A tranquil nocturne when compared to the scherzo standards of German expressionism, Joe May’s little-noir-that-couldn’t Asphalt keeps its bobbed-head firmly to the ground where its most famous contemporaries scale isosceles-triangular angles. Asphalt has no Herculanean aspirations, but it exchanges pomp for a much more muted example of zee human condition. Namely, the sexual reaction that drizzling eyeliner tends to set off in the form of bulging calves in knee-high leather police boots. Metropolis star Gustav Fröhlich plays a traffic cop (do they come any more straight-laced?) who lives with his doting mother and stoically proud papa. His seriousness toward defending the law is put through the sultry gauntlet, however, when he steps into an altercation between a jeweler and a sticky-fingered (or, rather, sticky-umbrella-ed) flappette accused of stealing one of his diamonds. The quintessentially Aryan Fröhlich is so deeply committed to his stature that, once the girl’s guilt is confirmed, he insists on prosecuting even when the jeweler, bedazzled by the girl’s guilty luminescence, refuses to press charges. Before you can say blonde vs. brunette, the cop finds himself acquiescing to more and more of the girl’s groveling requests—“Loan me your handkerchief, mine is all boogered up,” “Please don’t take me to jail until I can gather my papers, which are in my boudoir vanity table,” “Please let me wrap my toes around your boot,” and so on. As predictable as the set up is, Asphalt‘s surprising charm is in how much it refutes the general myth that German expressionism is only one femme fatale Anschluss removed from the dark, misogynistic heart of film noir. Betty Amann’s glamorous pickpocket doesn’t provide the impetus for Fröhlich’s downfall so much as she meets him halfway. It’s as shocking that Amann appears to develop real feelings for her would-be easy mark as it is that the forces of “good”—represented by Fröhlich’s “the law is the law” father—turn out to be crassly devoid of empathy. While the beauty of Asphalt is the sort that could’ve launched a million silk-screen ringers if reconstruction-era Germany had a line of Hot Topics, Joe May makes “only skin deep” seem rather a relief. I mean, aside from the fact that the last shot will undoubtedly find its way into Lars von Trier’s next film.
I wouldn't be surprised if this is carted over from the reportedly wonderful transfer from the Criterion-of-the-UK Masters of Cinema collection. It's not perfection-certainly nowhere near the level of some of those eye-popping Fritz Lang restorations. There are some shots that had to be sourced from inferior prints to assemble a near-complete cut. But, for a movie that could've well been buried under cement for all film history's written about it, it's pretty spectacular. Or, rather, it was before the predictable PAL-to-NSTC transfer. (Though the ghosting effects admittedly enhance some of Amann's prodigious close-ups.)
Not even an iron-on transfer.
Joe May's tale of forbidden self-abnegation asks whose ass is really at fault?