Bio: Unlike her “Asphalt Jungle” character Doris, who led a precarious and hardscrabble existence (stingy scraps and threats of harm from surly customers), feline actress Lola Pawsingham grew up in a secure and loving home, the daughter of Vaudeville’s Boots ‘n’ Hoots, a soft-shoe and comedy duo.
Lola and her parents were visiting relatives in Los Angeles when she ran into director John Huston at the Pig & Whistle in Hollywood; he immediately cast her in “The Asphalt Jungle.”
After filming wrapped, Huston invited her to join him on his next trip to Ireland. It was there, at the Owl & Pussycat pub in Galway, that she met the dashing, Sligo-born poet Seamus O’Haraball. Sparks flew and the pair embarked on a creative and romantic partnership that flourished for several years.
She inspired many of his works, perhaps most famously: “Lola and the Faun,” which was later turned into a play that premiered at the Tabby Theatre in Dublin. After that, they divided their time between Paris and Nice. But in 1959, tragedy struck and O’Haraball died in a plane crash on his way to London for the Eliot Awards, honoring feline-inspired verse and furry scribes. (O’Haraball was the favorite to win the highly coveted Jellicle lifetime-achievement award.)
Pawsingham was devastated, but a few years later met comedian Al E. Doode who managed to mend her broken heart and was by her basketside when she passed away peacefully in 1966.
“The Asphalt Jungle” from 1950 by director John Huston is rightly considered a masterpiece. Excellent storytelling and an outstanding cast, including Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen and Marilyn Monroe, have helped it stand the test of time.
But its stark, unwavering realism is not for everyone. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, where Huston made the movie, had this to say about the flick: “That ‘Asphalt Pavement’ thing is full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty things. I wouldn’t walk across the room to see a thing like that.”
Um, did he not see luminous and fragile Monroe as mistress Angela Phinlay? Huston portrays a gang of thieves as flawed humans trying to make a living. “We all work for our vice,” explains menschlike mastermind Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Jaffe). Recently released from jail, Doc has planned every detail of a $1 million jewel robbery and seeks to round up the best craftsmen he can find for one last heist.
A fat wallet means Doc can head to Mexico and court all the nubile girls he can handle. Dix Handley (Hayden), a tough guy with swagger to spare, hopes to pay his debts and return to his beloved horses in Kentucky. Getaway driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) is sick of running his dingy diner. Bookie ‘Cobby’ Cobb (Marc Lawrence) covets booze. Safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) has a wife and kid to support. Alonzo ‘Lon’ Emmerich (Calhern) is a wealthy but overspent lawyer who wants to be solvent again.
“You may not admire these people, but I think they’ll fascinate you,” says Huston in an archive clip included on the DVD. They pull it off, but what heist would be complete without a doublecross and crossing paths with the police?
In this macho, man’s-world movie, there is alas no femme fatale. But rest assured there are flawed women aplenty. Hagen plays the neurotic Doll, a struggling performer, and her vice is Dix. Monroe, as Lon’s barely legal girlfriend, orders mackerel for his breakfast, flips through travel magazines and is fond of saying, “Yipes!” Lon’s bed-ridden wife May (Dorothy Tree) wishes Lon were home more often. Teresa Celli plays dutiful wife Maria Ciavelli.
The actors complement each other deftly. Jaffe, both sage and seedy (when he lusts after pretty young things) is particularly entertaining; he nabbed an Oscar nom for best supporting actor. Helping his rich characterization is the fact that he gets some terrific lines, for instance: “Just when you think you can trust a cop, he goes legit.”
The movie is full of such dry asides. The whip-smart script, by Huston and Ben Maddow, also scored an Oscar nom. W.R. Burnett‘s novel provided the source material, though the book told its story from the police point of view; Huston and Maddow flipped the perspective. Huston was also nominated for best director; Harold Rosson for best B&W cinematography. (None won.)
“Asphalt Jungle” is the only noir I know of that’s set not in NYC, LA, Chicago or London, but in a smaller city in the Midwest, usually seen as the bedrock of integrity, and it’s fun to try to figure out exactly where this is happening.
The dark film was a departure for MGM—known for upbeat, lavish, escapist fare—but the studio’s production chief Dore Schary ushered in a period of social consciousness for the company, notes Drew Casper, film scholar and author of “Post-War Hollywood Cinema 1946-1962,” in his DVD commentary.
As for the look of the film, Casper points out that in addition to elements of Expressionism (fractured frames and diagonals or horizontals blunting verticals to create tension), Huston’s experience filming war documentaries as well as the work of Italian Neo-realism (1945’s “Open City” by Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief” from 1948) also influenced his visuals.
In turn, Huston’s groundbreaking movie clearly had an impact on the great Jules Dassin, director of 1955’s “Rififi,” one of the best of all noirs. “Asphalt Jungle” was remade three times: “Badlanders” (1958), “Cairo” (1962), and “Cool Breeze” (1972). None is considered as good as the original.
Dry but never dull, “Jungle” is a straight-shooting portrait that undermines Hollywood’s often-moralizing and hypocritical gloss. “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor,” as Lon so matter-of-factly puts it. Yipes!
John Huston‘s classic heist movie, which earned four Oscar noms, broke new cinematic ground by humanizing the criminals rather than writing them off as one-dimensional cheats. A suspenseful ride with stellar performers. The top-notch cast includes Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe and an up-and-coming young starlet named Marilyn Monroe.
A nervous femme fatale with a slight stutter. A stocky PI with a hot temper and a bandage plastered on his face.
Perhaps not the most promising characters at first glance; in fact they are among noir’s finest. Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson deliver knockout performances in 1974’s “Chinatown,” a neo-noir that ranks as one of the greatest films ever made. Certainly, it’s among the top 10 movies of the 1970s.
With an Oscar-winning screenplay by Robert Towne, directed by Roman Polanski, and produced by Robert Evans, “Chinatown” clearly has roots in classic noir, but also reinvents and subverts the tradition. The movie’s intelligence, artistry and uniquely dark vision elevate it beyond a simple homage.
Set in 1937 Los Angeles, “Chinatown” tells a story of corruption both personal and public. Nicholson stars as J.J. ‘Jake’ Gittes, a cynical ex-cop turned private investigator with a penchant for shiny, cream-colored suits, matching hats and spats, and a tendency to fly off the handle. One day, Gittes gets a visit from a black-clad blonde (Diane Ladd) who claims that her husband Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) of the water and power company is cheating. She wants Gittes to provide proof, despite his urging that she let sleeping dogs lie.
But it comes to light that the real Mrs. Evelyn Cross Mulwray (Dunaway) is the daughter of multimillionaire Noah Cross (John Huston). And she wants Gittes off the case – or she’ll sue. But when Mulwray’s body is found in an empty water reservoir, Evelyn wants Gittes back on her side. Once there, Gittes uncovers lots of facts that don’t add up – for instance, in the middle of a drought, water is being dumped. At the core of the mystery is a struggle for control of LA’s water supply.
There’s lots of money to be made and power to be gained if you can dry out vast patches of land, then buy them on the cheap. (The California water wars, a fight that started in 1898 over water rights between LA and other areas, including the Owens Valley, influenced Towne’s story.)
Gittes has his work cut out for him. The cops, led by Lieutenant Escobar (Perry Lopez), give him grief. Russ Yelburton (John Hillerman) and Claude Mulvihill (Roy Jenson) of the LA Water and Power Company don’t like him. A menacing man with knife (a cameo by Polanski) warns him not to be so nosy – and just to drive home the point, he slices off a bit of Gittes’ schnoz.
Once he’s cracked the case, though, Gittes can’t play the hero to the dishonesty, greed and perversion that surround him. The evil continues, unchecked. “As savior and restorer of a moral order, [Gittes is] a complete washout, a genre first,” writes Foster Hirsch in “Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir.”
So why is this a great work of art? First, it looks so striking—vintage LA, poised to become a big city—and Polanski’s voyeuristic camerawork (from the viewpoint of a standing onlooker) lends dark sophistication. The bleak themes of betrayal and corruption give the film enormous power.
Then there’s Jerry Goldsmith’s score and of course Towne’s smart, sexy and funny dialogue. In an interview for the 1999 DVD re-release, Towne explains that he wrote the part with Nicholson in mind and was inspired by the actor’s temperament, manner and the way he uses language.
And despite the fact that Gittes’ character has roots in earlier screen detectives, such as Philip Marlowe, Towne says, “I tried to draw characters from life, not from film.”
Some of my favorite Gittes’ lines:
“I goddamn near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it.”
“He passed away two weeks ago and one week ago he bought the land. That’s unusual.”
“You’re dumber than you think I think you are.”
Huston, avuncular and charming, and Dunaway, delicate, otherworldly and aloof, turn in resonant, affecting performances. (Ali MacGraw and Jane Fonda were also considered for the part of Evelyn.) Polanski recalls on the DVD interview that between every take Dunaway touched up her makeup. Her thin eyebrows and Cupid’s bow mouth was a ’30s look he helped Dunaway create; it was inspired by memories of his mother.
Though alluring, glamorous and dressed to a T, Evelyn Cross Mulwray is not a femme fatale. As Towne says in the interview, Evelyn sets up the expectation of being a black widow, but she is the heroine of the movie, the one person in the film who is operating out of decent and selfless motives. More
Few films rank as one of the best of their decade but that’s the case with “Chinatown,” a neo noir, set in 1937 California. Of the many things there are to admire, No.1 on my list is Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of private eye Jack Gittes. Secrecy and sex, profit and power, specifically control of the LA area’s water supply, are pieces of a potentially deadly puzzle that lands in his lap.
Also on the admiration list: performances from Faye Dunaway and John Huston, razor-sharp writing from Robert Towne, the mood of cool menace, and Roman Polanski’s directorial flair.