John Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ is a true piece of invaluable cinema heritage

John Huston directing Louis Calhern on the set of The Asphalt Jungle

By Sven Mikulec

As one of the first heist films that put the culprits in the center of the audience’s attention, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle served as a source of creative inspiration for more filmmakers than we could possibly name. A whole series of brilliant crime thrillers, such as Jules Dassin’s Rififi, Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, drew palpable inspiration from this haunting noir heist story. We’re talking about a picture so powerful it practically gave birth to a whole subgenre. Shady and realistic, The Asphalt Jungle is as thrilling as thrillers get, with great use of proven actors like Sterling Hayden, James Whitmore and Sam Jaffe, perfect theme music from Miklós Rozsa and lighting expertise of five-time Oscar nominee Harold Rosson.

John Huston joined forces with Ben Maddow in adapting W. R. Burnett’s novel to the screen, and the writing is so good it feels perfectly natural to root for the gang of antiheroes on the wrong side of the law. The wonderfully staged heist is so exciting it gets difficult to breathe, and as a delightful cherry on top we have Marilyn Monroe’s brief but instrumental appearance. A true piece of invaluable cinema heritage, the film stands out as one of the most striking in Huston’s fruitful dossier.

Here’s one of the best film noir screenplays ever written: Ben Maddow & John Huston’s screenplay for The Asphalt Jungle [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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The real Ben Maddow is cloaked by several overlapping careers and two distinct writing pseudonyms. In spite of this, if not because of it, his reputation is firm as one of the more subtle and intelligent Hollywood screenwriters of his era, even though Maddow insists that screenwriting, for him, was never much more than a job. Under his own name, in Hollywood, Maddow wrote, among other films, the scripts for the MGM adaptation of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust (1949) and John Huston’s version of W. R. Burnett’s novel The Asphalt Jungle (1950). These two assignments swiftly established him as among the most resourceful of the new, postwar scriptwriters. His subsequent scripts ranged the gamut of melodrama, but they managed to be deeply humane as well as beautifully constructed.

For example, though the story line of The Asphalt Jungle remained the same on the screen, the point of view of the script became more progressive than that of the novel.
I don’t think that was done intentionally. I think it all came out of the novel, though [author] W. R. Burnett did not realize it. Burnett intended The Asphalt Jungle as a novel about the extraordinary difficulties that the police have in an urban world that has become a jungle. As a matter of fact, the narrator in his book is the police superintendent, is he not? The film takes the opposite point of view. That crime is simply normal endeavor, another form of business; therefore the concentration on the characters of the criminals makes you like them all and sympathize with them. Certainly you don’t sympathize with the police at any point. In any case, I think many authors do not know what it is they are saying, and Burnett made those criminal characters so fascinating that as you read the novel you really didn’t feel as though the police were the heroes.

Why would Huston want to invert the original emphasis of the story line if he liked the novel of The Asphalt Jungle so much?
I don’t think any conscious decision was ever made, not that I can remember.

It just developed?
Yes. I don’t think Huston thinks in those abstract terms. Don’t forget that a lot of the power [of the movie] was due to the fact that these were New York actors who all knew one another and were trying to outdo one another—and who were stimulants to one another. There was nobody who had a name of any consequence. It was a film for broad booking. Most of Huston’s talent came in the choice of casting, which most directors will tell you anyway, in moments of frankness. It could have been quite a banal film if badly cast. Imagine Van Johnson or somebody else in the leading part! But it was not an important film, so it was easier to cast.

How did you get involved with Huston?
He accepted me on the recommendation of Clarence Brown. Huston and I must have worked on the script together, oh, close to six months, and really very little work was done. No pages were turned in. We were mostly talking. He always did very little at the typewriter anyway. The day would proceed. You’d arrive at his beach house at 9:30 or 10 A.M. and Huston would just be getting up to have breakfast. He’d come down in this beautiful robe and play with the Weimaraner dog with blue eyes that he had just got. And if the dog had thrown up, which he often did, Huston would have to haul the carpets out onto the beach. Then later, we’d have lunch, work a couple of hours, and it’d come time to have a drink and so on. I used to come rolling home and I’d lift my fingers to indicate whether I’d had one cocktail or two, so my wife would know what state I was in. (Laughs.) I had rented a beach house just about a mile north, and one day Arthur Hornblow, who was the producer, called me up and asked me to come and see him. He said, “Look, I can’t pressure John. He just won’t take it. But I have to tell you that this is going on too long…” Though we were getting paid weekly, I was getting bored with this situation, too. And I really felt guilty about it. I promised Hornblow that I would talk to John. John’s reaction was very interesting. He said, “Ben, you’re absolutely right! But my father [actor Walter Huston] is coming over to dinner tonight with his girlfriend. Why don’t you have dinner with us and we’ll work after dinner?” I said, “No, I’ll go home and then I’ll come back after dinner…” So I did.

I guess it was about eight o’clock when I got back, and they were still talking at the table. They were talking about John’s feeling that he was able to direct because he hypnotized the actors. Remember, he had made a film [Let There Be Light, 1945] during the war in which hypnosis was used as an example of how powerful it was. And he offered to hypnotize his father’s girlfriend, a much younger woman. She said, “No, you’ll make me do something I don’t want to do.” He assured her that he couldn’t do that, which is not true, by the way. Then he wanted to hypnotize his father, and his father refused. Huston turned to me, and by this time a whole hour had passed, so I said, “Okay.” He had me stand up and he took his wristwatch off and shone a light on it, dangling it [in front of my eyes], saying, “Your eyes are closing…” My eyes closed. “Your arms are rising from your sides…” They did. “I’m going to pinch you and you won’t feel a thing…” He pinched me. “Do you feel it?” “No.” This went on until he gave me a posthypnotic suggestion. He told me that when he woke me up, he would offer me a brandy. I would taste it and say, “This is the most divine thing I have ever tasted in my life.” So okay, I wake up, we go back to the table and sit down, and he says to me, “Would you like some brandy?” I say, “I wouldn’t mind.” He hands me the glass, pours the brandy, and all three of them watch me. He says to me, “Aren’t you going to drink it?” I lift it up, taste it, put it down, and there’s silence. He says, “How was it, Ben?” I say, “Fair.” (Laughs.) That was Huston’s hypnosis—just nonsense. (Laughs .) We didn’t work much that night, but things proceeded a little more smoothly after that. And we finally did get the script done. —Ben Maddow: The Invisible Man

How I Make Films: An Interview with John Huston. Film Quarterly Vol. 19, No. 1 (Autumn, 1965), pp. 3-13.

What is the technical process of your scriptwriting?
Usually I write in longhand first, and then dictate a later version. I use a standard script form: action on the left and dialogue on the right. When it’s finished it’s mimeographed and distributed to the people who need to see it. I often change again later. Sometimes I finish the final version on the set itself, or change again something I’ve written as a final version the day before. Mostly these changes come to me when I hear the words first spoken by an actor. It’s always different once it comes out of a living person’s mouth. By this I do not mean that I try to adjust to an actor’s personality—I try to do that as little as possible. When I write, I don’t have in mind an actor, but a character. I don’t conceive this character with a specific star in my mind. I guess what I am trying to do with this constant changing, is to try to put to work more than my own imagination, or at least allow my imagination the liberty of play, the liberty of coming out of its cage—which is me, my body, when I am alone and writing—and in this way it begins to live and to flower and gives me better service than when I put it to work abstractly, alone, in a room with paper and pencil, without the living presence of the material. Then, when the character has been born out of this extended imagination, I have to look for someone to play the role, and this someone isn’t always necessarily the person who I thought could play it originally, because often it no longer is the same character. In fact, I’ve often—at least, sometimes—delayed the making of a film because I couldn’t find anybody to play the new and adjusted character that I had finally arrived at construing. Although in my experience you usually find someone; there are enough good actors if you are willing to wait a little. —John Huston: How I Make Films

“Of course it’s about as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it. It’s always nice when pictures are revived years later, it gives you the satisfaction of seeing them finally accepted, and God knows Beat the Devil and The Asphalt Jungle were no great shakes their first time around. But as far as the, ah, material rewards are concerned, it’s better to have a success from the first.” —John Huston

Marilyn Monroe was a bit actress under contract to Fox and had not yet had a speaking role; Fox eventually dropped her contract. When Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck saw The Asphalt Jungle, he again assumed her contract. John Huston interviewed about Marilyn in The Asphalt Jungle.

Photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle by S.C. Manatt © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) (controlled by Loew’s Incorporated) (A John Huston Production). Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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