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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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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?"

To me, I think that this film depicts and utilizes this “unnamed city” by allowing the audience to feel like this story can take place any where in any city.

 

I think this film is entitled “The Asphalt Jungle” because of how the characters interact with each other.

For example, in the scene where the man is supposed to identify the major character Dix from a police line up, he doesn’t because he knows that Dix is higher up on the food chain than him like a lion or another powerful animal in the jungle when compared to him and his safety.

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

I believe that both the style and substance of film noir can be found in these opening scenes by how the film lighting and camera staging is used.

 

In addition to this, I also believe that it can be highlighted in how the characters interact with each other.

 

Aside from the example I used above, the police scanner transmissions and the diner owner hiding Dix’s gun for him are also great examples of elements found in the world of film noir at play.

 

-- 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)?

 

To me, I believe these scenes are interesting because they draw the audience into the heist film with very subtle and key events.

 

I also believe that we're learning that Dix is very clever and he has the right connections along with the right reputation and criminal history to pull off this heist film we're about to watch.

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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?"

     

 

 

I think the film is called The Asphalt Jungle because a city can seem like a jungle.  How do you find your way?  Do you get side tracked on the side streets?  Will you ever be able to get out?

 

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John Huston’s iconic masterpiece, The Asphalt Jungle, in many ways can be considered a “bookend” mate to his classic The Maltese Falcon, released in 1941.  The crooks in the former film have become more desperate and daring, and the snappy smart-talk of the latter film is missing, since there’s not much call for humor in 1950 NoirLand. 


 


The brilliant opening - short and sweet - of the monotone police radio call, announcing the usual, “be on the lookout for...”, coupled with Dix dodging past train tracks and ducking around corner posts, alerts us to his eventual pick-up, which happens in a common noir place of solace - the diner.  It’s pretty clear by line-up Perp Time that he’s a familiar face in the ‘hood, and he gives the witness just a hint of a smile, cluing us that he knows how to work the system, too.  


 


Sterlling Hayden would go on to ‘name names’ during the HUAC Hollywood trials, an act he later revealed was his life-long regret.  But he shines so brightly that we can - for now - overlook his transgression.


 

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Call me "tardy to the party" - A week's vacation with no internet access - and would you believe there are hotels with no TCM?!  Sacrilege!  :D

 

In the opening of Asphalt Jungle, we see the use of diagonals:  the police car labors uphill, the power lines criss-crossing in the sky, the lines of the buildings in the long shots as we watch a man walk away from the camera.

 

The police radio sets up the story for us, telling us the crime, the location, and a description of the suspect.  

 

But that description could describe anyone.  We never really get a good look at the man.  He's always shadowed enough that we can just make out his outline - nothing more.  He's wearing a suit and hat.  When he enters the diner, we see only his back.  When he rises from his seat to go with the police, we get a split-second glimpse, but even that is immediately hidden by cigarette smoke from the diner owner.  

 

In the police lineup, we get a good look at 3 men, one of them the man we've been following.  The third suspect stares mercilessly at a witness.  The witness should easily recognize the suspect, especially the three men in the lineup are as physically different as can be.  Yet the witness says the man was wearing a hat - would that really make it difficult to pick the robber from the lineup?  The police detective repeats the witness's description back to him, and the witness decides he's safer to say the suspect isn't the robber.  

 

Don't you just want to yell, "Yes!  That's the guy!" - and we haven't really even seen him.

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Power lines clump at tilted poles then run and clump again.  They striate the sky of the rundown crumbling end of a small Midwestern city serves as the Asphalt Jungle, a place where the characters are both predator and prey.  The lead character, Dix, walks in shadow through the horizontals of the town.  We don't know what he's walking away from nor what he's walking toward; he must stay in motion. The radio dispatcher and the heavy ominous score tells us he is now prey.

 

The counterman at the diner is casually complicit in whatever crime the man has commited.  The music here is brighter.  Dix gives the worker his gun; a very short time ago he was the predator.

 

This opening is shot in noir-esque deep shadow as well as deep focus.  The man is dwarfed by the city, almost disappearing into it as the scene progresses.  He becomes just another item in the landscape.

 

From this short clip, DIx is a loner which, in a tightly timed heist, can mean disastrous for his compatriots should he decided to veer from the plotted itinerary.

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John Huston does an amazing job of making a statement about the 'every man' and the 'every city'. It is a narrative in an existential sense. This is home, this is "Mean street" (Van Halen reference, but apropos), this is the Asphalt Jungle.  A labyrinth of twisting turning brick stucco, mortar and asphalt, where even the purest of souls can lose their humanity.

 

The city could be any city, these characters could be anyone. However, it goes farther. This city is almost war-torn, like that of the European cities in France or England, but it's a different kind of war. In addition, the building facades where James Whitmore's diner is located reminded me of the Venice Beach area turned border town shots from Touch of Evil, or even going back to Europe in, The Third Man, as Joseph Cotton and authorities track Orson Welles through deserted late-night, barrage of broken streets. These films have a portrayal of architecture that allude to the brokenness of the world and man's disillusionment within it. 

 

 

In the opening scene here, I love the difference between Touch of Evil and The Third Man in communicating similar concepts in night shots as Asphalt Jungle in daytime shots.  With Huston there is a wonderful array of subtle gray tones that establish this almost painted stage like backdrop with a foggy depth like you would find in Fritz Lang's, Metropolis. This sense of depth and space creates the metaphor of the city or machine of our world becoming bigger than the ones who've created it. The city towers over Dix (Hayden) as he is walking through the colonnade, barely being noticed by the squad car. The Jungle is overtaking him. 

 

To answer the last question, we are learning just how broken Dix is. He's at least a 3 time loser; an ex-con who's escaped from prison and is playing games with his own "end of the line". The way Whitmore's character handles the gun handed to him says everything. What we learn about Dix is that there isn't anything else for him to do and he's probably very vulnerable to make things worse for himself. 

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John Huston gives us exactly the title of the film, The Asphalt Jungle, in it's opening scene, a conglomerate of mismatched and deserted architecture of various eras.  We have arched openings, juxtaposed with pillars, and brick buildings, skyscrapers, anything imaginable all put together in one street or "city".  If buildings could talk..... and they do as they are a character here, we are in for one heist of story. There are numerous and criss crossing, almost tangling power lines that are reminiscent of the chaotic train tracks we have seen in previous films noir. We are overcrowded, busy and loud with industrialism, yet the streets are empty and quiet. The only sign of anything that might place us somewhere reads "American". Anywhere in America, that's where we are. 

 

Huston uses the hills of the city as a hierarchy here, much like we've seen previously in other films with staircases. If one looks carefully, we can spot that in each scene the police car rides uphill in the search for the suspect, indicating or foreshadowing that the police will have the upper hand in this movie. It is only when the police get the call and are more aggressively pursuing the suspect, that they make a u-turn and the noticeable descent commences.

 

Dix just seemingly and randomly walks into a joint, where there's more industrial noise as James Whitmores actually turns up the radio. The characters remain silent, but it's a non-squealing type of quiet. We get the sense they know each other, have a routine, and keep tight-lipped about it all. The confrontation with the police has been building and now with the music turned up, it all erupts in a turbulent shouting match. The police line-up follows and here we are brought back a hush. The officers talk but the citizens keep collaboratively secretive. What a marvelous set-up to the conspiracy and heist we are about to journey through. 

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One lone police car patrolling a town where everybody is indoors. Except for one man sneaking aronnnd trying to hide from the cops. Eventually he gets caught and put in a line-up.

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Very impressive how Sterling Hayden's character smiled with his eyes (or "smizing", as Tyra Banks calls it) at the end of this clip. 

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The film opens up on a deserted city street, and around the corner comes a police car, with its radio prominent on the soundtrack. You get the sense that the police are on the prowl, and the loud radio with the dispatcher highlights an ever-present force on these streets. The car moves uphill, perhaps signifying the battle the police are fighting to keep these streets safe. Still, like Dix, the police radio puts us on edge and we wonder who this seemingly respectable man (why were criminals so well dressed in suits all the time?) is that is ducking around a column to avoid being seen. We see almost no one else wandering around, giving the sense that it's just the police and the criminals, the predators, out and about while everyone else seeks safe haven inside. We then hear a description of the man we have just seen hiding from the police over the radio, alerting us that he has just committed an armed robbery.

 

Dix enters a diner and without speaking, he hands over his gun (confirming him as the criminal the police are searching for) and an automatic routine immediately begins. We get the sense that this had been done before. The police roust Dix and charge him on anything they can just to get him down to the police station. Dix remains cool and says nothing throughout the scene. He maintains a cool exterior and is not at all shaken by being arrested and placed in a clearly stacked line-up. He has no need for words. His glare tells all and the witness immediately becomes unreliable. Even though you would think the police would be more identifiable, from the very beginning they are almost a faceless menace, sending a man hiding as they pass by, charging him with the flimsiest offense and then clearly just going through the motions in order to score an arrest. They practically berate the witness into identifying the man they believe is guilty. This puts the audience's sympathy with Dix, the steely, cool criminal who is a clear professional that will be integral to the upcoming heist.

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Lot of interesting things in that clip. I've never seen the film, but I sure want to see it now.

 

The scene cleverly uses the broken down streets, alleys, worn-down buildings to symbolize a jungle, a maze where predators and preys roam, hunt, and hide. It's a wilderness, from the hapless victim to the tough criminal, or the hardened cops to the sleek diner-owner. Everybody is out to survive.

 

As for noir elements, I really loved the way the camera was placed, the use of diagonal lines with the streets, and buildings, or even the way the guy walked through them.

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Noir is filled with animalistic behavior, and with the urban setting, the idea of an asphalt jungle is a fitting one. The large, tree like columns of architecture and the crisscrossed, vine like power lines of the set play into this theme. Likewise the diner the man of the run enters resembles a village hut.

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The city is empty, deserted or maybe it's just early. The decaying world of concrete, very gritty, unpleasant, uncongenial. We see a man (Dix) who is obviously hiding from the police car, probably a fugitive. He does not panic, it's his world. Dix hides behind the white pillars and then gets to a small diner, the owner of the joint hides his gun in the cash register – he's probably part of the scheme. It looks like he is the man that robbed Hotel de Paris. The police drops in and books Dix for vagrancy, not possesing a gun. The lineup is a joke – the suspects see the witness and it's obvious the witness would be too afraid to point out the villain. Dix is staring coldly at the witness who is clearly intimidated. And the choice of suspects – the only tall guy was Dix! Guess the police tries to manipulate the whole thing also. No place for justice here. It's the law of the jungle, no place for the weak.


The scene is very realistic, documentary style. Loneliness, hopelessness, anxiety – we can feel it in the air. The facial expressions of Dix and the witness, the hard-boiled dialogue and the overall atmosphere of despair tell us this is the city of crime and corruption.


Dix is a nowhere man. No occupation, but has a criminal record and probably does not now any other way. A typical anti-hero, cool-headed, cynical, strong.


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Film noir is not just made up of shadows, dark lighting, smoke, and odd camera angles. Without the proper establishment of the location and mise en scene in relations to the particular scene and story, the noir “style” merely becomes a cheap bag of parlor tricks without substance or value.

 

 

Whether it’s on location shooting or the studio lot, the best of film noir doesn’t use the setting as a mere backdrop, but instead goes out of its way to emphasize entirety of the setting in which the characters get around or have made their home. The audience is given scope of the true nature of the environment through the expansion of the town or city throughout the movie, whether it’s on the streets, someone’s home, a bar, nightclub, bank, transportation depot, etc. This gives film noir its ambiance, social and historical context, and adds to the dimension of the characters and perception by showing (not just telling) the audience dwellings and situations the people encounter on a regular basis. Major examples include Night and the City, The Big Heat, The Third Man, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Gun Crazy, Nightmare Alley, Touch of Evil, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Kiss Me Deadly, etc.

 

 

Of course The Asphalt Jungle is no exception. The opening is reminiscent of the direction and cinematography of The Third Man. Without words or descriptive texts, the visuals perfectly illustrate how the film got its title. In place of timber and vegetation, there are nondescript, dingy, tarnished buildings and desolate streets so arid that I half expect some random sand and giant tumbleweeds to fly by the moving patrol car. The Asphalt Jungle is a convenient, modern illustration of Charles Darwin’s theory on Natural Selection. Aside from the car and the protagonist, Dix, there isn’t a single soul in sight. It’s lacking in a human population just as a jungle would be. In this unnamed city, only the most adaptive, jaded and/or complaisant can live, much less flourish here. That group just happens to be of the criminal class in the station of wild animals.

 

 

Dix’s entrance is wonderfully shot from a series of askew, slanted long shots, emphasizing the withdrawal and reclusiveness of the sullen, elusive protagonist amidst a barren, urban wilderness. He ducks the patrol car that is after him and makes his way to a small joint generically labeled “Café” Why not? There’s probably none other around for miles. Dix enters and casually hands Gus, the proprietor, a gun, which he, with equal disregard, places in the cash register, just before the police pull up and take Dix away.  

 

 

On repeat viewings, this opening is very appropriate for a heist film, such as The Asphalt Jungle, particularly when establishing a character like Dix. There are at least two things that are affirmed to him. One, Dix has the effortless ability to intimidate with a hardened grimace as hulking as his large frame or his extensive criminal record and easily gets off by silently communicating threat of violence and coercion to the witness. Another thing is that Dix has no current roots, no home, family, occupation, only his history of unlawful transgressions, which shrouds around his shoulders like a badge of pride. This shows that he has nothing to lose and a heist can only serve to elevate him in the grand scheme of things, while making or breaking others who have everything to lose.  

 

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