The Asphalt Jungle

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Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one’s all right, he turns legit.

It could be said that John Huston created the template for the private eye movie with his version of The Maltese Falcon; I think the same is also true of The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and the heist movie. In terms of plotting and development, this film lays out the pattern that almost all subsequent efforts have followed. Others have played around with the structure and characterization within this sub-genre, but the basic concept of a group of professional thieves assembling to plan and execute a raid before seeing everything fall apart remains the standard formula to this day. Aside from its influential status, The Asphalt Jungle is also a first-rate film noir and a compelling crime drama. Unlike Criss Cross or The Killers, the gang are not foiled by a scheming femme fatale or by having their judgement clouded by emotion. Instead, their downfall is hastened by mistrust born of greed and the little glitches that even the coolest planner couldn’t hope to foresee.

The credits fade from the screen and are replaced by a bleak, deserted and forbidding cityscape where a cruising patrol car prowls ominously. As it does so, a man keeps to the shadows and flits silently from one piece of cover to the next, like prey being stalked by a relentless hunter. The man is Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) and at this stage the only thing we can say with any degree of confidence is that he’s anxious to avoid a brush with the law. Later, we learn that Dix is what’s termed a hooligan, a low-class common criminal using violence and brawn rather than brains and finesse. Dix is the man we follow throughout the movie, and it’s by this means that we’re introduced, one by one, to all the major players in the drama: Gus (James Whitmore), the physically deformed wheelman; Cobby (Marc Lawrence), the bookie with connections in both high and low places; Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the ex-con with a big reputation; and eventually Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the big-time lawyer in need of money. When Riedenschneider emerges from prison with an apparently foolproof plan for a headline grabbing jewel heist, the scene is set for the paths of all the main characters to cross in a game of lies, betrayal and violence. By the time the end credits roll, a daring plan is hatched and put in place, enormous wealth is stolen, promises are broken, and men die abrupt and bloody deaths.

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One of the more remarkable aspects of the film is the way the career criminals come across in a far stronger light than the traditional representatives of law, order and respectability. The Asphalt Jungle was made by MGM just as Louis B Mayer’s time in charge was drawing to a close. Apparently, the old mogul wasn’t the least bit impressed by what he saw as a movie peopled by a succession of disreputable types. The fact that the police are portrayed as oafish and corrupt, and that the patrician lawyer is in reality an adulterous confidence man must have raised a few eyebrows at the bastion of wholesome, all-American values that was MGM during the Mayer years. The inclusion of a crusading, moralising police commissioner (John McIntire) looks suspiciously like a sop to silence the protests of the outraged sections of the studio brass. If that was the intention, then I’m not sure it worked out – the almost insufferable, whiter than white sermonizing results in his becoming little more than a cardboard cutout compared to the complex and layered figures ranged against him. Frankly, there’s a lot of John Huston’s fondness for the perverse in this whole setup. The director had a great eye for skewed, noirish imagery throughout his career, and he was also drawn to those dramas that featured characters who were either flawed or were a step or two removed from the mainstream. The film is full up of perfectly realized scenes that highlight the twilight world of these off-centre people: the threatening opening, the charged atmosphere of the planning sessions in Cobby’s back room, and the cool detachment of the heist itself. The latter sequence, with its minimal use of dialogue is a wonderful example of extended tension. In fact, dialogue all through the film is treated as a precious commodity, every word being weighed and delivered to extract maximum effect so that even seemingly throwaway lines are actually loaded with significance. In a similar vein, the use of Miklos Rozsa’s score is rationed too, lending it greater impact when it’s finally allowed to burst forth during Dix’s frantic and fateful drive home.

Sterling Hayden’s performance as Dix is the glue that holds everything together and keeps the narrative focused. Physically, Hayden was ideal casting as the muscle of the gang, and his presence dominates every scene where he appears. His cocksure contempt for the trashy city types that circumstances have forced him to associate with is evident in his arrogant, swaggering manner around the other hoods. The only time he allows the mask of tough insolence to slip a little is when he’s alone with Jean Hagen’s Doll. This fragile woman seems to draw out Dix’s humanity and it’s her presence that encourages him to reminisce with a touching innocence about a happier, cleaner youth growing up on his Kentucky farm. Despite the strident claims of the police commissioner that Dix is a man without conscience or feeling, the viewer can clearly see that he’s an all too human figure. He may be hardened by the necessities of the life he’s had to lead, but the heart of a simple farm boy beats strong below the surface. Although Jean Hagen’s role may have been a small one she is spot on in her portrayal of a lonely and vulnerable woman adrift in the apathetic environment of the big city. The one thing that almost all the characters have in common is their desire to escape the stifling confines of their urban wilderness. Sam Jaffe’s Doc sees the heist as the ideal means to secure a leisured retirement in Mexico and Emmerich views it as an opportunity to dig himself out of the financial and personal wasteland in which he’s mired. Of course both these characters also share a fatal fondness for the company of young women, and that weakness is partly responsible for their coming to grief. Jaffe’s calm inscrutability was well suited to the part of the mastermind who comes to realize that even the most intricate planning and preparation can only take one so far, sooner or later the vagaries of fate step in and throw a spanner in the works. I don’t think I’ve seen Louis Calhern do anything better than his Lon Emmerich, a study in dissipated disillusionment that’s simultaneously sympathetic and repulsive. Huston often shoots him in close-up to catch the shifting emotions and self-doubt that are particularly evident in the eyes – a wonderfully subtle performance. I’d also like to single out Marc Lawrence, whose sweaty turn as Cobby, the real weak link in the chain, is a fine piece of twitchy character acting. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that although she’s prominently featured in the reissue poster I’ve used above, Marilyn Monroe has a relatively minor part in the movie.

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The Asphalt Jungle is widely available on DVD from Warner Brothers, and the transfer on the US disc is especially strong. The image is clean and sharp, and the excellent contrast highlights the skills of cameraman Harold Rosson. The disc includes a commentary track by Drew Casper and James Whitmore, along with a short filmed introduction by John Huston. All told, it’s a very nice presentation of the movie and one that I have no complaints about. The film is a highly accessible slice of prime film noir, whose only weakness is the inclusion of the inserts involving John McIntire’s commissioner and his upstanding officers. These bland, colourless figures are an unconvincing addition, however, they do serve to emphasise the authenticity of the playing around them. This one is a great movie that can be viewed time and again without losing any impact. An easy recommendation.