Still from "The Asphalt Jungle" (Criterion)

It’s been a minute, Griffin. Our Summer Readings and Screenings series last ran in 2020. At the time, we discussed the “hyperviolence” of American political rhetoric and worried over the “false-voiced God-talkers and power freaks / who think not at all about what they bring down.” Four years later, it’s Biden vs. Trump, 2.0. Somehow, I doubt that the political temperature will cool off over the summer months; check out the news and you’ll see that the God-talkers and power freaks haven’t suddenly discovered the virtue of prudence. 

Politics we will always have with us. But, as this series reminds us, we’ll also always have art. Once again, we have a varied list of works to talk about this summer: Guatemalan horror and Spanish political fiction, an Italian melodrama and a French memoir about painting and Picasso. Here’s to another summer of friendship sustained through reading and watching things together.


“Come on over, kid, and I’ll tell you all about the hassle.” That’s how the great American director, John Huston, invites the great American journalist, Lillian Ross, to cover the filming, editing, marketing, and release of his 1951 film, The Red Badge of Courage

At the time, Ross was seeking a distraction from an affair with the New Yorker’s managing editor, Wallace Shawn. She ended up spending a year and a half on set and in script meetings, listening to the hokum spewed by Hollywood bigwigs (“Sentimentality should be worn boldly, like Cyrano’s white plume,” one higher-up opines) and recording actors and assistants, agents and producers sizing each other up at parties. Ross wrote five articles about the movie for the New Yorker. The articles eventually became Picture, a soup-to-nuts look at how movies get made and remade, how an artist’s vision might, perhaps even must, be compromised when forced to “operate in a pattern of economics brought on by public taste,” as one exec puts it.

Ross declares that she wanted “to follow the history of The Red Badge of Courage from beginning to end, in order to learn whatever I might learn about the American motion-picture industry.” So, to begin at the beginning: John Huston, after the success of 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle, wants to adapt Stephen Crane’s 1895 Civil War novel. Most at M-G-M are hesitant, as his treatment “had no standard plot, no romance, and no leading female characters, and, if Huston had his way in casting it, would have no stars.” Despite this, Huston and the producer Gottfried Reinhardt manage to get one powerful executive in their corner, and off they go. Ross walks us through casting (for the lead, Huston selects Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier in World War II and a man with limited acting experience), the challenges of filming (problems with a smoke machine and with how many extras could be paid to ford a river), and the even greater challenges that came after filming (middling test screenings; meddling executives; last-minute and non-Huston-authorized changes made in response to the tests and executives).

In many ways, the story of Picture is simple. A stylistically interesting movie is made; the studio, in the hopes of appealing to a wide audience, messes with the movie in post-production; the movie is released and deemed a failure—certainly in commercial terms and arguably in aesthetic terms as well. At the beginning of the book, Huston, who charms Ross and charmed me, too, orders martinis and calls everyone “kid” or “amigo.” He smokes cigarettes cinematically (“the style of the Huston pictures,” Ross writes, “was the style of the man”) and briefly directs from atop his horse, Colonel. By the end of Picture, Huston is incommunicado while filming The African Queen for his own production company, abandoning Reinhardt to push back against the studio’s changes. The film is shortened and psychologically tidied up. Style is sacrificed, again and again, in service of story. The book’s subtitle could be Triumph of the Philistines. Except it’s not even a triumph: the philistines have the final cut but the movie still fails to make money.

Picture has many memorable characters: the put-upon producer Reinhardt, who is left holding the bag after Huston moves on to his next project; Huston, admirable until he’s not (did he head out to Africa because he sensed disaster was coming?); the book’s arch-villain, Louis B. Mayer, the big boss at M-G-M whose anti-art, pro-pap mindset seems only more ascendant in 2024 Hollywood. Ross uses these individual portraits to paint a broader picture of an industry. There’s something disturbingly hollow at the center of the movie industry, Ross suggests, a lack where a soul should be. At a party, she writes, “Good will was stamped on the faces of all, but there was no indication as to whom or what it was directed toward. As they entered, the guests exchanged quick glances, as though they were assuring each other and themselves that they were there.” “Everybody in Hollywood wants to be something he is not,” Reinhardt observes early on. “The writers want to be directors. The producers want to be writers. The actors want to be producers. The wives want to be painters. Nobody is satisfied. Everybody is frustrated. Nobody is happy.”

 And yet, somehow, great pictures got made. The Asphalt Jungle was a studio production; so were Notorious and Citizen Kane. Indeed, style often perfects itself within formal, even commercial, constraints. That’s one thing that Picture left me thinking about: Is commercial success compatible with artistic excellence? And I also wonder about the restless frustration that Reinhardt points to in Hollywood. What are the circumstances in which this refusal to be satisfied might be productive? When and how does it become destructive?

Politics we will always have with us. But, as this series reminds us, we’ll also always have art.



“One way or another, we all work for our vice.” 

That’s not my line, of course, but a quote from the master-thief Doc Riedenschneider, the mustachioed German (played by Huston’s friend Sam Jaffe) who engineers the heist at the heart of Huston’s 1950 noir masterpiece The Asphalt Jungle. And if you’ll indulge me, I think it responds to the questions you’ve asked about the tension between artistic excellence and commercial success.

Setting morality aside, there’s serious artistry in the scheme Doc engineers. Stealing a million dollars worth of gems and getting away with it requires not just a vision, but a knack for coordination, twin talents similar to those of a film director. While at first glance the brawny, coffee-swilling “hooligan” Dix (Sterling Hayden, one of Hollywood’s “leading men”) more closely resembles Huston—he’s the film’s primary source of noirish slang (“Ya boned me!”) and even lights matches with his fingers—it’s really the quiet, careful, observant Doc that serves as Huston’s true stand-in.

As if directing a successful picture, Doc must coordinate the disparate personalities, motivations, and abilities of a host of different actors. There’s the financier and fence, the unctuous lawyer Alonzo Emmerich, who prefers his young, jet-set girlfriend (played by Marilynne Monroe) to his sad, bedridden wife, and whose sprawling house could easily be mistaken for the Beverly Hills mansion of a studio exec. 

Besides Dix, hired as muscle, there’s also the “box man” Ciavelli, responsible for cracking the safe with a little vial of nitroglycerine (the “soup”) and the hunchbacked getaway driver, Gus. This isn’t to spoil the film, but the heist, beautifully shot and set midway into the film, goes bad, leaving all five conspirators (Doc, Emmerich, Ciavelli, Gus, and Dix) either dead or behind bars. If they all work for their vices, they succumb to them, too

This may sound bleak—it is noir, after all. But what makes Huston’s film so compelling isn’t the fast-talking slang or the seedy locales or the crooked cops (of which there are many), but the way Huston endows every scene, every character with rich, complex interiority—with humanism, we might say. Dix is in the game not to escape down Mexico way, but to earn enough cash to buy back his old family farm in Kentucky, lost during a “rotten year” after his father died and the corn crop turned. Ciavelli is also “a family man,” and we see him comforting his anxious wife and rocking his child’s cradle. And I’m sure you cheered, Tony, when the cat-loving Gus chases a drunk truck driver from his bar after the latter boasts about fomenting violence toward felines. 

Huston even finds compassion for the duplicitous Emmerich, a victim of his own moral cowardice and material dissatisfaction if there ever was one. If Emmerich succumbs to despair as soon as the coppers close in, it’s hardly surprising. But can we blame him? Like the unhappy Hollywoodians Ross writes about in Picture, Emmerich’s “happiness” was never rooted in anything besides money, status, and reputation—it was thus never real. The moral rot defiling the “asphalt jungles” of upwardly mobile postwar American cities is not so much petty criminals, those “predatory beasts” angrily and arrogantly denounced near film’s end by the clean-shaven, buttoned-up police commissioner, but the blind obsession of ordinary Americans with the hidden evils of comfort, ease, and social respectability. 

What most of us want, to use your word, Tony, is satisfaction, which, as you probably know, is rooted in the Latin satis, meaning both “full” and “enough.” Being empty and wanting to be full, to have enough, is not necessarily a bad thing. Consider the cliché of the “starving artist.” While it typically makes us think of La Boheme, or cash-strapped twenty- and thirty-somethings pouring drinks and waiting tables so they can pursue their passions, it can also underscore that to really make anything worthwhile, an artist simply has to be hungry. Otherwise, why create? 

I’ll be honest, Tony: I’m not sure whether Huston, for all his devil-may-care bonhomie, charmed me in quite the same way he did you. The man—like Emmerich, like a lot of Hollywood figures—seems empty in a way that to me feels, or at least risks becoming, destructive. His “hunger” doesn’t just prevent him from enjoying the present moment. It divorces him from the cares and concerns of other people. 

Ross gives it to us in one brilliant paragraph, near the middle part of the book, in the early days of filming Red Badge of Courage. It’s the one you alluded to earlier, where hundreds of extras are on location in Chico, California, for the epic river-crossing scene. Ross paints the hectic episode with her usual precision: “The sun was already hot in the clear sky, and the morning air was buzzing with swarms of giant flies.” She goes on to catalog the travails of cast and crew, who chop down trees as they maneuver cameras and other equipment into position. Buses arrive, full of extras. And then Ross delivers this deadpan line: “Then the studio limousines brought the other leading players and Huston.” 

Ross never spells it out explicitly, but to my mind she offers a pretty damning critique of Huston here. What could Huston, the rich, ranch-owning man, a man paid handsomely  (a higher sum than all the other actors and extras and editors combined), a man seated in the back of a limousine who blows off appointments when his mood strikes, really know about the tragedies and heroism of war? Here’s Huston at work, working for his vice, as Doc might say: operating not wholly out of a desire to make a great war picture, but also out of a compulsion to be great, to have others recognize him as such. 

That’s not to say all great artists can’t also be commercial successes—I just think the best ones often aren’t recognized, at least not during their lifetimes. Maybe the very best ones flee recognition altogether.

But enough of my griping, Tony. What did you think of The Asphalt Jungle? And do you agree with my characterization of Ross’s view of Huston? Talk about her, too, will ya? What’s the secret of Ross’s artistry? Do you think she tacitly presents herself and her book as a foil to Hollywood’s image machine?


You’re right, Griffin.

For me, the real villain of The Asphalt Jungle isn’t the ineffectually double-crossing Emmerich or the dead-eyed Lieutenant Ditrich. No, it’s the feline-hating truck driver who complains about “people feeding cats when some kids ain’t got enough to eat” and boasts about running them over whenever he gets the chance. Noir doesn’t often end with order restored and justice dispensed. At least this scene does. The truck driver gets shown the door and goes on his miserable way; the cat remains on the diner counter, happily eating from a cereal bowl and getting head scritches from Gus.

Being empty and wanting to be full, to have enough, is not necessarily a bad thing.

This throwaway scene echoes an interesting exchange, late in the movie, between Dix and Doll Conovan, Dix’s on-again, off-again, always adoring girlfriend. By this point, the caper has gone belly up. Ciavelli is dead and Gus is in jail. Doc, who dreamed of a life in Mexico filled with cold drinks and pretty girls, is now trying to convince a cabbie to help him escape to Cleveland. Dix has a nagging gunshot wound on his side, and Doll, played wonderfully by Jean Hagen, has secured him a gassed-up getaway car, parked three blocks away.

In the scene, Doll asks, then demands, that Dix let her flee with him. Dix responds with some typical hard-boiled patter (“Are you crazy? I’m on the lam. I’m wanted bad, packing heat”), to which Doll responds, “I don’t care, I just want to be with you.” She then declares that she won’t let him go without her and turns away from him. Huston tightly frames the shot. In the foreground, we see Doll’s normally soft face harden into defiance. In the background, we see Dix’s normally hardened face soften with puzzlement. “I don’t get it,” Dix says. “I just don’t get it.” He waits a beat and then agrees to let her come with him. As Doll moves off screen to get ready, the camera stays with Dix. Huston’s humanism can be seen in how patiently he allows the camera to linger on faces. Dix looks confused, then unsure, then a little delighted. Love has surprised him, and, in his acceptance of it, he has surprised himself.

What does this have to do with Gus’s diner-dwelling cat? In a movie filled with despair, both scenes show love’s fundamental gratuitousness. Love gives of itself, embracing self-sacrifice instead of self-interest. At first, Dix can’t even understand Doll’s offer. But then he does. Or, rather, he doesn’t so much understand her love as feel and respond to it. Likewise, I don’t know that Gus could offer a defense of caring for the cat when children don’t have enough to eat. But that’s because love is about grace, not the totting up of costs and benefits. The plot of The Asphalt Jungle is driven by calculation: if I get this number of jewels, I can get that amount of money. Love occasionally challenges this logic, though it certainly doesn’t win out here. The film’s final, brilliant shot offers another echo of the cat-diner scene. Again, we have an animal contentedly snacking. But now it’s three horses, rather than a single cat, and they’re eating not in a diner but in a field, picking at the grass surrounding Dix’s dead body, with Doll running away in the distance. Such, it seems, is the fate of love in noir.

I really like your reading of The Asphalt Jungle as a film about film, Griffin, with Doc as the meta-director. And it made me return to when, a little over an hour in, Doc thinks about how things went wrong. “You put in hours and hours of planning, figure everything to the last detail,” he says. But an alarm goes off, and then a gun does, too: “Blind accidents, what can you do against blind accidents?” We’re told that Doc is a maestro of crime, a veritable auteur of bank robbery. Yet his plan relies upon exploding nitroglycerine and he never thinks that this might set off an alarm? He works with criminals but somehow trusts Emmerich? 

This got me thinking about another flawed director: Huston. How could he not know that the suits would want more story, more stars, more romance? Did The Red Badge of Courage fail because of external forces—capitalism and bad taste—or because Huston didn’t see and account for these external forces with enough care?

You ask what I make of Ross’s attitude towards Huston. In certain ways, it’s difficult to answer. Ross doesn’t editorialize or pontificate. What matters are her subjects, not herself. But I take her at her word when she describes Huston, in the book’s introduction, as “a man of unfailing spirit and lighthearted high jinks.” I think she finds him occasionally ridiculous (that directing from atop a horse I mentioned); what ambitious artist doesn’t sometimes invite mockery? But if Ross has scorn or moral censure for anyone, it’s for the executives, not the director. 

You also ask what Huston, with his ranch and limo, could “really know about the tragedies and heroism of war.” I wouldn’t say that Huston’s wealth means he can’t know suffering. But that seems beside the point. Huston knows what any great filmmaker needs to know: how to compose a shot; how to structure a narrative (the heist itself is incredible but only lasts about ten minutes); in short, how to make a great film. He didn’t make one in The Red Badge of Courage. He did in The Asphalt Jungle. Sometimes, a command of form and tone and technique isn’t enough. Sometimes, thankfully, it is.

Anthony Domestico is associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a contributing writer at Commonweal. Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.