August 15, 2008

REVIEW: The Asphalt Jungle

*Major plot points are discussed, including several deaths.

"People are being cheated, robbed, murdered, raped. And that goes on 24 hours a day, every day in the year. And that's not exceptional, that's usual. It's the same in every city in the modern world. But suppose we had no police force, good or bad. Suppose we had... just silence. Nobody to listen, nobody to answer. The battle's finished. The jungle wins. The predatory beasts take over."

So says Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) in an impassioned speech at the conclusion of The Asphalt Jungle, an overlooked noir classic that's also considered to be one of the earliest and most stylistically influential heist films. Based on the novel of the same name by W.J. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle was brilliantly adapted by Ben Maddow and John Huston, whose masterful direction of the film is often overshadowed by his projects that came directly before and after it: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951), respectively. Of course, Huston's contribution to the noir canon is also most often attributed not to The Asphalt Jungle, but to The Maltese Falcon, his seminal masterpiece that set the tone for the classic noir era that would span nearly two decades.

Out of context, Hardy's statement is an anachronistic cliché, a statement made by weary police commissioners in any city and any era. In the context of The Asphalt Jungle, however, it's the crowning achievement of the screenplay and the final knot in the carefully crafted tapestry that precedes it. While it might have worked anywhere within the film, it's a statement that can only be fully absorbed at the near end, after we've been through the jungle ourselves and seen the “predatory beasts” in their natural habitat.

Huston wastes no time establishing mood in The Asphalt Jungle. The earliest audio is the crackle of a police radio as a patrol car cruises through the morning gloom of an otherwise deserted urban landscape (filmed partly in Cincinnati, the exact setting of the film is revealed only to be within reasonable driving distance of Cleveland). The cops are the law in this jungle, but they aren't necessarily the predators. That label would be left to the underground hooligans such as the one they are on the lookout for, a brooding bear with a permanent scowl and the build of a linebacker. We'll later come to learn that the brute, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden in one of his first starring roles), is a Kentucky transplant with a gambling problem, spending only enough time hustling in the city to make money for the purchase of his family farm, which was lost, along with his treasured horses, when his family suffered financial ruin years earlier. Although we don't yet know these details about Dix, we're immediately drawn to his handsome looks and enigmatic expressions. What is he hiding?

Dodging the police on foot, Dix seeks the refuge of his friend, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore, later loved as Brooks Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption), a diner proprietor with a short fuse whose loyalty will extend beyond the law if necessary. Perhaps the faithful monkey in this jungle, Gus hides Dix's gun in the cash register right before the cops stroll in. Dix is hauled off under suspicion anyway, but in less than 15 minutes, Huston has already hooked us with two fascinating characters operating in an underworld that we recognize only from the realm of film noir. In a break from the norm, Huston also gives us a female character who does not play the typical femme fatale: Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen) is a seemingly lost young woman who will do anything for Dix, her near obsession. Their back-and-forth throughout the movie is a sight to see: the gushing Doll brightly fawning over Dix, who tries his best to hide any heart behind his puffed up demeanor.

The next creatures to make their appearances are true predators, albeit from different species: Lt. Ditrich (Barry Kelley) is a crooked cop under increasing pressure from the straight-laced Police Commissioner Hardy to rein in the city's animals (“You don't close 'em hard enough. Rip out the phones, smash up the furniture.”). A real hyena, Ditrich is a bully who makes a lot of noise and can't be trusted. As Hardy scolds him, Ditrich nods obediently like a kid in the principal's office, fingers presumably crossed behind his back. His private partner in crime is Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a popular bookie with plenty of connections but no friends. Cobby is a whining weasel, a slickster who cowers under pressure due to his weak will.

Neither of these two compare to the beast that arrives next: “Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe in an Oscar-nominated performance), an ex-con of German descent who heads to Cobby's backroom parlor less than 24 hours after his prison release. A conniving, smooth-talking lizard with a penchant for young girls, Doc has a massive jewel heist planned, one that he estimates could rake in half a million dollars. Ever the orchestrator, however, he convinces Cobby to help him find both operating costs and personnel: “A box man, a driver, and a hooligan.”

As it happens Dix has just intimidated his way out of a police line-up, and his brusque sudden appearance at Cobby's makes quite an impression on Doc ("Don't bone me!," Dix barks at Cobby. "Did I ever welsh? You just boned me!"). Dix is soon chosen as the hooligan, and his pal Gus as the driver. The missing piece – the box man - is the most important one, but Gus happens to know a professional safecracker, Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), and the gang is set.

All that's needed is $50,000 to pay them. Doc persuades Cobby to reach out to his deep-pocketed contacts for financing, and this - this is where we meet the most disgusting beast in the jungle: the lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern). A cold-blooded, contemptible snake, Emmerich has a reputation for an extravagant lifestyle and questionable morals. We soon find out, however, that they're not really questionable, they're simply absent: the self-pitying Emmerich has nearly bankrupted himself by spoiling his naïve mistress Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe). His invalid wife, May, meanwhile, sits lonely in her bed, desperately begging Emmerich to play a simple card game with her during his cold and infrequent visits.

Emmerich agrees to “fence” the jewels after they're acquired for a share of the money. Unable to front the cash needed for Doc's gang, however (and unable to admit it), Emmerich convinces Cobby to front the $50,000 in exchange for a cut of his own. Cobby complies, and Emmerich's double-cross is in place. He'll pay no money, and he'll receive the jewels. Par for the course for him:

May: "Oh Lon, when I think of all those awful people you come in contact with - downright criminals - I get scared."

Emmerich: "Oh, there's nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."

In Emmerich, Huston has given us the lowest of life forms in this jungle. He's a man without honor, without principle, without a soul. As the deal goes down later, Huston lets Dix make this case: “Are you a man, or what? Trying to gyp and double-cross with no guts for it? What's inside of you?! What's keeping you alive?!”

Perhaps because we know what she's dealing with, we find it easy to empathize with Angela Phinlay. Or maybe it's just because it's Marilyn Monroe, and she wholly commands our attention from her first brief appearance. It was a star-making turn for Monroe, and one that would lead to her being cast in All About Eve later that year, a movie which, incidentally, provides the only reasonable explanation for why The Asphalt Jungle didn't take home an Oscar in the any of the four categories for which it was nominated.

The characters established and the story carefully set-up, Huston takes The Asphalt Jungle to its second act, perhaps the one most familiar to fans of classic heist and caper films. The 11-minute operation at the jewelry store is executed as well by Huston as it is by the on-screen gang of Dix, Doc, and Ciavelli. The lack of a musical score and the limited dialogue make for a naturalistic and tense atmosphere. The only relief from the stressful scene is the amusing tactic taken to avoid the “electric eye” alarm sensor. Seeing robbers inchworm their way under an invisible line just looks silly in 2008. At the time, however, I'm sure it evoked the same anxiety in viewers as Tom Cruise's acrobatic disk grab in 1996's Mission Impossible. It may not be a coincidence, of course, since The Asphalt Jungle is thought to have influenced nearly all of the heist films that followed it, from Rififi just a few years later to Dog Day Afternoon a generation later to The Bank Job a near lifetime later (it's also not lost on the viewer that Doc's gang is a sharply dressed bunch, much like the crews in Reservoir Dogs, Heat, and Ocean's Eleven).

Ciavilli cracks the safe with no problem, but the charge sets off the alarms in neighboring buildings. As the gang makes haste for the exit, a run in with a security guard leads to the accidental shooting of Ciavilli, and the film moves into its third act: the beasts of the jungle begin feeding on each other.

When Doc and Dix show up at Emmerich's expecting the payout, their suspicions that the lawyer is broke are confirmed. In another well staged scene, Dix kills Emmerich's personal advisor in a shootout as the planned double-cross goes awry. Suffering from gunshot wound to the stomach, and knowing that their jewels are now worthless, Dix turns his gun on a sobbing Emmerich. Doc, in a moment of surprising sensitivity, tells Dix to hold off until they're certain Emmerich can't arrange for an insurance payout, however small it might be.

In the meantime, Ciavilli has died from his wound and the police are hot on the trail of the gang. Upset that he wasn't included on the take, Lt. Ditrich slaps Cobby around until he sings and exposes all the players. When Gus is picked up and booked in the same cell block as Cobby, it takes two police to restrain him from choking Cobby through the iron bars. On the other side of town, Doc and the seriously wounded Dix have a run-in with an observant policeman at a train depot, leaving the cop incapacitated and Doc suffering from a bloody head wound. Over at Emmerich's, the police have arrived and are breaking down his alibi that he was with Angela on the night of the heist. When his lies are exposed, the lawyer retreats to his office and takes his own life.

As The Asphalt Jungle begins winding down, Huston has wickedly turned the tables on his characters. As in The Maltese Falcon, the treasure that drove the agenda has become almost obsolete, and what began as a simple heist job has spiraled into a life-and-death scenario for this gang. Ciavilli and Emmerich are dead, Cobby and Gus are locked up, and Doc and Dix are on the run with some cash and some stolen jewels that they can't resell.

The capture of Doc is one of the great scenes in the film, and it perfectly illustrates the consequences of greed that Huston has spent the whole time underlining. Otherwise in the clear, it's Doc's decision to ogle a young girl at a local diner for a few minutes too long that does him in. As Police Commissioner Hardy gives his memorable speech, Dix fights for his life, driving out to his Kentucky farm with Doll blubbering next to him.

Dix's tragic death is almost beautiful to watch. His wound getting the best of him over the course of almost an hour of the film, it's not until he reaches his dear Kentucky home that he finally succumbs. It's a tremendous shot by Huston, and the brightness of the rural daylight juxtaposed with the dark of the urban night is truly breathtaking.

Discussing so much of the plot here may have seemed unnecessary, but the arc of the characters is the beating heart of The Asphalt Jungle, and each of them faces different consequences as a result of their respective vices. As Huston himself notes in an introduction of the film: "It's chiefly concerned with human relationships; that is to say the story is told from inside out. Although it's melodramatic in form, it is not melodramatic in content...You may not admire these people, but I think they'll fascinate you." He clearly identifies the vices of several of the characters: Doc and his girls, Emmerich and his extravagance, Dix and his horses. Huston knew what he was working with; The Asphalt Jungle is a multi-faceted character study of the highest order, and his hard-boiled direction is absolutely outstanding. It would be well worth additional viewings, and its timeless story - and Hardy's speech from above - is as relevant in 2008 as it was in 1950.

[This review was written as part of Film Noir Month at MovieZeal. Be sure to check out the excellent daily reviews and commentaries by numerous bloggers and readers who are extremely well-versed in noir.]


  1. I was looking forward to this, and my word, that is some damn fine writing Danny. I love this film, saw it the other day on TCM here and remembered why. Then I read this retrospective, and remembered again. Timeless indeed my friend.

  2. A very good analysis of the story and characters, Daniel. This is indeed a somewhat under-appreciated gem, though many do believe it to be among Huston's finest efforts (myself included). The pulpy screenplay handles the characters so well, as does Huston's direction of his actors, who in turn all give exceedingly memorable and charged performances.

  3. BRAVO, Danny.

    That was stunningly awesome.

    As far as Mr. Huston's brilliant filmography goes, this does NOT happen to be one of my favourites.

    I saw it many years ago. It's fairly stark and brutal.

    I can only remember the luminous Ms. Monroe standing in the doorway, breathlessly calling some dick "a big bananahead". That, aside from that glorious black and white cinematography, is my only lasting impression.

    But your thoughts and your impressions were dead on the money (as always) and your sparkling prose makes it all come alive in a gloriously effective manner.

    Wonderful review. I'm ever so proud of you...

  4. Thanks all. It would take me a couple of years to really get to know noir, but I'm slowly working my way through these selections.

    Stark, brutal, pulpy - all adjectives I should have used. This is definitely one that would, in the hands of the right person, lend itself to a decent remake for contemporary audiences. I think.

  5. Dan Getahaun, you have outdone yourself here with this proud entry into the film noir series and one of your own most insightful pieces. I think you really did a great job analytically and placing the film in a historical perspective. Like Alexander, I also value it highly. I will have more to say when it appears at Movie Zeal.

  6. Thanks, Sam, for your grand compliment. I felt decent about it until I realized I was really just summarizing the plot. My lack of knowledge about noir is a pretty big liability here.

    At the same time, it's pretty clear that The Asphalt Jungle can be looked at in its own light, and as far as I'm concerned, outlining what happens to the characters from start to finish is really the only way to get to the their traits, to the actions vs. consequences, to the heart of the movie.


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