Marilyn Noir: From the Jungle to the Falls

With Marilyn prominently featured, vintage poster art for The Asphalt Jungle (1950) adorns the cover of film historian Robert Miklitsch’s new book, I Died a Million Times: Gangster Noir in Midcentury America.

“In the 1950s, the gangster movie and film noir crisscrossed to create gangster noir. Robert Miklitsch takes readers into this fascinating subgenre of films focused on crime syndicates, crooked cops, and capers.

With the Senate’s organized crime hearings and the brighter-than-bright myth of the American Dream as a backdrop, Miklitsch examines the style and history, and the production and cultural politics, of classic pictures from The Big Heat and The Asphalt Jungle to lesser-known gems like 711 Ocean Drive and post-Fifties movies like Ocean’s Eleven. Miklitsch pays particular attention to trademark leitmotifs including the individual versus the collective; the family as a locus of dissension and rapport; the real-world roots of the heist picture; and the syndicate as an octopus with its tentacles deep into law enforcement, corporate America, and government. If the memes of gangster noir remain prototypically dark, the look of the films becomes lighter and flatter, reflecting the influence of television and the realization that, under the cover of respectability, crime had moved from the underworld into the mainstream of contemporary everyday life.”

Inside, ‘The Asphalt Jungle: The City Under the City’ heads up a section on heist movies. The big steal is financed by Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a lawyer whose “lush life” and mistress Angela Phinlay (MM) have bankrupted him, in an ironic commentary on “the abject corruption of the ‘haves.'” After meeting with his accomplices, Emmerich shows them out and goes into the living, where Angela – “a curvaceous young woman with blonde hair” – is fast asleep. Miklitsch compares this introduction to Marilyn with a scene from another film noir, Criss Cross (1949), where Yvonne De Carlo sleeps on a couch while the gang plans their caper.

“She’d cost him a fortune,” W.R. Burnett wrote of Emmerich’s dalliance with Angela in the 1949 novel upon which The Asphalt Jungle is based. “And now he was sitting here drinking his beer and wondering why the hell he’d done it.” As Miklitsch notes, “Monroe’s abbreviated performance as Angela is indelible and provides a pretty good idea about why Emmerich has done it.”

Nicole Veneto has reviewed I Died a Million Times for the Arts Fuse website:

“Noir is a predominantly male-centric subgenre, but Miklitsch is admirably sensitive to the sexual politics in the mix, especially when men’s relationships with (or more accurately, ‘possess[ion] of’) women envision them as erotic frosting on the cold cash cake. In ’50s gangster noir, ‘dames’ functioned as class signifiers (‘100,000 bucks, a Cadillac, and a blonde’) that marked where men fell in the pecking order of social hierarchy and power. With the resurgence of conservative gender norms following the war, pricey trophy wives/mistresses (see a young Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle) and ‘pristine,’ upper-class ‘good’ women (Janet Leigh in A Touch of Evil most notably) gradually supplanted the aggressive — though no less materially driven — femme fatale of the ’40s. Thus female sexuality was domesticated, another step in the commodification of the female body onscreen.”

Marilyn also graced the cover of Miklitsch’s previous book, The Red and the Black: American Film Noir in the 1950s, with a chapter entitled ‘Niagara: Colored Marilyns.’ Describing Henry Hathaway’s 1953 thriller as “the definitive ’50s colour noir,” he notes that Marilyn first appears in bed, in “a stunning tableau of light and shadow, emblazoned by explosive accents of colour.” In later scenes, much is made of Monroe’s ‘horizontal walk’: “[her] wiggle is the epitome of cinematic spectacle … she’s the object of both the male and female gaze.”

Miklitsch considers a scene outside the motel cabin where Marilyn, as the unhappily married Rose Loomis, joins a party and requests her favourite song, ‘Kiss.’

“In this celebrated sequence (which inspired Andy Warhol’s iconic series of ‘Coloured Marilyns’), Rose, singing in a ‘smoky vibrato,’ is the classic noir temptress whose siren song is fatal, a woman who according to the trailer, ‘sang of love just as she had lived for love, like Lorelei flaunting her charms as she lured men on and on to their eternal destruction. When a man took her loveliness in his arms, he took his life in his hands.’ (Lorelei Lee is the name of the ‘dumb blonde,’ ‘gold digger’ character that Monroe would go on to play in Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953.)”

In Niagara, ‘the red and the black’ is embodied in the jacket and skirt donned by Rose over a white blouse for her first meeting with Inspector Starkey (Denis O’Dea), as she reports her husband George missing. “These colours – red, white and black – reflect the film’s chromatic revision of classic noir,” Miklitsch writes, “in which red signifies danger or desire, white purity or innocence, and black aggressivity or death.” She is more appropriately garbed in black for a later scene in which Starkey ushers her into the city morgue to identify what he believes are her husband’s remains.

“While Rose is the very image of a grieving widow, the silhouette shot as she approaches the sheeted body in the back room, the sound of her footsteps reverberating in the stillness, suggests that she’s the one in the dark. When Inspector Starkey turns on the overhead light, pulling back a sheet so that Rose can see the face, she faints dead away; Niagara, to paraphrase [Andre] Bazin, has not returned the body she had hoped it would. The sound of Rose’s bracelet as her body slumps to the floor is a sonic coup de grace.”

A semi-conscious, delirious Rose is next seen in a hospital bed. Her favourite song will finally awaken her, although in a more sinister context.

“Two cuts – the first to George (Joseph Cotten) depositing a note in the bell tower’s ‘musical requests’ box, the second to a high, foreshadowed shot of Rose immobile in her hospital bed, the drapes billowing in the open window – reveal George’s intent and Rose’s vulnerability. As the carillon plays ‘Kiss,’ Rose’s hands begin to twitch, the camera rapidly panning out to a long exterior shot of the bell tower framed in the window. When the camera, after a startling montage composed of dark, low-angle shots of the tongue-linked bells, cuts back to Rose, it’s to a choker shot: her eyes are closed and she’s tearing at her hair. In a close rhyme of the film’s second sequence, Rose opens her eyes and there’s a brief moment between sleeping and waking when she thinks it’s Patrick (Richard Allan) signalling her – ‘If everything is OK you’ll hear the Bell Tower play our song’ – until she remembers, horrified, that he’s dead.”

Although Rose’s downfall is the prelude to an action-packed finale, Miklitsch argues that “the penultimate bell tower sequence is the film’s real audiovisual climax.”

“A reprise of the overhead shot from the perspective of the silenced bells shows George again in silhouette, unravelling the white scarf from around Rose’s neck with a flourish as her body slumps soundlessly to the floor. The conclusion to the sequence – an overhead master shot of Rose’s body gashed by vertical bars of shadow, her hand still grasping the chartreuse handkerchief – prefigures Vertigo and the dream-haunting shot of Madeleine Elster’s (Kim Novak) fallen body splayed out on the bell tower roof like a silhouette.”

In conclusion, Miklitsch writes that Rose is not, after all, a traditional femme fatale, but a ‘femme vital’ more akin to Rita Hayworth’s Gilda (1946.)

“The key here, as in A Kiss Before Dying (1956), is the colour pink, which is the colour of the dress Rose is wearing when she sings ‘Kiss,’ the same colour dress that, not so incidentally, Lorelei Lee is wearing when, intimations of Madonna in ‘Material Girl’ (1984), she performs ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes … Rose may well be pretty in pink, but she appears rather less interested in pleasing men than in pleasing herself. In fine, Rose puts the femme back in femme fatale and, as such, incarnates a new notion of femininity, one that’s indebted less to male fantasies because engendered more by a flush, robust sense of female sexuality.”