do everything to make it obvious that the "tall man" is the one. One look from Dix is enough to silence the witness. The underground net of alliances is much stronger than police bullying.

 

 

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This looks like it will be a good movie! If it is supposed to be a heist film, the opening certainly does not give that away, as there is no mention of meticulous planning, and the only time we see a clock is when Dix enters the cafe that sells "American food." That clock indicates it is about 5:30, and I am assuming it is 5:30 am, since the only person we have so far seen on the city streets is Dix. That is what probably made it so easy for the cops in the patrol car to realize they had just seen him after they hear his description on the police radio (Dix had tried to duck behind a concrete pillar when he heard the cop car, but he ducked too late and was easily visible).

 

Ironically, the city streets seem too light to be made of asphalt, but I suppose "Asphalt Jungle" is just a metaphor for a city in which the inhabitants struggle to survive. I am wondering if this movie is based on a novel that had a different name, as "Asphalt Jungle" doesn't seem like the best name one could come up with for a heist movie.   

 

More questions were raised than answered when Dix enters the diner. When he hands his revolver to Gus, and Gus hides it in the cash register, it is done with such unspoken nonchalance and casualness that it seems like this must be one of their daily routines! I am not sure what  to make of Gus turning up the volume on the radio when he sees the police are about to come in. It makes it more difficult to have a conversation, and it adds to the tension of the scene, but why would Gus want to do that? I can see why the Director would want to do that, but why would Gus? Anyway, Gus' willingness to hide the gun and keep it a secret speaks to the 'jungle" atmosphere implied by the title of the movie. 

 

The fact that Gus isn't surprised to have been handed a revolver and then hides it without being asked to do so, suggests that Dix and Gus are friends or that Gus' cafe is favored by a criminal clientele who routinely have Gus hide their heaters before they have breakfast. i suspect it is the former. I was impressed by the creativity shown by the police when they couldn't find a gun on Dix, and Gus wouldn't let them search for it without a warrant. I guess they will just have to let Dix go, right? No, they arrest him on a trumped-up charge of vagrancy! They were in a hurry to solve this hold up of the hotel, and they were in no mood to take the time to get a search warrant.

 

Their urgency is apparent again when we see the lineup. Dix is the only one in the lineup who could possibly have robbed the hotel, based on physical description alone, and just to make sure there was no mistaking which man the police wanted the witness to identify, the other two men in the lineup were identified as having committed crimes unrelated to the hotel robbery! I don't think that is normal procedure for a police lineup - they should show multiple suspects who could have committed the crime in question, right?

 

I have minimal experience with police lineups - my only experience was when I was a Boy Scout, and I was with a group of Scouts that were given a tour of the main police station in St. Louis. We got to go on the lineup stage and look out. We could not see anyone in the alleged audience, due to the way the lighting was set up to be all on us and not on the audience. So, I was surprised to see that the three men in this lineup could easily see the people in the audience. This allowed Dix to stare down his potential identifier. I liked the smirk on his face when he realized he had succeeded.    

 

As for clues about Dix, we know that he is an unemployed 36-year-old man from Kentucky, and we can assume he was involved very recently in the hotel robbery. It is hard to tell if he is a career criminal, as the only crimes he has been sentenced for were "illegal possession firearms" and his subsequent re-arrest for escaping from prison. A five year sentence for illegal possession of firearms seems excessive for me, especially since it appears he had no previous crimes, but I suppose he would have learned a lot about how to be a criminal from his cohorts in prison.  

 

As a side note, I am sad that this is our last week for Daily Doses. I have learned so much about film noir by reading the comments made by the advanced members of this class.

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Ironically, the city streets seem too light to be made of asphalt, but I suppose "Asphalt Jungle" is just a metaphor for a city in which the inhabitants struggle to survive. I am wondering if this movie is based on a novel that had a different name, as "Asphalt Jungle" doesn't seem like the best name one could come up with for a heist movie.   

 

 

 

Movie's based on the novel of the same name written by W. R. Burnett, prolific novelist and screenwriter in the 30s-50s. He also wrote novels and/or scripts for LITTLE CAESAR, SCARFACE, THIS GUN FOR HIRE, and HIGH SIERRA.

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Wk 9 The Asphalt Jungle


-- Discuss how this film depicts and utilizes this "unnamed city." Additionally, why do you think the film is entitled "The Asphalt Jungle?" This “unnamed city” appears to be in its early morning hour just after dawn. There’s a deserted feel here, as if everyone has left town, is still sleeping, or afraid to go out of doors. It could be anywhere, and if this were a twilight zone episode, it could even be on another planet.  It looks like a breeding ground for desolation.  It needs to be “any city, USA” because that way you won’t put your ideas of what anyone from that particular city would be like. E.g., if it were set in New York, you’d expect the characters to act a certain way, if it were set in Los Angeles, you’d expect the characters to act an entirely different way. By not specifying what city it is, it affords us the opportunity to observe/experience these characters on their own merits, without the filter of our own geographical expectations muddying the waters. And also, implying that it could be anywhere is even scarier.  You can't say, "I'm not scared.  I don't live there."  It could be your town!  The word jungle implies survival of the fittest, a natural order that no one disturbs. Asphalt is a substance through which not much can grow, unless it has cracks in it. Have you ever seen weeds sprouting through cracks in the asphalt? The only real life that can thrive here is one that fights for existence, getting life by pushing through a tiny crack in the asphalt. If by some miracle it survives birth, it has to fight like crazy to stay alive.  Damaged life.


-- Describe the film noir characteristics, in both style and substance, of these opening scenes. It has a documentary style, with the dispatcher’s voice heard over the police car radio as it drives through real streets, not rear-projected backdrops. We see a lone man, who is apparently avoiding the police as we hear his description over said radio. Life’s not giving this guy a break. The lighting is all diegetic, the early morning light casts a flat gray patina over everything, and the coffee shop is lit harshly by its overheads. James Whitmore is in cahoots with Sterling Hayden and hides a gun for him. The lines are drawn: these police aren’t going to get anything useful outa’ these thugs. The jazzy music's turned up to ear-shattering volume, blaring of noir. Note the contrast of the filthy debris-laden streets and alleyways of this “unnamed city” compared to the squeaky clean alleyways and streets of the “Mexico” of “Out of the Past” and “Kansas City Confidential.” This one went for the gusto!  Wait'll you see Jean Hagen's magnificent performance in this!!!


-- 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 radio announcement, we know that the cops are searching for the tall guy with the dark suit and fedora that we are now in cahoots with. At the very inappropriately staged lineup, which would make a modern-day lawyer file multiple lawsuits and motions, we see Hayden’s intimidating, smirking look to the “witness” after he fails to identify him. We know "Dix" was yesterday involved in some type of robbery, and the gleam in his eye suggests that maybe the buck doesn’t stop there.


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-- Discuss how this film depicts and utilizes this "unnamed city." The scene with a number of pillars and a train in the background has tracks that end, and so go nowhere. Additionally, why do you think the film is entitled "The Asphalt Jungle?" The shots are of a tough part of a city, especially the street with broken asphalt that looks like it was bombed, and a lone figure walking through it. The wires overhead remind you of vines in a jungle.  A jungle is a place where new dangers may lurk, and that’s how this clip feels. The score at the beginning of the clip makes you feel like the man is being tracked by something or someone powerful and dangerous.

 

-- Describe the film noir characteristics, in both style and substance, of these opening scenes. Some shots are diagonal – upsetting our sense of where we are; we see corners of buildings instead of facing them head-on. There appear to be tracks leading nowhere, a destination for many of our film noir protagonists, and the setting is deserted. The score, with its low, repeating chord, suggests there is a reason to fear. A man is alone on the streets – not running yet, but it feels like he should. Darkness on the streets is classic film noir. And the prominent clock in the café is also part of the noir style – as is the gun in the cash register.

 

-- 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)? We start out with the protagonist walking – not running – through the streets. If he was involved in the holdup, why isn’t he trying to hide? Then he is arrested and taken to the police station for something we assume he didn’t do, since the witness says it wasn’t him. He never seems too upset – a very steady character. And the café owner seemed to be making things as difficult as possible for the police, including turning up the music so it was hard to communicate.

 

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As far as the city being unnamed, the first thing i noticed was the streets are deserted. Dix is the only person we see on the streets. The is very little signage on any of the buildings. The diner (noir trademark) is labeled as "American Food". The alleyways have rubble/trash on the sides/gutters. The music in the diner is also trademark noir.

 

There seems to be a slight suspicion of the cops by the diner proprietor. The cops trump up a charge for Dix, showing the police corruption we see in these later films. The lineup is rigged too. Only three men, one of whom obviously isnt tall.

 

As far as the Asphalt Jungle, the first part is easy. There's not a tree in sight. And the jungle alludes to it being a rather wild place. It could also be a reference to it being hard to escape. Darwin's idea of "survival of the fittest" also comes to mind.

 

Until we get to the diner, I must say that this is the most generic and open set I've seen yet.

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I enjoyed this opening clip. It grabs you and takes you in. You've been set up for the rest of the film. John Huston always impresses me. Sterling Hayden is a quietly intense actor. I like the way he can almost go over the edge, but then, inwardly, holds back just a bit.

 

I may be going way out on limb here, so, please, bear with me.

 

Dix enters a building called the Pilgrim House. The word "pilgrim" references a traveler; someone who comes from a long distance. There used to be, and still are, pilgrim houses that house pilgrims who are on a religious pilgrimage. The pilgrimage concludes when they arrive at a specific destination. Metaphorically speaking, could this mean that Dix and his fellow thieves are "pilgrims" and that  they will be taking a journey to find their end/destination? The end or destination....being the heist or something else. (Sorry for all the pilgrims and pilgrimages in the text).

 

Gus has a curvature of the spine. He has to cut his vest in order to accomodate it. He is malformed. This makes him different. Dix is different, too. He is a career crook who has spent time in jail. Having a deformity or a criminal past is not acceptable. Certainly not in the early 1950's. They are outcasts. I believe the Pilgrim House represents those who have a common ground and it would be a sanctuary where misdirected and lonely individuals would find comfort and acceptance. Dix and Gus find refuge, commonality and acceptance within their society of criminals, so...that is their Pilgrim House.

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With it's deserted streets, lack of aesthetic value, and heavy police presence, the city in The Asphalt Jungle is a crumbling poopville no one would want to get stuck in, even for a moment. It is shabby minus the chic, and is used (to great effect) by the filmmakers to establish a sense of grimy danger, and to establish it as an actual asphalt jungle where bad things are certain to happen.

 

Some of the noir aspects I noticed were the crimey score, the police car, train tracks, diagonal power lines, a shadowy alley, folks in cahoots to hide a gun, jazz, a hardened criminal, and an intimidated witness, to name the easy ones. I have to say, though, that the look on the narcotics guy's face in his closeup was priceless and kinda stole the scene for me.

 

I would say that the lack of drama related to the crime Dix obviously just committed isn't standard noir fare. We didn't see the crime itself, nor a police chase, or any intense acting when Dix got arrested. I feel like the opening sequence was intended more to show what a bad-****, cool customer Dix is than anything else.

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The nameless city could be any place. This fits well with the noir oeuvre of nameless men living lives of quiet desperation in urban settings. The name "Asphalt Jungle" suggests that cities are uncivilized places, with concrete instead of undergrowth and trees.

 

Dix is obviously dangerous and well-connected with the criminal element. Or, at the very least, not willing to go down without a fight. I love the staring contest between Dix and the police and eye witness. It ratchets up the tension in that scene. And you know from Dix's reaction when the eye witness says he can't identify him that he's guilty of something.

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The Asphalt Jungle is a masterpiece and is one of my favorites.  The beginning of this film shows us the police on patrol in the suburbs, a suspect hiding, the music according to a city that shows us as a place where police officers and criminals do their routine, almost as if that were their habitat... their daily life. Everyone meets their role in this jungle that is the city.  Sterling Hayden gives character to the character, and her gaze, while the police is that the witness identifies it is clearly and eloquently, is a hard, has it not care what the police do, we are in a jungle, and it is part of it. The heist, the perfect crime, cops and robbers in a city that is also the protagonist, and that can also be a typical "character" of noir, as well pictures show. Great!

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This is urban anyplace and everyplace. The asphalt is any city and every city. Regardless of the city's size, there is always a dark underbelly that feeds on human disappointment and despair.

 

The unnamed city...at times it looks like the midwest. Turn a corner and you're looking up a cobblestone ramp at a police cruiser  - it could be San Francisco. Follow Dix down an alley and it looks like a European city after a bombing. Streets seem to lead nowhere. There is not a soul around... as if everyone has fled. 

 

Dix...cold eyes like a shark. He never blinks during the lineup. He stares down a man into submission. The police have been through this before...old hat...same thing every day. The police are tired and numb to this situation. It plays opposite the meek victim and other men in the lineup.

 

And the soundtrack to this desolate scene is the police radio telling us that we're on the wrong side of the tracks that lead nowhere.

 

I watched an interview with James Whitmore commenting about Huston and this film. Huston's only direction to him in the opening scene was that "Gus wants to turn up the radio, really loud, just before the police come in." He never told James Whitmore why but he did it anyway. The loud radio gives an other worldliness in light of the silence of the deserted streets. 

 

 

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I loved the beginning of the scene, as the city appears completely abandoned except for the cops and the man they're looking for. I think the Asphalt Jungle refers to the city the film takes place in, almost like New York is known as the concrete jungle. As I mentioned, the image of a lone man walking through a deserted city as the police hunt him down is one I really liked and was my favorite aspect of the film. Dix seems unfazed by the police, and he also seems to have connections, as the restaurant owner hides his gun for him without even having to utter a word. 

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My reaction to this clip is in random thoughts:

 

1) There's a great sense of push-pull between order and chaos. There's an element of wildness, contrasted with order that borders almost on the surreal. A man stumbles into a diner and gives a gun to the owner to hide. The police come in, but the owner knows to demand a warrant. The police honor this code, but then use their own code (their right to charge someone with vagrancy) to arrest the guy anyway. In a bizarre, almost cinematic staging, men are brought in for a ridiculously crooked line-up, but the robber's implied threat (a kind of "threatening while hardly moving a muscle" that I also associate with Lee Marvin) keeps the identification from happening.

 

2) The line-up itself is an interesting contrast. The two other men represent "behind closed door" crimes. One man has turned himself in for killing his spouse. The other man is a drug addict and is suicidal. The other two men are touched by death already (a murder and an attempted suicide), and you can't help but feel that the robber is headed that way himself.

 

3) I love the total locational blandness of the city, especially the diner, which advertises "American food". There are also signs that read "Home cooking" and another that references "Pilgrim". It's such characterless rah-rah flatline "patriotism". The fact that this diner is a place where one can confidently stash a gun used in a crime speaks to the deep and easy corruption of this place.

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

 

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

I noticed two details about this urban landscape: (1) its decay and crumbling architecture and (2) the absence of pedestrians. Except for the police car and the suspect on the street, the city feels empty. It gave me the impression that nothing good is going on here and that a resident or a visitor could only expect crime. In fact, anyone found on the street must be doing something illegal! Crumbling architecture + crime = asphalt jungle. It’s an easy equation for me!

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

Noir characteristics, in substance: urban decay; empty streets; police radio barely audible over the opening music (because nobody cares in this city?); criss-cross patterns of the actors, police car, and the city streets (to give the feeling of being trapped?).

Noir characteristics, in style: documentary realism in the shots of the city; rough handling of both suspect and witness by the police; not-so-subtle intimidation by the suspect glaring at the witness, which we see in the editing between close-ups of the suspect and medium shots of the witness; the feeling of loneliness and apathy evoked by the empty streets and the decay all around.

• 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)?

Dix has a police record, one that is lengthy enough to prompt one of the officers to cut it short when a clerk in the witness identification room was reading it. And he intimidates the witness from a distance, from the lineup on the stage. He seems like the likely candidate for suspicion, for just about anything, when he’s not locked up. But this could set the viewer up for making assumptions that just aren’t true. It should be interesting to see what Dix is up to after he’s out on the street again.

 

By the way, were all suspect identifications done this way, with the witness in full view of the suspect? I’ve seen it in other films and television shows from the 1950s and 1960s. How did anyone ever finger the do-er with this method?!

I think either the witness would be intimidated to identify the suspect by the detective, possibly fingering an innocent man, or the witness would be intimidated to keep quiet by the perp, who was able to see them clearly a few feet away, possibly letting a guilty party go free.  All around, not a good outcome with this system.

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