Friday, June 8, 2018

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

“Always remember: Don't be a sucker.” Rocky Sullivan
I thought I’d take a time out from gloomy and depressing Noirs where everybody dies in the end to write about something more upbeat and uplifting. Why not a gangster movie? ... Oh wait. Seems I just can’t stay away from gloomy and depressing.

Directed by Michael Curtiz for Warner Bros., Angels with Dirty Faces is tough gangster film that doesn’t neglect social issues of the day. In typical Warner Bros. fashion the picture wasn’t just entertainment, it tried to convey a message as well.
As every filmmaker knew it wasn’t easy to put social commentary into films while Joe Breen was looking over your shoulder. Yet, whilst trying to appease the PCA director Michael Curtiz managed to get his message across. And though the Production Code required a moral ending for once it was not a handicap that drove the movie off the cliff in the last act.

Angels benefits from layers and ambiguity as any good movie does. Characters, motivations and issues are not at all clear-cut and many scenes in the movie are up to interpretation.

The 1930s was a time of great change for American society. In 1929, the bottom fell out of the global economy and the Wall Street Crash ushered in the Great Depression. It bankrupted thousands of people, prompting mass unemployment and years of hardship. Formerly prosperous citizens were plunged into lives of poverty and despair. People began to realize that the ideal of The American Dream was perhaps not as realistic as they had once been led to believe. 
On top of that the 18th Amendment kicked off one of the most harebrained moral crusades in human history, Prohibition (1920-1933). It was supposed to eliminate drunkenness, crime and other social evils but not surprisingly, it backfired spectacularly. The very law whose aim was to enforce morality upon society would in essence to do the very opposite. It turned ordinary people into law-breakers and encouraged more people to drink than ever. 
But more than anything people became cynical not only of an inept Government that did nothing to alleviate people’s hardship but any kind of authority. 

Desperate times called for desperate measures. A new type of hero was emerging. Gangsters became the ultimate rebels who refused to accept Depression-imposed deprivations. Obstacles placed in their way they just blasted to bits with rapid machine gun fire. They elbowed their way to the top using the allied rackets of bootlegging, gambling and prostitution. Gangsters were the ultimate self-made men and admiration for the self-made man is something embedded in the American psyche. Gangsters lived the American Dream. So what if their Dream was skewed because it was as pure as the driven, that was better than living in some dreary tenement with peeling plaster on $30 a week. Virtue - that was becoming increasingly clear - was not its own reward. Virtue’s reward was a miserable life in the slums.

It is often taken for granted that Depression era audiences went to the movies to see escapist fare to distract them from their own hard existence. This is not entirely true. Despite MGM’s and Paramount’s best efforts to the contrary, a new mood of gritty realism surfaced in Hollywood that matched the grimness of the times. Most Depression films were grounded in the social realities of the day. It was important for the common people to see that there were others out there struggling just as hard as they were. Audiences loved seeing the gangster stick it to the Man.
Gangsters blazed their way into the cities and the movie theaters. Of course they found themselves in hot water with the censors practically from the start. By necessity the studios had to sell their product to the public as a morality tale to keep Joe Breen happy. But the allure and glamour of crime and lawlessness were barely hidden under a thin veneer of put-upon moral outrage in the shape of prefaces and disclaimers that didn’t sound too convincing. 

Despite the purported moral message, the gangster’s life was shown in all its glory… as long as he dutifully breathed his last in a dirty gutter when the credits rolled. Maybe crime didn’t pay in the end, but until then the gangster had a damn good time.
When the PCA finally started to crack down and strictly enforce the stipulations of the Production Code in June 1934, the gangster movie lost its bite and went into a sharp decline. It was hard for a self-respecting gangster out there if he had to fight the Production Code as well as other gangsters.

Like The Roaring Twenties, Angels with Dirty Faces is really a nostalgia piece. Released at the dawn of a new decade, this Post-Code movie came decidedly late to the party. Times were changing and the days of the gangster were numbered. Prohibition had long been repealed, the Depression was almost over and another war was looming on the horizon. 

Angels with Dirty Faces is Warner returning to its roots while at the same time doing penance for past transgressions. The “crime does not pay” homily in the beginning can be dispensed with, the movie drives that point home with a vengeance in the last scene.

As a true Warner movie, Angels doesn’t shy away from grittiness. The studio had always had a working-class aesthetic. The cramped and dirty reality of New York City’s slums comes to life vividly. Overcrowded tenements, laundry hanging out in the streets, people who obviously haven’t had a bath in weeks … this is what reality looked like even if artifice had to stand in for it. The movie is studio filmmaking at its best.

The story begins in the 1920s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, with two boyhood chums - angels with dirty faces - Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) trying to break into a freight railroad car to steal some fountain pens. This prologue section not only establishes the bond between the two boys, but also the differences between them. Rocky is a born trouble maker. He’s the instigator of the robbery, he’s the one who already takes things that do not belong to him.
The robbery goes wrong, Rocky is caught while Jerry escapes. Insisting on taking the rap, Rocky is sent to reformatory school and his life spirals out of control. He sinks deeper and deeper into a life of crime. For the next fifteen years he’s constantly in and out of the clink, making a name for himself as gangster. He then returns to his old neighborhood where he meets Jerry again who’s become a priest. 

Rocky also still has a score to settle with former friend and crooked lawyer Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) who owes him 100G because once again Rocky took one for the team. Frazier tries to double-cross him, he even sends the hit squad after Rocky, but Rocky is too smart. He muscles his way into Frazier’s organization.

To no-one’s surprise Cagney is phenomenal in his role. It earned him an Oscar nomination. Rocky is at the same time cocky, brash, menacing, violent, funny and full of confidence and swagger. There was always an incredible intensity and vitality about Cagney and though he was a little guy, he seemed larger-than-life. Rocky loves the money, power and glamour the gangster lifestyle affords him. 

A gang of local kids - the Dead End Kids - adopt Rocky as their mentor. They’re gangster wannabes with a bad case of hero-worship. The Dead End Kids were fairly big stars at the time but they are the only jarring note in an otherwise perfect film. Their antics are often too intrusive. 

Cagney charms the audience effortlessly. You simply can’t resist him. The guy is like a blunt force trauma to the head.
As opposed to Cagney’s other gangster portrayals, there is a core of humanity in Rocky Sullivan. He has redeemable qualities. We know this guy means business when we see him ruthlessly dealing with fellow gangsters but there’s another side to him. Rocky clearly has one weak spot - his care for others. He’s unwavering loyal to his childhood friend Jerry. He also shows tenderness in the brief romantic interludes with Ann Sheridan.

When Rocky comes back to his old neighborhood after 15 years, it is as if the exiled has returned home. He’s looking for sanctuary and a place to belong, something he never had. It’s just that Rocky wants it both ways. He doesn’t want to leave his old life behind. Rocky wants to compartmentalize his life — one the one hand he wants to be friends with Father Jerry and support his ministry while on the other hand he’s loath to turn over a new leaf and give up the perks of his gangster life.

The movie makes no bones about stating that once you’re in the mills of the judicial system, you won’t be able to catch a break ever again. Reform school didn’t reform Rocky, it just put him through the ringer and should have instead been called Prep School for Crimes and Other Misdemeanors. Once he’s out, Rocky embarks on a life of crime and graduates from petty larceny to manslaughter and racketeering pretty quickly.
This is Warner putting in their two cents in the nature vs. nurture debate, laying the blame for Rocky’s descent (or ascent) into crime squarely on poverty, social dysfunction and ineffectual judicial system. "Society is to blame” is a very Depression-era view. We find it too in The Public Enemy and Dead End (again with the Dead End Kids) which clearly espoused none too subtly the thesis that the environment shapes a person’s character and is to be held responsible for any kind of antisocial behavior. 

If this is 100% true is debatable. Rocky goes back to crime over and over again every time he gets released and it’s clearly not because of desperation. Between stints in prison he lives the high life because he loves it. We don’t see a man who desperately wants to go straight. Rocky is simply a career criminal who’s not cut out for civilian life.

For Curtiz though there’s another crucial factor in a person’s life. Pure dumb luck. Or, from Father Jerry’s standpoint, there but for the Grace of God go I. Rocky and Jerry share a history and societal DNA, so how can they turn out so differently? Life dealt them both an equally lousy hand. In the film’s final line Father Jerry addresses exactly this point. 
“All right, fellas… let’s go and say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”
It all boils down to one fact. By getting away Jerry was given the opportunity to right his wrongs while Rocky couldn’t run fast enough on the day it counted most and was put through the system which set him off on his course. The line between saint and sinner is a fine, and undoubtably, arbitrary one.
What would have happened had their roles been reversed? 

Pat O’Brien has the rather thankless task of making moral uprightness at least marginally bearable. Shining paragons of virtue can be hard to take but he acquits himself quite well. Of course he’s lacking the excitement of Rocky, but then again that is the point. The voice of righteousness is by necessity boring. His speechifying is occasionally heavy-handed though he keeps it just this side of too patronizing.

Jerry still has enormous affection for his old friend, but he also has no illusions about him.
Jerry knows he’s nowhere near as compelling to the kids as Rocky. “Whatever I teach them, you show me up. You show them the easiest way is with a racket or a gun.” He warns Rocky that he won’t let these angels with dirty faces get corrupted by crime. So far their dirtiness is only on the surface, the grime still can be washed away. An all-out media crusade to stop Rocky and other assorted riffraff is Jerry’s idea of fighting back but when has preaching ever helped?

Ann Sheridan plays Cagney’s love interest but her character is underdeveloped as her role was supposed to be much bigger initially. It is interesting to note though that before Rocky comes back Laury was married to a crook who met his end in a shoot-out with the cops. For a smart and nice girl, she sure knows how to pick ‘em.

The remarkably staged shootout near the end packs a punch, even today. It is fantastically filmed. Outnumbered and outgunned, Rocky makes his last stand against the entire police department in an old factory, bombarded by tear gas and machine gun fire. For the viewer it is very important to keep in mind that Rocky here is shown as a man who doesn’t know fear. He defiantly laughs in the face of danger. In most gangster movies this scene would have been the climax, and a good one it would have been too, with Rocky going out in a blaze of glory. Not so here. The movie bothers to go a little further.

Nobody who’s ever seen the ending will ever forget it. It is one of the best ever to come out of Hollywood and unparalleled in any gangster movie. Rocky is eventually captured, can’t beat the murder charges and is sentenced to the chair. Father Jerry goes to see him in prison and makes a desperate plea: Rocky has to pretend to “turn yellow” on the long march to the electric chair. He’s supposed to plead for mercy while he's dragged to the electric chair. If the kids know that Rocky died a coward, they will be disillusioned and may stop hero-worshipping him. Cagney incredulously refuses and wonders how his best friend can ask him to pretend to go out like a coward and throw away his reputation, his pride and his courage which is all that he has left. But Jerry wants Rocky to do the right thing for once in his life and show a different sort of courage. “The kind that only you and I and God know about. I want you to let them down. They’ve got to despise your memory.” Jerry knows he cannot save Rocky, but he may be able to save the angels with dirty faces. 

Rocky starts off on his “last mile”, still unbowed and defiant to the last, even punching a guard. Then when he enters the chamber, Rocky breaks down. His blood-curdling, gut-wrenching screams when he’s dragged to the electric chair - supposedly refusing to die like a man - are truly horrifying.

The question if Rocky actually turns coward in his last minutes has been much discussed. It's pointless though as film historian Dana Polan points out in his DVD commentary. Just before Rocky enters the chamber we see a close-up of his face and there is nothing but grim and steely determination on it. That look signifies that the courage is still there at the end. After everything we’ve learned about Rocky, right up to the final moments before he enters the chamber, the logical conclusion can only be that he pleads for mercy only in response to Jerry’s request. Looking at his face, this is not a man who’s about to fall apart, this is a man who's finally doing the right thing. Rocky trades his reputation as a gangster for salvation - his own and the kids’. Talk about a sucker.

Cagney famously said he played the scene ambiguously so the viewer could decide for himself. But that doesn’t wash.

For the film to work Rocky cannot turn coward in the end. Rocky needs to be redeemed and the only way this is possible is by giving Jerry his headline: "Rocky Dies Yellow.” Having him truly be a coward would invalidate everything Rocky stood for.

This is one of the few times where the Production Code worked in the movie’s favor. It is incredibly subversive. Curtiz abided by the Code that evil must be punished, but Rocky was grand and heroic even in death. He kept his self-respect - even if only he and Jerry know it - AND he did the right thing. Curtiz had it both ways. The audience never feels that Rocky deserves his fate though the Code wants to make us believe it. We still love the guy.

Curtiz also undercuts the principles of the Code when he lets Jerry take a path that should go against his clerical ethics. Jerry lies to the kids. For a priest this is still considered a sin, even if he did it for a good cause. But his reasons are still self-serving.

Even in death Rocky was larger than life and we all know guys like him don’t die, they just go home.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Amazing Mr. X (1948)

Made for humble Eagle Lion by the fairly obscure Bernard Vorhaus, The Amazing Mr. X is also known under the more apt but rather generic title The Spiritualist. The original title is schlocky, the cover art even more so. But don’t let that fool you. Despite these shortcomings the movie is a tad more sophisticated than we may expect. The Amazing Mr. X is a unique and slightly loony hybrid of genres. Though it starts like a horror movie, the picture’s dynamic changes pretty quickly. It is in fact part Gothic, part horror, part Noir, part fantastic thriller and part cynical reflection on the gullibility of desperate people. The movie can’t be pigeonholed but these mismatched elements come together amazingly well. 

For the longest time only available as a mediocre quasi-bootleg copy, the film has finally been rescued from public domain hell by Columbia and given the full restoration treatment.

Whatever we choose to call it, I found the film utterly haunting. Some reviewers called it a turkey but I don’t see the reason for it. It all comes together beautifully. No doubt it’s occasionally over-baked and feverish, and there’s a few implausible chunks of plot for the viewer to either swallow or choke on. But those are features not flaws. There is something beautifully sorrowful and melancholy about it, in no small measure helped by Alexander Laszlo’s lush score, with support by two of Chopin’s soulful Nocturnes.

What puts this movie heads and shoulders above other B movies of its kind (e.g. The Inner Sanctum Series) is the moody atmosphere created by cinematographer John Alton who was hired to add a touch of class and magic to the proceedings. Alton was the master of shadows, darkness and gloomy nights where the headlights could hardly reach beyond the end of a cigarette butt. He imbues the film with a misty and unearthly glow, making the most of the seaside setting. The wild water of the ocean, the relentless crashing waves, windswept beaches and the hazy moonlight steep the movie in a dreamy aura filled with haunting images and a phantasmal mood that mirror the torrent of emotions experienced by those who can’t let go of the past because the dead still have a claim upon them.

The movie has some lovely little unexpected touches here and there. A tip of the hat has to go to private eye Hoffman (Harry B. Mendoza) who's not your run-of-the-mill PI. The actor who played Hoffman was actually a real magician and he makes good use of his sleight of hand abilities in the film. He knows the tricks of the trade and has made it his mission in life to expose phony psychics. Hoffman is always looking for someone’s card up the sleeve. When he begins to produce an endless stream of cigars while keeping up an effortless conversation, it’s a little gem. Hoffman is just a bit part, but it adds so much to the film.

We also get a little nod to Edgar Allan Poe in the shape of a cool little black Raven (who may be a crow) who is very attached to his master Alexis.

Christine Faber (Lynn Bari), a young widow, lost her husband Paul two years ago in a car accident. She lives in a seaside cliff-top mansion and one night starts to hear voices in the dark. It is as if the sea outside her window is calling her name. Christine believes her husband is attempting to communicate with her from beyond the grave. She is rattled and goes for a stroll on the beach where she runs into a dark, suave and debonair stranger, self-professed medium Alexis (Turhan Bey). He convinces her that he can communicate with Paul’s spirit though her new finance Martin (Richard Carlson) is more than skeptical. Soon Christine’s much younger sister Janet (Cathy O’Donnell) falls under Alexis’ spell and all of a sudden, Paul comes back from the dead. That’s something Alexis hasn’t counted on. It seems he has raised more spirits than he can command. 

Turhan Bey - an actor previously unknown to me - is perfect as Alexis. He’s a sham spiritualist who targets desperate grief-stricken people - well-heeled of course - haunted by their memories of loved ones lost. He has the phony spook racket down to a science. At his residence, he has created a spellbinding setup of ghostly shenanigans. It resembles a carnival fun house with secret passageways, two-way mirrors, crystal balls, trap-door cabinets, strange projections, automatic doors and marvelous set decorations including a large image of a "third eye”. During his dramatic séances disembodied heads and hands fly around magically. Playing up the theatrical angle, Alexis seems to live in the metaphysical realm of shadows and spirits, far removed from earthly wants and desires.

Alexis’ clairvoyance stuns his clients. Somehow, mysteriously he knows about their background and is able to read and pinpoint their innermost thoughts, fears and dreams.
To Christine’s surprise and shock, he knows things a stranger could not possibly know, details about Paul’s death in a burning car and her new fiancé’s little idiosyncrasies.

Alexis’ success is easy to explain. He’s a charming and charismatic charlatan with the carefully cultivated image of a mystic.
He understands psychology 101 and knows how to push the right buttons. His strongest ally is his victims’ desperation and romanticism. He has a penetrating insight into the human psyche and and tells his clients exactly what they want to hear. A skilled magician can easily fool those who want to be fooled. Gullibility is a weakness easily preyed upon. 
He doesn’t neglect the practical side though. He plants his accomplice Emily into his targets’ houses as a maid so she can feed him all the information he needs.

There’s something of the Svengali about Alexis. He quite smartly wets people’s appetites and then leaves them dangling wanting to know more. "I cannot tell you how I know these things...but it hardly matters, does it? Since we're not going to meet again…”, he says to Christine. And she’s hooked.

It is to Bey’s credit that his Alexis doesn’t end up as a one-note caricature. He’s a well-rounded character with more depth in him than even he thought possible.

Two years after Paul’s death, Christine is still shuttered in her grief and can’t let go of his memory. 
Some reviewers have called her character a bit dim for falling so easily for a fraud, but for me she’s simply emotionally unbalanced and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She’s easily duped by Alexis’ apparent clairvoyance simply because she so desperately wants to believe that Paul is alive. Lynn Bari, so often the evil temptress, turns in a likable and sensitive performance as a woman who doesn’t know if she’s going crazy or being haunted by a ghost. 
It is an exploration of the classic Noir theme of a person’s desperate desire to recover a lost past. The presence is too bleak a place for Christine. The past is where happiness lies, or so she thinks. It will turn out to be an impossible dream with bitter consequences.

Nowhere is the past’s controlling influence more evident than in Paul’s towering portrait that looms large in the living room. Life-sized portraits play a big role in many (Noir) films (most notably Laura, Scarlet Street, The Lodger, The Two Mrs. Carrolls) and there’s always something unsettling about them, especially when the subject in the picture is dead. These portraits are like ghosts from another time. They're a way for the dead to keep an eternal watch, and - more importantly - a hold over the living from the beyond. Their eyes follow us around, sometimes questioning, sometimes reproachful, sometimes daring but never ignored. 

Paul’s portrait dominates the room, yet Christine’s immortal beloved is not a soothing but a menacing presence. Paul’s gaze is fierce and gripping. When Christine accepts Martin’s engagement ring, Paul is literally there between them starring at them disapprovingly. Christine can’t let go of the past, and the portrait won’t let go of Christine.

Christine sister, Janet, is at first only too keen on exposing Alexis as a fraud and rescuing her sister from his clutches. But it’s not long until she falls under the smooth operator’s spell. He’s not above laying the smarmy charm on really thick. Her common sense goes right out of the window.

There is a case of serious sibling rivalry on display. Christine, the elder, basically brought her young sister up. There don’t seem to be any parents in the picture. Janet confesses when she was younger she was jealous of her older sister because every man was only paying attention to her. The short but very telling opening scene can easily be missed. The shadow of Janet advances on Christine's turned back, and in her hand is something that could be mistaken for a gun. It turns out to be a hairbrush, but it gives us a clue about their future relationship.
Alexis holds both both women in a thrall though in different ways, and their rivalry comes to a head when Janet falls for Alexis.

All seems to be going swimmingly for Alexis, nonetheless there’s one thing that didn’t figure in his plans. Paul didn’t shuffle off this mortal coil years ago. At a séance at Alexis’ house he materializes out of nothing and no-one is more surprised than Alexis.
Alexis’ deception turns out to be far from the cruelest, he has nothing on Paul’s devilish machinations. Paul’s plan is to bring his wife to commit suicide by literally driving her crazy with drugs and then luring her to the cliffs expecting her to fall or jump to a watery grave. That would free the way for Alexis to marry Janet and all three of them could live happily ever after off Christine’s considerable fortune. If Alexis doesn’t want to go along with his machinations, well, there’s always a cell waiting for him at the state pen. The police would be immensely interested in his dubious séances. The dead who don’t stay dead make a beastly nuisance of themselves.

But Alexis doesn’t play. He may be a fraud who tries to squeeze as much money out of gullible suckers as possible, but there’s a line he doesn’t cross and that’s murder.
It’s interesting that the guy we think in the first half is the bad guy is replaced by one who is much more sinister and truly despicable. It changes the horror movie dynamics of the plot into something decidedly mundane. Murder for cold hard cash. 

Christine has to wake up to a harsh truth. Her past was a lie. Paul was never the wonderful husband she took him to be, but a gold-digging Bluebeard with a habit of bumping off wives for their inheritance. When the dead return, they not only defile their own image and memorial, they are a source of utter terror.

In the end Alexis is not beyond redemption and not quite the scoundrel he - and others - thought him to be. He saves Christine when she tumbles down the cliffs and ultimately takes a bullet for Janet when Paul wants to shoot her.

Of course the ending is Code-imposed, both Alexis and Paul must die, though it also becomes clear that before life can go on ghosts and illusions - both imagined and real - must be laid to rest. Christine can only be free if her fool's paradise is destroyed. Her whole past was a construct of wishes and rose-colored memories. 

Before he dies Alexis admits to Janet who he's come to love: 
"Don't cling to the past. I lived by feeding people's desire to escape the present, but you can't escape for long.”
Life is in the present. Alexis doesn't want Janet to make the same mistake as her sister. The dead must lie in their graves, easy or not.

The Amazing Mr. X is an incredibly watchable movie despite its occasional shortcomings and certain indisputably campy interludes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

“Put in hours and hours of planning. Figure everything down to the last detail. Then what? Burglar alarms start going off all over the place for no sensible reason. A gun fires of its own accord and a man is shot. And a broken down old cop, no good for anything but chasing kids, has to trip over us. Blind accident. What can you do against blind accidents?" Doc Riedenschneider
The Asphalt Jungle was directed by the great John Huston for MGM, a studio whose bread and butter were lightweight musicals and wholesome fare. Louis B. Mayer hated the movie, saying “I wouldn’t cross the street to see garbage like that”. Most people begged to differ. By 1950 even MGM had to acknowledge the sign of the times in a changing postwar world. Socially-conscious Dore Schary was about to take over the studio as Mayer had become the lion in winter.

The Asphalt Jungle is atypical Noir insofar as there are no femmes fatales, no private eyes, no constantly wise-cracking tough guys here. Make no mistake though, this caper movie is as bleak as they come. It has doom written all over it and from the beginning we know how this is going to end. There's a feeling of utter desolation about it.
The best crime films and Noirs always manage to transcend the constraining parameters of their genre and dig below the surface. Jungle is serious drama about postwar disillusionment.

Just released from jail, criminal mastermind Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is already putting the next perfect heist into action. He just needs the help of some local crooks. Low-rent bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) sets him up with crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich, played with deliciously smarmy relish by Louis Calhern. He’s the money man who’s supposed to bankroll the operation.
They hire “hoodlum” Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) as the muscle for the job, hunchbacked diner owner Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) as the getaway driver and Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) as the safecracker. Unbeknownst to them, Emmerich is hatching a double-cross with his henchman Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter). Married Emmerich plans to take the loot and skip town with his mistress Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe in her breakout role). At first all goes according to plan, but things start to unravel fairly quickly. Poor Ciavelli catches a bullet in a freak accident and the cops are onto them almost at once. Dix kills Brannom in self-defense, Emmerich has to dispose of the body and the police start to ask inconvenient questions. From then on it’s all downhill. 

The Asphalt Jungle is usually credited as the movie that launched the Noir sub-genre of the caper film and it set the template for all the ones to follow (The Killing, Rififi, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Italian Job, Ocean’s 11).

The picture is divided into three Acts. Act One: gathering of the team; Act Two: planning and execution of the heist; Act Three: the aftermath and fall-out, with each member’s human failing becoming more and more evident.

Jungle was a critical success. An excerpt from Variety’s film review reads:
 “An audience will quite easily pull for the crooks in their execution of the million-dollar jewelry theft around which the plot is built.” 
This statement puts the finger right on the pulse of the problem. Heist movies are expressly designed to defy the Code’s suggestion that “the sympathy of the audience shall never be on the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.” They manipulate the moviegoer into sympathizing and even identifying with the criminals. But pulling for the crooks was a big no-no under the Production Code.

Huston flaunted that Code mightily. In Jungle he gives us destitute characters who are complex and deeply human. Huston doesn't judge his characters in regards to morals but presents them as they are, as people whose backstories are worth knowing. The criminals are NOT the dregs of society - murderers, psychos and amoral thugs - as so often portrayed in other movies. They’re normal people who just happen to steal for a living. After all, as Steve Cochran said, a guy has to make a living some way, even if he is a gangster.
Eddie Muller put it like this: 
These crooks were humanized, not demonized.… They're not hostile hoods looking for a way to wield power, they're disgruntled city dwellers driven to score some breathing room.”
Huston’s felons don’t have lofty aspirations. Ciavelli doesn't crave a penthouse or fancy cars; he wants enough money to move his family out of a tenement. Doc dreams of retiring to Mexico where he can ogle pretty girls to his heart’s content. Dix needs money fast to pay off his gambling debts before he can buy back the beloved family horse ranch in Kentucky that was lost during the Depression. Dix’s girl Doll (Jean Hagen) just wants him, unconditionally. Gus would do anything for Dix because Dix doesn’t treat him - a cripple -  like a pariah.

It’s crooked lawyer Emmerich who puts it eloquently with uncanny insight: "Crime is simply a left-handed form of human endeavor". He insists that criminals are perfectly normal people. "There's nothing so different about them”. 

Only one note rings false in the movie but that’s not Huston’s fault. The PCA was miffed that Jungle featured a dirty cop and they made Huston put in the obligatory “crime does not pay” sermon as a concession to the Production Code. Huston added a scene in which John McIntire's blowhard and preachy Police Commissioner Hardy drones on about the crooks’ viciousness and the cops’ righteousness…lest we forget who’s who. 
Still, Huston would get the last laugh. Hardy comes off as an unpleasant prick. He calls Dix “a hardened criminal…a man without human feeling or mercy”, but the audience knows that this is not true. Everything we see on the screen flies in the face of that assessment. The crooks may not have much in common beyond an opportunity that’s too good to pass up, but they look out for each other. They have a sense of honor, they live by a code. They don’t betray their friends.
Huston stayed within the confines of the Code while really giving it the finger.

“If you want fresh air, don’t look for it in this town!”
The film opens with a shot of a bleak and decayed urban environment, a smog-choked nameless Midwestern city. Empty desolate streets, abandoned run-down factories and stores, rubble-covered back alleys… It may be 1950, but from the looks of it this town never recovered from the Depression, never made it out of the past. Postwar prosperity has passed this place by. Only the breadlines are missing. It's like a Mad Max Universe, only cops and robbers roam the streets.
This is a city where opportunity is slim and poverty is a given. It produces an environment ripe for criminal activity. 

In Noir the city is (in general) a Great Foul Place that pollutes people. It is full of sin, corruption and temptation. Country settings are the counterpoint to it. The bucolic life is salvation. That’s how Dix sees it.  "First thing I'm gonna do is take a bath in the creek and wash this city dirt off me," he tells Doll. Doll flinches slightly at the words because she knows she’s part of the city grime.

In Jungle the protagonists have a deep longing for a better life which is the driving force for their actions.
A strong sentimental streak runs through the movie. For such a notoriously unsentimental genre, strangely enough there is a hidden - and often not so hidden - romanticism in many Noirs. A nostalgic yearning for something important that one once possessed. And no risk is too big to chase after the rainbow to recapture it.

Lamentably, the best-laid plans of mice and gangsters go up in smoke. The heist goes wrong. And not just any heist but THE heist, the last big one that should have set the gang up for life. As so often in Noir, the one last shot at salvation leads to ruin. 
The execution should have been watertight but the devil is in the details. One little slip-up during the robbery sets in motion the domino effect that brings the gang down.  
The invisible puppet master of the universe is pulling the strings again. Call it what you want. Destiny, kismet, chance, monkey wrench, blind accident or Fate. It is inescapable.

The vast (supporting) cast is marvelous across the board and delivers fully fleshed-out nuanced performances. Everyone is fatally flawed and/or burdened with a personal weakness that will trip them up. The great thing is that Huston afforded each character a measure of compassion, no matter how corrupt they are. Even Emmerich.

Safe-cracker Louis Ciavelli’s motivations are easiest to understand, he’s the most sympathetic of the group. He needs to feed his family.
Hunchback Gus is a misfit, but is loyal to a fault to the few friends he has. He’d do anything for Dix.

Dix is obsessed with reclaiming his family’s horse farm in Kentucky. Unfortunately he simply can’t kick the habit of betting on horses and losing. So he sticks up small businesses to get out of the red again. 
He used to be a different man once, in a galaxy far far away. His passion for the past - when life was beautiful and good - is strong, even if the past was never as idyllic as remembered. The past is a fantasy, an idealized utopia. Doc sees that much more clearly than Dix: “You can always go home but when you do…it’s nothing”. 

His sort-of girlfriend Doll loves him beyond reason, but he can’t return her devotion as his entire life is fixated on that farm. Going back will cleanse him of the corruption of the city, and that’s why he can’t look towards a future. But Kentucky was a lifetime ago.

Doll is a showgirl out of a job, broke and with no place to go. She has some of the most moving and poignant scenes in the film and her pathetic desperation is hard to watch at times. She clings to her romantic illusion that Dix loves her as much as she loves him. Another useless pipe dream.

Though Hayden and Calhern got top billing, for me it is Sam Jaffe who steals the show. Smart, educated and methodical, Doc Riedenschneider is an aging criminal mastermind, just out of prison after a seven-year stretch. Doesn’t matter. He has planning heists down to a science so he goes right back to it. This time around it's a meticulously plotted million-dollar jewel heist. Not a tough guy by any means, he still shows remarkable calm and professionalism under pressure when confronted with setbacks. When Emmerich’s muscle pulls a gun on him, he’s cool as a cucumber. He can keep his mind on the job and not lose his nerves. Most of the time.
There’s just one thing: Doc has a fatal weakness for ogling young girls. This will be his downfall. It is to Jaffe’s credit that his Doc does not in the least come off as a dirty old man. His Old World manners and refinement simply make him an absolute charmer. Doc is class through and through, as opposed to Emmerich who Doc sees right through.

In the end it’s Doc who ends up with most of the jewels. But they’re worthless now, the jewels are too hot and no one dares fence them.
Doc’s downfall is the most ironic and avoidable. On his way out of town he stops at a roadside bar where a pretty teenager jives to the jukebox. It’s the best scene in the film. Her dance is sexy and mesmerizing. So far Doc has taken every hurdle, his goal is nearly achieved. Now he wastes valuable time indulging his passion. It seals his fate. The cops close in quickly and all is over for Doc. 

He takes it stoically and philosophically, even asking the cops for a (post-coital) cigar! Doc has long ago acknowledged his weakness and now calmly accepts his fate when he knows that it is his own fatal flaw that brought him down. He’s a pro, better luck next time. It simply wasn’t his night. But the audience can be sure that Doc savored every second in that dive bar. For him, it was worth it. "One way or another, we all work for our vice."

Alonzo Emmerich is the corrupt lawyer whose entire life is a fraud. Presenting himself as an urbane, sophisticated and rich man who has it all, in reality he’s simply broke and desperate for money. He’s lived way beyond his means (“Every time I turn around it costs thousands of dollars…ten thousand here, ten thousand there”) and it cleaned him out. But he likes the good life, including expensive hobby Angela who has him wrapped around her little finger. Emmerich’s sterling reputation comes in handy when he wants to cheat people. With little in the way of a conscience, he’s not above resorting to crime and he takes to it like a duck to water. If he has to double-cross his partners and maybe kill them, so be it. His fall is the lowest because he used to be at the top. When the game is up and his life comes crashing down, he cowardly shoots himself.

It is only fitting that the film that opened with a desolate urban jungle closes on a vision of the green, green grass of home. A mortally wounded and hallucinating Dix finally makes it to the Promised Land. He dies in his field of dreams surrounded by horses who come to nuzzle him. He’s back home where he belongs…in the past. It’s poetic and cruel at the same time.

Ultimately it was all for nothing. Nobody actually got what they wanted. The jungle swallowed them all up. Nobody walks away unscathed and nobody walks out forgetting what has just happened. Even if you survive, you don’t win. That holds true for even the most minor characters. Emmerich's sick wife will find out what her husband really was, Mrs. Ciavelli has to raise her child alone, Doll has lost the man she loves.

At the end of heist movies there’s always a sense of waste and futility, never more so than here. To paraphrase another movie, the future is a blind alley with a big barred gate at the end.