(This is my contribution to the CMBA's Fabulous Films of the 1950s Blogathon, which runs May 21-May 26. Check out all the great blog posts!)
Tight—that is the best word to describe director John Huston’s, The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The plot, cinematography and the acting are all tightly wound together to create one of the most compelling film noir heist movies ever made. Quite simply, it is the granddaddy of all heist movies, such classics as Rififi (1955) and The Killing (1956) and modern-day “classics” like Oceans Eleven (2001) and Inside Man (2006) all derive from The Asphalt Jungle. What is most compelling, however, about the movie is how it looks at the subterranean world of crime and how different from your typical noir it actually is.
Adapted from W.R. Burnett’s novel of the same name, Ben Maddow and John Huston’s Oscar-nominated screenplay is tied together by a jewel heist. The lives of several men are determined by the success or failure of stealing and fencing diamonds and gold worth more than a million dollars (which was a lot of money back in 1950). The mastermind of the caper is Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe, in an Oscar-nominated performance), a recently released big timer with a full-proof plan to rob a jewelry store. He enlists a local bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence), to help him snag $50,000 to put a crew together. This leads him to Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a respected local lawyer with supposedly big pockets, who is also probably the most corrupt man in town. The audience is then educated as to what is necessary, other than money, to pull off a grand heist—a box man, the guy who breaks into the safe (Anthony Caruso), a driver (James Whitmore), and a hooligan who handles a gun and any security guards or cops (Sterling Hayden). Once this part of the education is over, we are then treated to a painstakingly detailed view of the entire heist. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned and a few people get shot and there is a major double-cross that throws a damper on an otherwise spectacularly planned and orchestrated crime.
The underbelly of crime always proves compelling, and in The Asphalt Jungle it is on full display. However, the seediness is not only comprised of only career criminals but also respected lawyers and police officers as well. For example, Cobby runs a local book that is protected by Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley), who gets kickbacks for looking the other way. And, then there’s Emmerich, a highly respected man who both finances and represents crooks, while living in a fine house and carrying on with a woman young enough to be his daughter, or niece (played by Marilyn Monroe), while his bedridden wife (Dorothy Tree) just wants to play cards.
The story does a smart job of planting small hints about the criminals’ weaknesses and also explaining what makes them commit the crimes they do. Doc won’t touch alcohol and has a fondness for young girls (one of which will haunt him in the end). Dix (Hayden) only wants to make enough money to buy back his family’s horse farm but can never save enough from his robberies because he bets on the horses. And, Louie (Caruso) has a wife and child to support. They all just want one big score so they can get out of the life. These sympathetic, human characters don’t fit the stereotypical noir criminal, who are often violent and unethical. For the most part, all of the criminals seem to follow a code of ethics, which flies in the face of Noir 101.
And, completely opposite to other noirs, there are no femme fatales anywhere to be seen in The Asphalt Jungle, which might sound strange when one considers that the perfect femme fatale-esque actress was in the film, Marilyn Monroe. None of the male characters are obsessed with any wicked women. In fact, all of the women in the picture are highly sympathetic—even Monroe, who comes across as the most innocent mistress ever known to cinema.
However, like any noir, The Asphalt Jungle is a shadow-filled black and white picture full of dark, atmospheric shots. Still, Huston’s framing of the film is much more open and uncluttered compared to other noirs. He and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Harold Rosson employed high contrast lighting from start to finish, with an extended opening scene that follows Dix walking through a deserted asphalt jungle after his most recent robbery. Perhaps my favorite scene in the film, other than the 11-minute jewelry heist, is when Doc first paces up and down the tight hallway of Cobby’s book parlor waiting to be introduced. One blinding overhead light illuminates the otherwise dark, grimy hallway as Doc walks toward the static camera—almost walking straight into it—and then he turns his back toward the opening door and the emerging image of Cobby. It’s a small scene, but so full of brilliant lighting and lens work.
While Hayden may have gotten top billing, Jaffe was clearly the star of the show. Of course, it helps that Jaffe could act galaxies around Hayden, but his character was the most interesting of the lot. It takes skill to portray a tightly-wound but always composed character. Additionally, Calhern’s turn as Emmerich is also engaging. Yes, it’s difficult to feel sympathy for a double-crosser and a philanderer, but when he sits down to write a letter to his wife when he’s about to be arrested and then rips it up after writing it, you almost feel sorry for him.
Overall, The Asphalt Jungle was an important development in cinema. It pioneered the heist film and laid the foundation for generations of heist films to come. Additionally, it broke the barriers of film noir, and ushered in characterization and a more open and uncluttered framing into the world of noir.
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