“If you want fresh air, don’t look for it in this town!”
As a connoisseur of heist films it just doesn’t get any better than The Asphalt Jungle (1950), which also happens to be one of my all-time favorite film noirs. Directed with stylish economy by John Huston, it features atmospheric black and white cinematography courtesy of Harold Rosson (The Wizard of Oz) that draws me into its shadowy world of cops and crooks every time. This is evident from the establishing shot of a police car on the prowl on a deserted city street in an unidentified Midwestern city. We are soon introduced to its target – a tall man dressed in a suit who carefully evades the squad car. Huston sets a fantastic mood early on as we see the man make his way through city streets littered with garbage and grimy back alleys strewn with rubble as Miklos Rozsa’s suspenseful music plays over the soundtrack.
The unidentified man reaches his destination – a small diner simply known as “Café.” Without a word, the man hands over his gun to the counterman who stashes it in his cash register just before two cops come in and bust the man for vagrancy. Down at the police station, the man is put in a line-up with two others where he’s finally introduced as Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) and his rather impressive rap sheet is rattled off. It seems that a man whose place of business was held up the night before is asked by the police to identify the man responsible. He takes a hesitant look at Dix who stares threateningly at him, but in a subtle way (if that’s possible) that clearly intimidates the man. As a result, he refuses to finger Dix for the crime.
Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley) meets with the Police Commissioner (John McIntire) who chastises his subordinate for not doing his job properly and for allowing too much crime to go on in his precinct. To further add to the man’s woes, criminal mastermind “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) was released from state prison and was spotted heading towards the city. The gruff Commissioner gives Ditrich one more chance to redeem himself.
Doc makes his way through the criminal underworld to a joint run by Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a bookie with all kinds of connections. Doc tells him about a job that he is thinking of putting together that will result in a $500,000 payday, but he needs $50,000 in startup money. Through his prison contacts, he heard that Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a wealthy lawyer who reeks of smug condescension, could provide that kind of backing and also be able to fence the stolen jewelry. He has pretensions to being a cultured man, but in actuality he’s just as greedy and untrustworthy as any criminal. We soon find out that he’s bankrupt and only projects the illusion of being well-off. Emmerich needs this score as much as any of them.
With the start-up money secured, Doc hires three men to pull the job: Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), an expert safecracker, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), a driver who helped Dix out at the diner, and, of course, Dix, the requisite muscle. As film noir expert Eddie Muller points out, Huston presents a criminal underworld of “struggling laborers, alienated loners, even honorable family men,” along with the usual assortment of low-lives and corrupt figures. None of them have lofty aspirations – they just want to carve out a better life for themselves. In a nice touch, Huston shows Doc and his crew plying their respective skills by depicting the actual job, which certainly adds to the film’s authenticity.
I love the little bits of business that provide intriguing insights into the various characters, like when Gus threatens to beat-up a truck driver for making disparaging remarks about cats. Even though he is a small guy with a hunchback, his stocky build and intimidating manner causes the driver to back down. In addition, the understated friendship between Gus and Dix is well-played by James Whitmore and Sterling Hayden. You get the feeling that they would do anything for each other, but it is never explicitly stated. Rather, it is conveyed in the way they act towards each other.
Sterling Hayden has the distinction of starring in two of the greatest heist films – The Killing (1956) and The Asphalt Jungle – playing no-nonsense tough guys. In John Huston’s film, we are privy to Dix’s motivation for going in on the heist. Not only does he owe money, thanks to a persistent gambling problem, but he also wants to make enough to buy back his family’s farm and raise horses just like his father (the story he tells about its decline is simultaneously tragic and unintentionally hilarious). This dream and his friendship with Doll (Jean Hagen), a showgirl, humanizes Dix so that he is more than just some goon. That being said, Hayden is one of those actors that exuded a natural toughness in the way he carried himself, which made him an ideal noir protagonist.
In addition, Marc Lawrence plays Cobby with just the right amount of sweaty desperation, which only increases when things inevitably go bad. Everything you need to know about Cobby can be gleaned from his perpetually nervous demeanor. Sam Jaffe is excellent as the wise criminal mastermind who seems to have all the angles covered, but is prone to bad luck, just like anybody else. The Asphalt Jungle is often remembered for featuring Marilyn Monroe in an early role where she plays Emmerich’s mistress. She isn’t in the film very much, but does make an impression with her considerable beauty and wide-eyed innocence.
The Asphalt Jungle is a quintessential film noir with most of the iconography we come to expect from the genre. It presents a shadowy world populated by tough guys, desperate criminals and a heist that goes bad. The black and white cinematography transforms the city into a shadowy underworld full of danger. The opening sequence that takes us through the dark recesses of the city sets up the metropolis as another character. It also adds to the doomed vibe that hangs over the characters as we know that most if not all of them will be punished for their transgressions. The most interesting part of the aftermath of the heist is how it plays out for Doc and Dix, both of whom meet oddly poignant ends – the former calmly accepts his fate, musing how it came down to a couple of minutes, and the latter fights to the bitter end to achieve his goal.
What’s interesting is that Doc and the crew he assembles are all very competent at their respective vocations, but are ultimately undone by several “blind accidents,” as he calls them. This leaves them open to the law who gradually close in. We spend enough time with Doc and Dix so that we want to see them get away, especially the latter because we’ve come to admire his direct approach to life and empathize with his reasons for going in on the heist. The tragedy of the film is that he gets so close to realizing his dream only for it to slip through his fingers. There is wry bit of irony at the end as Huston undercuts the Police Commissioner’s determined, “crime doesn’t pay”-type speech by having Dix, who has been described as the most dangerous criminal of the crew, escape police dragnets as he races back to his hometown.
Director John Huston was originally hired to co-write and direct Quo Vadis (1951), a Roman sword and sandals epic starring Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor. Huston wasn’t crazy about the project and when Peck developed an eye infection, the project was put on hold. In the meantime, MGM’s executive in charge of production Dore Schary assigned Huston to The Asphalt Jungle, an adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s crime thriller of the same name. Huston had already adapted Burnett’s High Sierra (1940) and was right at home with the material. While Ben Maddow wrote the bulk of the screenplay, the filmmaker began by jettisoning the novel’s narrative structure, which told the story from the point-of-view of the police, in favor of Doc and his crew.
Huston cast several of the main roles himself, including his good friend Sam Jaffe and Marc Lawrence whom he had worked with on Key Largo (1948). Casting Sterling Hayden was a risk for Huston because the actor had a reputation for being difficult and was known mostly for doing pretty boy roles at the time. MGM even tried to dissuade Huston from casting Hayden, but the director stuck to his guns because he saw parallels between Dix and Hayden’s own life.
The Asphalt Jungle was well-received by critics of the time. The Hollywood Reporter called it “almost a classic of its type.” The New Yorker commented that “in the end one is tempted to regret that crime doesn’t pay, because the malefactors are depicted so sympathetically.” Variety felt that it was “hard-hitting in its expose of the underworld. Ironic realism is striven for and achieved in the writing, production and direction.” The New York Times wrote, “From the very first shot, in which the camera picks up a prowling thug … there is ruthless authority in this picture, the hardness and clarity of steel and remarkably subtle suggestion that conveys a whole involvement of distorted personality and inveterate crime.” However, not everyone was a fan. Then-MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer, who preferred lightweight fare, said, “That ‘Asphalt Pavement’ thing is full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty, ugly things. I wouldn’t walk across the room to see a thing like that.” In 1951, he was replaced by Schary.
While The Asphalt Jungle certainly didn’t set the world on fire when it was first released, it has proved to be quite influential, spawning a television series of the same name, starring Jack Warden, and also helped kick start the sub-genre of caper films, inspiring the likes of Rififi (1955) and casting a long shadow that would be felt in efforts like Reservoir Dogs (1992) and The Usual Suspects (1995).
McGee, Scott, “The Asphalt Jungle.” Turner Classic Movies.
Muller, Eddie. Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir. St. Martin’s Press. 1998.