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”. It is "respectable citizen" Emmerich who'll turn out to be the real rat.

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 no shiny metropolis, it's 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. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the urban sprawl was steamrolling over the country's rural roots and the Depression devastated rural America. People migrated to the city in search for work and became exposed to the dark side of the urban jungle. Many people yearned for the idyllic past that likely never was.

Country settings are the counterpoint to this city corruption. Dix believes he would never have become a crook if his father hadn't lost the farm. The bucolic life is salvation. That’s how Dix sees it. It will cleanse him of what he has become. "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. Dix's 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.
The problem is Dix fails to be honest and look within himself. He doesn't want to take responsibility for his shortcomings, the way Doc does. It's easier just to blame the City.

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 - a dead man walking -  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.


  1. Huston's exemplary adaptation of W.R. Burnett's intense novel has inspired you to a review that may be your best. You captured the emotional depth and heartbreak with a thorough clarity and understanding.

  2. Great review of one of my favorites.

  3. Just noticed the "known accomplices" list, thanks.

  4. Another great review. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the characters. Maddy

  5. A terrific film that should be more well-known than it is. I love your descriptions of it: "bleak", "sense of doom", etc. Terrific performances, and a great script. We know things aren't going to end well for these folks, and the story feels generic as it crashes and burns at the end. You've made me want to see it again!

    1. Everything comes together perfectly in this film.

  6. This is one of my favourite films and I think the quintessential heist film from the world of film noir. A great review with fantastic insight - especially your comments on idealising the past; something that Doc has learned and Dix has not. I think it is a great example of the fatalist theme forever running through noir as well. Thanks so much for a great piece of work!

    1. Yes, I'd say this is one of the most fatalistic Noirs ever made.