John McIntireSterling HaydenSam JaffeMarilyn Monroe
The Asphalt Jungle
Medium: film
Year: 1950
Director: John Huston
Writer: Ben Maddow, John Huston, W.R. Burnett
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, film noir
Country: USA
Actor: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Marc Lawrence, Barry Kelley, Anthony Caruso, Teresa Celli, Marilyn Monroe, William 'Wee Willie' Davis, Dorothy Tree, Brad Dexter, John Maxwell
Format: 112 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 29 November 2008
"After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavour."
This film comes from a Film Noir box set I bought on a whim. I've since found that it was nominated for 4 Oscars (best director, screenplay, black-and-white cinematography and actor in a supporting role), has been called the definitive heist flick and was directed by John Huston. You know the chap. The Maltese Falcon. Key Largo. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The African Queen. In addition to being a world-class director, writer, actor and producer, he also played Professor Moriarty on TV in 1976 and thus must be cool too. I'm now surprised that I'd never heard of this film and wondering what other movies of its era have similarly passed me by.
Of course Film Noir is hard to pin down. The label was invented by French film critics to describe something they could see coming out of Hollywood, but couldn't easily define. You'll find no femme fatales here, for instance. There are girls, but they're vulnerable rather than manipulative. One of them's even played by Marilyn Monroe, in a small role that really boosted her career. She's still only 24 here and I'm ashamed to say that I didn't recognise her, but of course she's gorgeous. No, this is Film Noir because of its moral ambiguous world. Shot so naturalistically that it's almost documentary-style, we see in detail how to pull off a heist. How on earth did that get past the Production Code? Our protagonists are criminals, their enemies are policemen and heaven help anyone caught in between. For these people, crime is a way of life. They aren't gangsters, but simply a network of people who've made their profession out of robbing, shooting, safecracking or some other unpleasant niche. A "hooligan" is muscle, a man with a gun. A safecracker will have "soup" and so on. Our protagonists all have their own speciality. Dix Handley is a hooligan. Doc Erwin Riedenschneider is a 70-year-old German mastermind and planner of heists, fresh out of prison. Cobby is an underground bookie and arranger.
That's hardly genteel, but not particularly surprising to a modern audience. What did shock me was the police. These are scary cops, routinely talking about "giving someone the treatment" and the victim not lasting half an hour. At the beginning, one's bullying a witness to pick out a particular man at a line-up. That policeman then gets chewed out by his commissioner for not using enough strong-arm tactics! They're more gangster-like than the hoodlums! Is this the real face of organised crime? I wouldn't go that far, but some of them are openly crooked. However the last word on the subject must go to Doc. "Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one's all right, he turns legit."
The story surprised me. We go into such detail about Doc setting up his gang and arranging his heist that it was a shock to find that suddenly they were pulling the job. The film wasn't even halfway through! However we've seen double-crosses being planned, so it's not as if the film has nowhere to go. Nevertheless even so, more than once the film took a turn I hadn't seen coming. This thing looks as if it should obey the rules of a modern gangster film, but it doesn't. The difference is the last quarter of an hour. Had this film come out today, the credits would have rolled after 95 minutes. The heist's been pulled off and dangling plot threads have been resolved. However back in the Production Code days, villains couldn't be shown to profit by their villainy. I'm sure this ruined uncountable numbers of movies, but for someone raised on modern gangster films it's practically a twist. (Or maybe I'm being unfair and all that's also in the original novel.) Besides, it's not as if the police simply arrest everyone. Everyone in the film meets their own individual fate. Some of them survive. More of them don't. It's a memorable finale. You certainly couldn't call it a happy ending, but I wouldn't call it depressing. It's just... Film Noir. A less assured shot at the same script might admittedly have been a downer, but my attention was held throughout by all these characters, even the doomed or self-destructive ones.
Dix Handley could be described as the main character. He's enormously tall, fiercely proud and not quite as dumb as everyone thinks he is. Admittedly he's capable of making some fairly suicidal decisions and often has no judgement at all. He has a goal in life. He wants to go back to Kentucky and buy back the family farm. Unfortunately he keeps putting all his money on horses, banking everything on a win that will give him what he thinks he needs. This is not an intellectual. However the Doc picks him out as a man he can trust and we see to our surprise that he was absolutely right to do so. He's played by Sterling Hayden, whom I'd never heard of but he seems to have led an interesting life. He dropped out of school at 15 and ran away to sea, becoming a commando and gun-runner to the Yugoslav partisans during the German blockade of the Adriatic, as well as parachuting into Croatia as a guerilla. He was cast as Quint in Jaws (1975), but proved unavailable for the role.
Doc Riedenschneider is played by Sam Jaffe, who got that Best Supporting Actor nomination I mentioned. His first film was The Scarlet Empress (1934). Hmmm. His character is supposedly 70 years old, but 59-year-old Jaffe kept acting until the year of his death 34 years later. His character's clearly the most intelligent person in the film, certainly not infallible but at least afterwards capable of recognising his mistakes and the reasons why he made them. He and Dix make an awesome team: brain and brawn. However he does have his weaknesses. He likes watching girls dance, for instance, even though it's 1950 and everyone's dancing like a duck. That scene was surreal, by the way. After an entire film of professional criminals, we walk into a cafe with clean-cut fifties teenagers and it's as if we've changed channels and are now watching the Fonz in Happy Days.
Alonzo D. Emmerich is the money, a lawyer who's never done anything like this before and isn't as smart as he thinks he is. He's the one with Marilyn Monroe as a mistress and despite his respectable position in society, the commissioner doesn't like him. Policemen don't like lawyers, you see. The actor is Louis Calhern, whom you can see in Hitchcock's Notorious.
Of the others, we have driver and cafe-owner Gus, played by James Whitmore, who's still alive and occasionally working today and reminded me here of Norman Rossington from the early Carry On films. Then there's Cobby, the fixer who's wrong in his judgements about almost everyone and looks like John Waters. I think it's the moustache.
I don't need to praise the cinematography, do I? We all know I love the black-and-white era, even in films that weren't nominated for cinematography Oscars. The opening sequence is worth a mention, though. We begin with a literal evocation of an asphalt jungle, making the city look huge and the people tiny. That was almost arty. I especially liked that bit.
This isn't a light-hearted film, but it's not heavy-going either. On the contrary, it never slows down for a moment and always has plenty of spirit. The heist itself is marvellously done, shot cleanly and simply with no music but plenty of tension. It's a good job to watch. Everyone's efficient and they know what they're doing. They hit some bad luck, but that wasn't their fault. One of the film's biggest surprises for me might be the way Dix is revealed to be a far more compelling character than you'd have guessed at the beginning, when he's being shoved into line-ups and described as having no job. There's a girl who's sweet on him, but he orders her around like an employee. When she pretty much comes out and says it, he can't process the information. "I don't get it. I just don't get it." I also laughed at the looks swapped between Dix and Emmerich's tough guy sidekick at the handover. However I should warn you that when he's talking about "black coal" or something like that, he really means a black colt. As in horses. The man loves the gee-gees, remember?
I still don't see how this got past the Production Code. Maybe they cut it some slack because it's based on a W.R. Burnett novel? He's responsible for dozens of films, including landmark ones such as Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932) and High Sierra (1941). Well, it's not important. Looks like I struck gold with my DVD boxed set. If anyone's interested, it's the Film Noir Classic Collection: 5 Timeless Suspense Thrillers, with The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Gun Crazy (1949), Murder my Sweet (1944), Out of the Past (1947) and The Set-Up (1949). I'll let you know how I get on with the others.