The law of this jungle is steal or be poor.
We don't need to tell you anything about The Asphalt Jungle because you've seen this film classic, right? So today we're all about the poster. Look at this beauty. It was painted by Italian artist Angelo Cesselon, complete with his distinct signature and its supersized “O”. Cesselon worked for many studios and mastered a distinct style featuring large character portraits such as the one you see here. His work is among the most immediately identifiable of the mid-century period. As for the film, when you get John Huston directing a heist story you can't go wrong. Don't let the poster fool you, though—Marilyn Monroe is a bit player. Why is she starring on the art? Because Cesselon painted it a few years after the film's initial release—by which time Monroe was world famous. The Asphalt Jungle premiered today in 1950.
Mitchum finds himself second to nun.
Above is an Italian poster for the World War II drama L’anima e la carne, which would translate as “the soul and the flesh,” but was better known as Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. It was directed by John Huston, who was one of the greats and the man behind what many consider the first film noir The Maltese Falcon, but he wasn’t a strong stylist. He looked at himself as more of a technician, and often took on projects merely because they offered an opportunity for travel. He shot Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, in Trinidad and Tobago, and it’s an African Queen-like tale of a marine marooned on a Pacific island with a nun, and the romantic feelings that develop.
The movie did well at the box office, but while there’s plenty of entertaining action, the romantic aspects are generally tepid. When a man and woman are marooned together, possibly for life, we accept that thoughts of romance can develop, but it would have been nice if there were some other reason for it to happen than the fact they’re—for all intents and purposes—the last people on Earth. Mitchum loves Kerr, but she’s not funny, or charming, or unusual in any respect. She’s just there, behaving exactly as you’d expect a real nun to behave. If she had a spark that lit Mitchum’s flame we’d have liked the film a lot more. The romance angle is a red herring anyway—Mitchum’s Corporal Allison has zero chance to woo Kerr’s Sister Angela, and considering the lack of heat between the characters, it’s probably for the better.
As an aside, the movie has a terrible title, don’t you think? Not that it matters in terms of the final product, but you’d never think a film called Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison features two stranded Americans dealing with serious hunger, nearly drowning, and generally being put through a wringer reminiscent of Naked and Afraid (but without the naked). Later they dodge Japanese troops, almost get bombed, and barely escape being blasted by a grenade. The title came from Charles Shaw’s novel, but it should have been changed. We can thank the movie for one thing, though—it made Mitchum fall in love with Trinidad and Tobago’s calypso, and led directly to him releasing an album of the music.
Hey ho! Hey ho! Huston and Ferrer must go!
Today in 1952 protestors comprising members of the 17th District American Legion Un-American Activities Committee demonstrate outside the Fox Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles against director John Huston and actor José Ferrer, whose new film Moulin Rouge was premiering that night. Why was the American Legion pissed? Basically because in 1947 Huston helped form the Committee for the First Amendment to protest the House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings (HUAC), and because Ferrer was a liberal. The anti-communist hysteria was in full swing at this point, and more than five-hundred names had been added to anti-communist blacklists.
Today there are numerous HUAC apologists, and their arguments boil down to nothing more than: “But there were communists in Hollywood!” Certainly that was true, but U.S. government incompetence and opportunism destroyed many more innocent people than communist spies were ever caught. A moral effort in crime fighting never hurts more innocent people than criminals. When it does, history laterlabels such periods tyranny. HUAC has been labeled exactly thus, an assessment that is extremely unlikely to change. And of course, it’s worth pointing out that being a communist was not equivalent to being a spy, nor was it a criminal offense. At least not yet—two years later President Dwight D. Eisenhower made communism illegal in the U.S. with the Communist Control Act.
I have dysentery, I’m covered with mosquito bites, and there’s a leech on my balls. Next time let’s do the all-inclusive cruise.
Above, a thoroughly pulped out cover for C.S. Forester’s 1935 adventure tale The African Queen, published in this Bantam paperback edition in 1949. This is a great book with a letdown of an ending, in our opinion, but when John Huston made it into a film in 1951 he greatly improved the last act and the result was an all-time cinema classic. The beefcakey art here is by Ken Riley.
Beat the Devil flopped in 1954 but today is appreciated as pioneering camp cinema.
We’ll tell you right now that we are not neutral when it comes to John Huston’s Beat the Devil. We love it. It has Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Gina Lollobrigida, and the exquisite Jennifer Jones, so we loved it immediately. If only audiences had felt the same. The movie was such a flop that not only did it lose money, but its copyright went unrenewed, causing it lapse into public domain. But keen observers, after they got over being misled by the promotional campaign into thinking the movie was a standard Hollywood adventure, soon realized that what they had on their hands was something new—a camp satire bringing together some of the most distinct voices of 1950s cinema.
And we mean voices literally. You have Humphrey Bogart with his famous lisp, Gina Lollobrigida with her vampy Italian drawl, Jennifer Jones trying on an English lilt, Peter Lorre with his trademark Germanic accented sniveling, and more. The accents are your first clue that the movie is going to be all over the place.
The plot concerns a group of raggedy adventurers who hope to buy uranium-rich land in East Africa. Problem is, they need to get there. Seems straightforward enough, but the cosmos itself is aligned against them—cars fail, boats sink, betrayals ensue, information gets garbled, and just about any other obstacle you can imagine appears.
But Beat the Devil isn’t slapstick. It’s satire, which means it isn’t funny in a conventional way. In fact, maybe there isn’t a real laugh in the entire movie. Yet you have to smile when Marco Tulli introduces Peter Lorre’s character O’Hara as O’Horror, you have to marvel at Jennifer Jones’ crazy accent that sounds like an English version of Bogart’s lisp, and you have to watch with heightened interest during her famous calesthenics sequence, in which she has an entire conversation with Gina Lollobrigida while doing... well, we don't know what she's doing, but it looks like this.
Despite these and other charms, Beat the Devil is polarizing. Bogart declared that only phonies liked it. Huston, on the other hand, was well aware of its uniqueness and even told Jennifer Jones—who had already been nominated for four Academy Awards and had won once—that Beat the Devil would be one of her most remembered roles. True enough. The French and Dutch language poster you see above is for the Belgian release, and was put together by S.P.R.L. Belgique. Beat the Devil opened in France today, and Belgium this month in 1954.
Only the good go to sleep at night.
The French coined the term film noir, so it seems only fitting to feature a collection of French posters celebrating the genre. Above and below are fifteen examples promoting films noir from France, Britain, and the U.S., representing some of the best ever produced within the art form, as well as some less celebrated examples that we happen to love. Of those, we highly recommend seeing Le salaire de la peur, for which you see the poster above, and Ride the Pink Horse, below, which played as Et tournent les chevaux de bois in France. Just a word about those films (and feel free to skip ahead to the art, because really, who has time these days to listen to a couple of anonymous internet scribes ramble on about old movies?).
1953’s Le salaire de la peur is about a group of men stranded in an oil company town in the mountains of South America. In order to earn the wages to get out, four of them agree to drive two trucks filled with nitroglycerine over many miles of dangerous terrain. The idea is to use the chemicals to put out a raging oil well fire that is consuming company profits by the second, but of course the film is really about whether the men can even get there alive. Le salaire de la peur was critically praised when released in Europe, but in the U.S., political factions raised their ugly heads and got censors to crudely re-edit the prints so as to reduce the movie’s anti-capitalist (and by extension anti-American) subtext. The movie was later remade by Hollywood twice—once in 1958 as Hell’s Highway, and again in 1977 as Sorcerer. The original is by far the best.
1947’s Ride the Pink Horse is an obscure noir, but a quintessential one, in our opinion. If many noirs feature embittered World War II vets as their anti-heroes, Robert Montgomery’s Lucky Gagin is the bitterest of them all. He arrives in a New Mexico border town on a quest to avenge the death of a friend. The plot is thin—or perhaps stripped down would be a better description—but Montgomery’s atmospheric direction makes up for that. Like a lot of mid-century films featuring ethnic characters, the most important one is played by a white actor (Wanda Hendrix, in a coating of what looks like brown shoe polish). It's racist, for sure, but within the universe of the film Lucky Gagin sees everyone around him only as obstacles or allies—i.e., equals within his own distinct worldview. So that makes up for it. Or maybe not. In any case, we think Ride the Pink Horse is worth a look. Thirteen more posters below.
Ever seen a $75,000 book? This is what it looks like.
You really can’t discuss pulp and San Francisco without mentioning The Maltese Falcon. Written by San Fran resident Dashiell Hammet and published by Knopf in 1930, the book’s protagonist San Spade became the archetypal private eye as he haunted the Bay area trying to solve his partner’s murder. The first edition has since become one of the Holy Grails of book collectors, which probably explains why the international auction house Sotheby’s sold a copy of the novel’s first pressing for $75,000. Before you say, “You’re shitting me,” we’ll add that 75K was actually lower than their upper end estimate of $90,000. The 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston is considered by most cinema experts to be the first real film noir, and Bogart said it best when asked in the movie exactly what the falcon was. His answer: “The stuff that dreams are made of.”
It’s like I said all along. Cigarettes—cough, retch—are perfectly safe.
This is a prime example of how tabloid journalism works. The idea is to snare an audience by teasing, mystifying, outraging, or confirming deeply held hopes or suspicions. On this cover of Confidential you get three blurbs that hint at celebrity misbehavior—possibly sexual in Mansfield’s case—but the interesting bit is the top banner in which editors confirm that smoking cigarettes does not cause cancer. With a claimed distribution of four million copies, but a secondhand circulation that may have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled that figure, millions of Confidential readers probably hacked up a bit of grey phlegm before wheezing, “I knew it! Those damn scientists are just fascists trying to take away our liberties!” Well, not so much. But in November 1957, Confidential made an assertive case. It was the wrong case, but whaddaya gonna do? Nobody’s perfect.
Black bird singing in the dead of night.
Above are two French posters for one of our favorite movies, The Maltese Falcon. Dashiell Hammett’s novel was originally adapted in 1931 by Roy Del Ruth with Bebe Daniels and Ricardo Cortez in the leads. Though that version was good, John Huston and Warner Brothers Studios chose to remake the film in 1941 and hit the jackpot pairing Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor as Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaugnessey. With Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Elisha Cook, Jr. in supporting roles, the film was loaded with top talent and is considered the first film noir. If you haven’t seen it, rent it. And if you like it, rent the 1931 version too—the contrast is striking. Le faucon Maltais opened in Paris today in 1946.
The Asphalt Jungle remains one of the top crime thrillers ever filmed.
The Asphalt Jungle is half a century old, but remains one of the best procedural heist films ever made. The men who commit the robbery at the center of this movie come from all walks of life—some are perennial losers, others are opportunists, and others are just having a hard time and need a way out. All of them long for better lives. All of them desperately need the money to get there. These footmen, facilitators, and financial backers plan every aspect of a lucrative heist, but the caper begins falling apart almost immediately, due to back luck, mistrust, and greed.
Sterling Hayden, who we’ve mentioned before, is incendiary in the lead, exuding extreme menace but with a hint of recognizable humanity behind the eyes. One of his best moments comes in a brief but exquisitely choreographed shooting involving a thrown valise.
All of this takes place under the sure hand of director John Huston, working from a 1949 book by William Riley Burnett. Burnett was a bit of a legend himself. He was a prolific crime novelist who wrote the source material for Little Caesar, Scarface, and High Sierra, and whose screenplays include This Gun for Hire, I Died a Thousand Times, and Nobody Lives Forever.
Put Burnett, Huston and Hayden together (not to mention James Whitmore, Jean Hagen, Sam Jaffe, and a young Marilyn Monroe in a small role as a rich man's plaything) and you get exactly what you’d expect—a genre classic that transcends its boundaries and becomes instead a piece of high art.
The film was a major hit that wowed audiences worldwide. At top you see the Italian promo art, and below that we have both the hardback and paperback cover art. The Asphalt Jungle opened as Giungla di asfalto in Italy today in 1951.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1940—Smedley Butler Dies
American general Smedley Butler dies. Butler had served in the Philippines, China, Central America, the Caribbean and France, and earned sixteen medals, five of which were for heroism. In 1934 he was approached by a group of wealthy industrialists wanting his help with a coup against President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in 1935 he wrote the book War Is a Racket, explaining that, based upon his many firsthand observations, warfare is always wholly about greed and profit, and all other ascribed motives are simply fiction designed to deceive the public.
1967—Muhammad Ali Sentenced for Draft Evasion
Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who was known as Cassius Clay before his conversion to Islam, is sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. In elucidating his opposition to serving, he uttered the now-famous phrase, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
1953—The Rosenbergs Are Executed
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted for conspiracy to commit espionage related to passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet spies, are executed at Sing Sing prison, in New York.
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