Marilyn Awakes in ‘The Asphalt Jungle’

Continuing his series for Classic Movie Hub, Gary Vitacco Robles looks at Marilyn’s breakout role in The Asphalt Jungle (1950.)

“Angela Phinlay, Emmerich’s much-younger mistress, was a small but featured role in a major film with a veteran cast delivering strong performances. The character was significant in both the film’s plot and theme and had the potential to push Monroe into the limelight … Working alongside Monroe’s agent, Johnny Hyde, was Lucille Ryman, Monroe’s benefactor and — serendipitously — the casting director at MGM.

In preparing for her audition, Monroe rehearsed with her acting coach Natasha Lytess for three days and three nights, exploring the character’s inner psychology and relationship to the plot. ‘I played a vacuous, rich man’s darling attempting to carry herself in a sophisticated manner in keeping with her plush surroundings,’ Monroe told columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. ‘I saw her as walking with a rather self-conscious slither and played it accordingly.’

With Monroe’s performance honed, Ryman called on Sydney Guilaroff, the studio’s official hairstylist, to lend his expertise. ‘I trimmed her hair carefully,’ Guilaroff wrote in his memoir, ‘curling it under in the beginnings of a pageboy but leaving it free to move and shift with Marilyn’s motions. It was an original style, much shorter than the standard length at that time and structured to follow the contours of her face. It was the look that would help make her famous and become her trademark.’

When Monroe filmed the scene in the fall of 1949, she looked over [director] John Huston’s shoulder for Natasha Lytess’s approval. In the finished film, as she walks across the living room and off camera, Monroe can be seen glancing off-camera toward her coach.

Monroe would cite her experience of working in The Asphalt Jungle as one of the most rewarding of her career. ‘I don’t know what I did, but I do know it felt wonderful,’ she told Natasha, as told to Jane Wilkie in an unpublished manuscript. Cinematographer Harold Rosson, who had been Jean Harlow’s last husband, lighted and filmed Monroe beautifully.

When The Asphalt Jungle premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on May 23, 1950, Los Angeles police officer James Dougherty served with a squad of other officers to restrain the crowds. He looked at the posters advertising the film and saw the image of his former wife, but she was not in attendance.”