Lost in the Movies: "What's the difference?" (The Asphalt Jungle & The Killing)

"What's the difference?" (The Asphalt Jungle & The Killing)

This is an entry in Adam Zanzie's John Huston blog-a-thon. It contains spoilers.

Maybe Sterling Hayden should just stay away from horses. In John Huston's 1950 noir masterpiece The Asphalt Jungle, Hayden plays Dix, an honorable but desperate "hooligan" who bets - and always loses - on the races. His bookie turns to him to provide muscle for a jewel heist; inevitable complications ensue and Dix winds up with an infected gunshot wound in his side. Like a haunted man, he flees his midwestern city for the countryside, loyal girlfriend Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen) at the wheel as Dix slumps in the passenger side mumbling to himself deliriously. What about? Horses, and not the ones you bet on. Rather, the ones you raise and ride, the ones you race perhaps, while other people bet on them, earning you money. As consciousness enters its last dissolve, Dix's car pulls up at a ramshackle Kentucky field. Earlier in the film, we heard him tell Doll about his happy childhood, a long lifetime ago, when he grew up on this free and open horse farm. Now it's gone to seed - and so has he, reeling and stumbling through this equestrian limbo until he finally falls hard onto the soil, dead along with his dreams: an Icarus who never even made it off the ground.

Johnny, Sterling Hayden's character in Stanley Kubrick's 1956 breakthrough The Killing never makes it in the air either, though he comes damn close - all the way to the airplane tarmac in fact. But let's rewind for a moment, an appropriate gesture given this film's chronologically fractured storyline. If Dix loved horses, Johnny treats them rather callously: he even hires a hitman to kill a certain Red Lightning, ahead in the final stretch of the seventh race of the day. His hope is that the pandemonium ensuing from the guaranteed spill will create a cover for his daring robbery of the racetrack. It's a meticulously planned job, and this time Hayden is not a mere hooligan, but the head honcho. His luck is no better, however, even if he makes it out alive this time. It won't be a horse that accompanies Johnny's failure, but a yapping, foppish little dog, whose collision with the luggage cart sends Johnny's suitcase - and with it the whole loot - crashing out onto the runway, whirled around by the propellers in a mad mockery of his planned flight. Hayden's expression is priceless as his girlfriend tells him to run and the film ends as he delivers the most exquisitely limp and pathetic closing line of all time. "Meh," he mumbles half-inaudibly, "Wasadifference..."

The similarities are clear enough. Both The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing feature elaborate heists, carefully planned and ultimately doomed by accident and bad luck. Both star Sterling Hayden, albeit in wildly differing parts. Both rely on long takes, penetrating close-ups, realistic locations, and detailed characterizations to create a texture, convey a mood, and ratchet up the tension. And while holding true to the principle that "crime doesn't pay" both films nonetheless put us entirely into cahoots with our criminal protagonists, so that we want them to succeed, or at the very least, to survive. Both movies are adaptations - The Asphalt Jungle rendered W.R Burnett's novel (while changing some important aspects, notably the nature of Dix's death) while The Killing took its story from Clean Break by Lionel White. Yet as is often the case with similar works, the two films represent wildly divergent worldviews.

I've read neither book, and cannot comment extensively on what was included, excised or replaced, nor how much Asphalt Jungle's Ben Maddow or The Killing's Jim Thompson brought to their screenwriting collaborations with the respective directors (though Thompson is given sole credit for dialogue). However, both John Huston and Stanley Kubrick exercised pretty firm control over the films in question - Huston due to the reputation he had established by this point (MGM and even the Production Code, despite objections, did not interfere heavily) and Kubrick due to the film's small budget and independent production (when veteran cinematographer Lucien Ballard tried to ignore the 27-year-old filmmaker's direction, Kubrick coldly threatened to have him fired). In the end, both can be regarded as responsible, either by choice or unforced acquiescence, for the visions of their films.

And what are those visions? The Asphalt Jungle, as its title suggests, views its world as one of disorder and danger. There is a system in place, police procedures, criminal enterprises, a hierarchy of outlaws, but that system is rough, uncertain, and half-improvised. Cops are corrupt, social roles are fluid and unstable, and at any point carefully-laid plans can be completely destroyed. Chance plays its part here (especially in the heist, where an explosion sets off surrounding fire alarms, and a police officer's pistol accidentally discharges and wounds one of the thieves). However, the greatest risk comes not from luck nor impersonal fate, but character flaws or vices. Even the top dogs have fleas in this pound. Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a seemingly meek yet inwardly tenacious criminal mastermind, keeps his cool in the face of every challenge - yet in the end, he falls prey to a teenager's jitterbug. Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a suave defense lawyer who funds the heist and offers to be a fence (he's actually planning a double-cross) appears on the surface to be the most powerful player in the picture, but in fact he's one of the weakest - neither tough nor clever enough to hold his own with the thugs, killers, crooks, or cops. As if this general softness isn't enough, he's also the slave of his slinky squeeze Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe) - then again, who wouldn't be?

The other figures are less trapped by character defects than lowly position - safe cracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is a family man with a sick kid who needs the dough, driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) is a hunchbacked, kind-hearted bartender who's the first to be picked up when a collaborator squeals, and good old Dix, a bull of a man, just keeps plowing ahead, hoping to get back to that Kentucky farm, even if it's only as a corpse. It's a tough, brutal world, but Huston surveys it with compassion. These criminals are human beings, flawed but stoic - even the worst of them, like Emmerich, can inspire our sympathy for fleeting moments (perhaps when tearing up a self-righteous, self-pitying suicide note). A storyline focusing on the police perspective doesn't quite fit in here, even though it appears to be one of the main threads of the source novel. Huston does not seem quite comfortable with it, and in the movie, the sequences with the police commissioner feel forced, heavy-handed, and not altogether sincere. This seems especially true of the commissioner's final speech, well-directed but empty in its moralistic posturing.

That penultimate scene frustrated me immensely the first time I saw the film. The intensity of Dix's escape to Kentucky was broken up by the placement of the commissioner's lecture and even while I could see why Huston didn't want to end on this note, its disruption of the dramatic flow (not to mention its verbal contradictions of the film's real themes and sympathies) seemed quite unfortunate. Yet watching it again, I could appreciate the ironies of the scene more acutely. Huston manages to undercut the commissioner's moralism by contrasting his calculated self-righteousness with the flawed but humane behavior of Doc, Dix, and Doll. Even the despicable Emmerich seems a prisoner of his whims, whereas the commissioner sits back and judges everyone from an impossibly lofty perch (it's one thing to play his role of arresting and punishing, another to do it with such superior smugness). His closing statement, that the one remaining fugitive (Dix) "may be the worst of them all ... a man without human mercy," is the dead giveaway that Huston has no patience for the character's lofty moralism. Rather, it's the commissioner who seems to lack mercy; as Huston watches Dix die, battered and delusional in a horse field, it's at least with a compassionate eye.

Kubrick? Not so much. Much of The Killing plays like black comedy, and while the characterizations are richly drawn the film does not have a humanist outlook. In a review written a couple years ago, I described it in terms of a horse race, with various characters jockeying for prime position against both circumstance and one another. In the end, none of them wins - the victor is Kubrick himself, who gets to put them all in their place, to show them who's boss. Though we are often encouraged to sympathize with our heroes, we hardly bat an eye when they're gunned down in a freak shootout; indeed, it seems more like a dark joke than a cruel twist of fate. And while we sweat alongside Johnny as he almost pulls it all off, the explosion of cash on the runway is mostly upsetting because it disturbs the clockwork perfection we've been primed to desire all along (it's even "filmed poorly," as Jean-Luc Godard noted in a critical notice - though to me that seems precisely the point). Besides which, we have to laugh at it all - the obnoxious little dog, the thisclose irony, the insane image of all of that money scattered to the winds (shades of the gold dust in another Huston picture, Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Even Johnny himself seems to hear the malevolent giggle of the gods, what with that totally lackluster surrender.

The Killing is all a big game, which is not to say it avoids human emotion (though it's stronger with anxiety, jealousy, and bitterness than tenderness or wistfulness); rather it uses feelings as pieces in a great chess match. Despite this grand order, it views the characters as individualists, less prisoners of internal flaws and external structures (as in The Asphalt Jungle) than free actors able to shoot for glory - and get shot down in the process. The crimes themselves highlight the difference between the two movies: in The Asphalt Jungle, the men must drill their way deep inside a jewelry store, and try to circumvent the various systems of control in place: an electronic eye, the safe well, eventually the neighboring alarms. They must play by the rules of those they're robbing from, sneaking in and around the location - they seem to be the underdogs in this scenario. Whereas in Kubrick's film, the heist is huge, ambitious, not just in terms of the stakes, but the whole process. It occurs in a cavernous and mazelike racetrack which the conspirators navigate with ease and aplomb, bending its convolution to their purposes. If The Asphalt Jungle depicts its men as little guys struggling against the tide, The Killing sees its characters as brilliant swimmers navigating the streams. In Asphalt Jungle, outer law and the inner flaw take down the characters one by one; they never seem to stand a chance. In The Killing, cops and hang-ups don't pose a problem; the criminals are to law and order as Kubrick is to them, a fact that's ultimately their undoing. As I once wrote, "It's often said that Kubrick's films reveal the follies of men but perhaps it would be more appropriate to observe that there's only room for one man-god in a Kubrick film, and he's always seated behind the camera."

Speaking of that camera, another difference between The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing is the visual approach. Both films use intense close-ups on occasion, letting us feel the pressure bearing in, and both expertly utilize long, unbroken shots to involve us in the action and allow the tension to sink in. However, Huston's camera tends to sit still or to move subtly. It patiently observes human endeavor without imposing itself too egregiously on the action. Kubrick's camera interacts and often manipulates the scene; the mise en scene is dramatic and pronounced, flamboyant even, as much a character as the criminals themselves. It bobs and weaves with documentary sensitivity during the races and at the airport, it glides coolly through the halls and locker rooms of the racetrack as the heist unfolds, and it intrudes mercilessly on the cuckolded George Peatty's (Elisha Cook Jr.'s) dazed visage. In these gestures it is complemented by precision, control, and authority in all the film's formal elements: the sound effects are heightened and manipulated for maximal effect (particularly that ticking clock when George's manipulative wife lies to him); the infrequent music (though not as limited as The Asphalt Jungle's many scoreless sequences) booms and bellows when it does emerge; a narrator's voice crisply informs us of all the characters' actions, across space and time, making clear that it knows more than they do; the cutting, nonlinear in a chronological sense, is quite linear in terms of logic, carefully laying out each piece of the puzzle in turn, allowing us to see how each plays its role and then how they all coalesce.

Ironically, given Kubrick's reputation for "cinematic" flourishes, The Killing relies more heavily on dialogue than The Asphalt Jungle. That's because it's essentially a more intellectual film, more about mind games and finesse than desperation and grit. Not that The Asphalt Jungle isn't clever or twisty, not that it doesn't play tricks on the characters or the audience. As a Huston film, how could it do otherwise? Kubrick probably learned a thing or two from Huston in this regard; after all, the older director had previously fashioned The Maltese Falcon, with its coolly observant and deceptively pliable Sam Spade, as well as Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as self-consciously ironic a film as Hollywood had produced up to that point (and the characters, some of them anyway, were in on the joke: just think old man Huston's laughter at the end). But in both those films, as in The Asphalt Jungle, there is a strong human element amidst all the cleverness, a kind of wounded soulfulness that Kubrick's not quite interested in. Think too how The Asphalt Jungle, even with fools like Emmerich or brilliant minds like Riedenschneider to focus on, opens and closes on Dix instead. He provides the movie with its heart and his death is not at all darkly comic, nor moralistically punishing, but rather deeply tragic.

So which vision is "better"? It's not only a matter of personal taste, but one of fleeting preference. The Killing is more fun, but The Asphalt Jungle is more moving; both are excellent, extremely well-made films. Their similarities have inspired debates over their relative merits for fifty years now; two of the first to weigh in were filmmakers as colossal as Huston and Kubrick themselves. Godard, in that aforementioned dismissal, wrote off Kubrick as "a good pupil, no more" (though he doesn't seem very fond of Huston's work either, writing that The Killing "makes even The Asphalt Jungle look like a masterpiece by comparison"). Orson Welles, on the other hand, waved off Kubrick's debt to Huston, noting, "The Killing was better. The problem of imitation leaves me indifferent, above all if the imitator succeeds in surpassing the model." In fact, the films become even more interesting when one considers them in conjunction with one another; if The Killing displays a feverish, exciting brilliance which Asphalt Jungle does not even really attempt, Huston's film also offers more human insight for a cultivated palate to savor. After my latest viewings, I think I give The Asphalt Jungle the edge but both films are marvelous works, to be relished by those who appreciate diversity in their cinema.

Two films, then, on similar subjects, one generally taking the worms' eye view, the other the gods'. That's the biggest difference - and it's a fascinating one.


Unknown said...

What a fantastic review on two of my fave noirs/heist films. I go back and forth between which one I prefer, each as their own unique strengths and both feature incredible performances from Sterling Hayden, an actor who was born to play a doomed noir protagonist. I think that on a given day I might give Huston's film an edge if only for the grimy, B&W cinematography that establishes the city. There is something about the deserted streets that we see Dix travel through, evading the cops, that creates such a fantastic mood and atmosphere that gets me every time. And then, he goes into the diner and it's mostly quiet except for the ambient sounds of a radio playing in the background... fantastic stuff!

Just Another Film Buff said...

Ah, MovieMan. I haven't seen Huston's film. I'll wait till I see it!

Shubhajit said...

That's a stupendous, stunning and spellbinding writeup!!!

Asphalt Jungle is regarded as one of the cornerstones in the history film noirs, while The Killing, though not as heavily adulated, is still considered a brilliant film. And they both happen to rank among my favourites too. Having said that, my sentiments about the two films echo yours, in that the former is more moving while the latter is more fun, and they both are extremely well made films.

The piece of yours is doubly important because of the allegations that Killing was a good ripoff, but a ripoff after all, of Asphalt Jungle. Though the two films do have thematic and storyw-wise similarities, but they are two very distinct films too. Yet, I couldn't have put into words the differences between the two more eloquently and, well, masterfully. So henceforth, whenever someone makes that statement to me in future, I'm going to save the talking from my front and simply point him/her towards this marvelous article of yours ;)

Even at the risk of saying the same thing over and again, loved this post yours.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks guys. J.D., the camerawork in both films are great but I'd say if there's a big difference, it that Kubrick & Ballard establish individual places distinctively, while Huston & Rosson establish an overall sense of place. JAFB, I look forward to your thoughts when you do (I saw The Killing several years earlier as well). Shubhajit, that's one of the best responses I could hope for! Glad we see eye to eye.

Andreas said...

This is a really fantastic piece about these two great movies. I go back and forth on which I prefer: The Killing is so fun and has such a diverse, slightly pathetic ensemble, but I feel like it also shows the marks of Kubrick's youth - signs, like the omniscient voiceover, showing how he had yet to emerge from the womb of film noir and become his own, totally sui generis director.

Huston, meanwhile, was already an established master of the form, and I think The Asphalt Jungle's characters better fleshed-out; as you say, it's less intellectual and more human. Johnny Clay is convincingly authoritative, but his struggle isn't as compelling - or as tuned into the broader directorial vision - as Dix's. And the quasi-sexual reasons for Doc Riedenschneider's downfall, presented just on a visual level, are more striking than any behaviors in The Killing. (Timothy Carey's darkly humorous mugging included.)

All of which is to say that this is a wonderfully analytic & insightful piece. Thanks for it!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Andreas. Have you seen Killer's Kiss? That one's even more noir than The Killing, and less clever but I really love the visuals Kubrick comes up with on a tiny budget and there's a shot where a character runs across rooftops which is already a full-on Kubrickian moment...

Andreas said...

I did see Killer's Kiss - it's like seeing Kubrick's style developing as an embryo. From what I recall, the story's pretty much just a vague, noirish outline, but it's extremely moody and interestingly filmed. It's basically a display of immense potential.

Adam Zanzie said...

Once, when I compared the two films on an Internet Movie Database message board, the majority of users told me they preferred The Killing to The Asphalt Jungle because Kubrick's intentions are more mathematical than Huston's; some think that Huston's movie is "a subtle laugh at the police establishment". Maybe that's why McIntire's speech is there at the end. I did agree with much of what McIntire says in that speech--but at the same time, Huston shows his hypocrisy during other scenes in the film. As he later did with The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (which I just watched), Huston deals with men of the law who sometimes bend the law to their own will, and too far.

The Killing is certainly Kubrick's first important work (as much as I enjoy both Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss, they're both trashy entertainments), but I still prefer Huston's movie. The way I look at it is this: if I had to choose between directing either The Asphalt Jungle or The Killing, I would choose to direct the former. Kubrick loved to play cruel cosmic jokes on his protagonists, but I guess I'm too much of a softy and prefer Huston's "beautiful losers" worldview: people get arrested, people die, and we sympathize for them. That's my worldview all around, I'm not ashamed to admit!

It's just that when Doc gets seduced by the littlest of things (a teenage girl), that's cold. Or how Dix dies on his own long-lost farmland, that's cold. Or how Marc Lawrence's Cobby is slapped by that sonofabitch lieutenant into reporting them all... it just gets to me. The Asphalt Jungle is an American Greek tragedy and I can't get enough of it.

I've always been surprised that Welles openly preferred The Killing, seeing as how he was good friends with Huston and worked with him on a few movies. There's also Kubrick's own reaction to how the two films often get confused: on the new 2-Disc 2001 DVD, there's an audio interview w/Kubrick in which a DJ claims to have seen The Killing but then Kubrick says, "No, you're thinking of The Asphalt Jungle--that's why you thought Marilyn Monroe was in my movie... I don't think you ever saw The Killing." lol

Love this piece, Joel. It was one of my favorite submissions to the blogathon.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Adam - and thanks for giving me the opportunity to write this! Btw, it goes without saying but your knowledge of film given your age (it's 11 right? ;) ) is truly astonishing. Keep up the good work.

Adam Zanzie said...

Close. Im 13.

Joel Bocko said...

Ha, you had me for a second, I swear...

Anonymous said...

Great piece Joel. These days I prefer The Asphalt Jungle over The Killing as well... for many of the reasons you highlight. It does have a deeper resonance and a more palpable emotional core. Like Godard, I also find some scenes in Kubrick's film to be rather dodgy as well. Besides the end, I think the fight at the track is awkwardly staged and filmed. I'm also not fond of the banal narration that reminds me of a bunch of noirs from the 40's like The House On 92nd Street and He Walked By Night. Its a good piece of cinema, but Kubrick is still finding his way, while Huston was already at his peak and responsible for a slew of great films. I once brushed off the things that nagged me about The Killing and let them slide. I find myself in a more honest mood when assessing Kubrick's third picture these days....MAURIZIO ROCA

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Maurizio. Re: the fight...ah, see, I love that scene and it may be one of my favorite fight scenes on the movies! I agree that it's not very convincing ( the way the space clears, the manner in which they approach him, how quickly his short rips off) but to be honest the ridiculousness of it is exactly what I love! Overall, I think you are definitely correct: Asphalt Jungle displays a more mature sensibility than Killing, which doesn't make the latter film bad but does make Asphalt resonate more, especially over time (both in terms of growing in memory/on re-viewings and as far as the viewer getting older & more mature and appreciating it more).

Dar said...

A most excellent article.

Can't argue with any of it.

I think one problem of "The Killing" is that it'll always be seen as a "Kubrick film", and compared to his other films.

Joel Bocko said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I recently started a video series called Side by aside, comparing two films - and I'll probably use these two as an upcoming entry.

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