The Asphalt Jungle: Marilyn’s ‘Film Gris’

Although some of Marilyn’s best early movies are now categorised as film noir, they also possessed various traits associated with other genres. All of them were released after the 1940s – the noir decade – came to its end. Clash by Night and Don’t Bother to Knock are both melodramas, while Niagara, while closer to the classic mould, was made in Technicolor.

Her first venture into noir territory, The Asphalt Jungle (1950), was a heist picture, and as Swapnil Dhruv Bose writes for Far Out magazine, it can also be classified as ‘film gris.’

“Although the film noir genre is wildly popular and is often brought up in most discussions about cinematic genres, the subgenre of film gris is often largely neglected. The term, which translates to ‘grey film’, was coined by experimental auteur Thom Andersen who felt that it was imperative to separate this oeuvre of cinematic works from the general legacy of film noir sensibilities in the history of American cinema.

Gaining traction during the late 1940s and the early ’50s during an atmosphere of anti-communist sentiments and McCarthyist politics … Through the cinematic medium, these films attempted to explore questions of class consciousness and the mythological nature of the American Dream.

Charles J. Maland wrote, ‘Stated simply, film gris is a strange brew concocted when the flavour of leftist filmmakers whose politics were formed in the 1930s mixed with the industrial context of Hollywood and the political currents of American culture as the Cold War set in during the late 1940s and early 1950s.'”

From the LA Times (August 27, 1950)

And as the article notes elsewhere, The Asphalt Jungle – although critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated – was not a huge commercial success when first released. Nonetheless, it was a springboard for Marilyn’s burgeoning career, with early viewers singling out her luscious presence in an otherwise bleak picture.

“In an interview with Roger Ebert, director John Huston commented: ‘Of course it’s about as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it. It’s always nice when pictures are revived years later, it gives you the satisfaction of seeing them finally accepted, and God knows Beat the Devil and The Asphalt Jungle were no great shakes their first time around. But as far as the, ah, material rewards are concerned, it’s better to have a success from the first.'”