Thursday, April 15, 2010

#10: The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)

Released: May 23, 1950

Director: John Huston; Screenplay: Ben Maddow and John Huston based on the novel by W.R. Burnett; Cinematography: Harold Rosson; Music: Miklós Rózsa; Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.; Studio: MGM

Cast: Sterling Hayden (Dix Handley), Louis Calhern (Alonzo D. Emmerich), Jean Hagen (Doll Conovan), James Whitmore (Gus Minissi), Sam Jaffe (Doc Riedenschneider), Marilyn Monroe (Angela Phinlay), John McIntire (Police Commissioner Hardy), Marc Lawrence (Cobby), Anthony Caruso (Louis Ciavelli), Barry Kelley (Lt. Ditrich), Brad Dexter (Robert Brannom)

- “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor…”

The countdown now comes to the movie which all post-1950 heist films can trace back their lineage. Whether it is The Killing, Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, or really any similarly themed crime caper, they all owe a debt to The Asphalt Jungle. Regardless of all of the fantastic movies that have come in its wake – and I consider the first two I just listed to be masterpieces – the argument can be made that The Asphalt Jungle remains the greatest heist film ever made. Watching it again made me rediscover why it was one of the first movies that I went into consciously aware of it being a “noir classic” and coming away completely satisfied. The Asphalt Jungle and Out of the Past are the two films that converted me into a noir junkie. So I take great pleasure in slotting The Asphalt Jungle into the Top 10 of the entire series.

Much of the originality of the movie might be lost on the current generation, or at least overlooked by those without knowledge of the omnipotent Hays Code that governed Hollywood productions. One of the key tenets of the Code decreed that “methods of crime were not to be explicitly presented,” which would seem to have prevented W.R. Burnett’s novel from ever being adapted for the screen. John Huston proved very adept at sidestepping potential Code violations – just watch The Maltese Falcon again if you don’t believe me – and once more showed that he could finesse a script and film into getting approval. Rather than focusing on the actual heist as the centerpiece of the film, the script from Huston and Ben Maddow instead make the focus on the disparate characters that make up the heist team. We learn about their lives, their struggles, and why they join the caper. This humanizing feature ran the risk of violating another element of the Code – that of portraying criminals in a sympathetic light – but this is deftly sidestepped as well. As any fan of noir knows, even criminals with the best of intentions, will eventually be made to pay for their lapses.

It is the classic heist gone wrong scenario. Recently released prisoner Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) emerges from jail with a plan for an elaborate jewel heist. Realizing that he is going to need proper funding to implement the plan, he approaches high-profile attorney Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a shady character who hovers around the underworld, to back him. He gets to Emmerich through rising bookmaker Cobby (Mark Lawerence), who is also drawn into the plan. As further muscle is needed, they begin bringing in more hoods. Hunchbacked knockaround Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) is hired as the wheelman and he in turns brings aboard Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) to crack the safe. Completing the team is struggling hoodlum and tough guy Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), whom Doc personally chooses after liking what he sees from Dix in interactions with Cobby. What transpires as a result of the intricate planning is a heist that barely succeeds and then a minefield of plotting and double-crosses to see who will end up with the hot jewels.

Every key player in the film can make a legitimate case to turning in the best performance. I won’t declare this Hayden’s best performance – he has far too many memorable noir personalities to his credit – but in Dix Handley he perfected the kind of good-natured thief that so many other actors of the era strove to achieve. Doc Riedenschneider’s calm, calculating nature is unforgettable and Sam Jaffe infuses him with the necessary iciness. Mark Lawrence’s Cobby is the shifty, nervous bookie that is hard to ever get a handle on. James Whitmore makes Gus, the ever-loyal underworld everyman, as sympathetic as a wheelman has ever been. And tying it all together, pitting himself against everyone else, is Louis Calhern as Emmerich. It’s a unique performance in noir, to portray the powerful crime lord as a timid lawyer, but Calhern has the kind of distasteful regalness to make it work. Although the studios tried to make it seem otherwise after her bursting popularity, Marilyn Monroe plays the most minor of roles here.

What is so humanizing about these men are the bonds formed between the criminals. What everyone will notice is that the major scheming comes from the semi-legitimate attorney. He thinks that he can outsmart the smalltime crooks and make off with the jewels himself. But the true street guys – men like Dix, Gus, Louie and Doc – quickly develop bonds that seem unbreakable. They are not going to turn on each other. To do so would go against the codes that they have lived by. This lasting loyalty is responsible for some of the best scenes in the entire film. Gus, in particular, makes you forget that he is a career criminal – he just seems like a friend who would always go to the mat for those that he cares for. It is wrenching to watch him listening to the screams of longtime friend and partner Louie, shot through the belly and dying after the robbery. Although not as dreadful, I also love the scene when Gus scrambles to get hold of Dix to warn him about impending police raids. He speaks as rapidly as he can, ignoring the approaching patrolmen, realizing that he is going to get picked up but not wanting to leave his partner in the lurch. Is this a romanticized reading of criminal actions and loyalty? Sure it is, but I am forever fascinated by any strong bonds of friendship, particularly when the stakes are as high as they become in this film.

Huston’s direction is brilliant, particularly in the lack of flourish in the robbery. The robbery sequence here never comes close to matching the technical genius of the later Rififi, but it is used for an entirely different effect. The entire thing takes about ten minutes of screen time, which means sharp bursts intensity rather than the seething anxiety in Rififi. The aftermath of the theft, as a perfectly-planned robbery fails due to the kind of squabbling and backstabbing that plagues all street criminals, is what is most important. This aspect – along with some mandated moralizing from the police commissioner – is likely why censors green-lighted the movie to begin with. But with Huston guiding it, the criminals being brought to justice one-by-one never feels like a copout. It feels like a noir should.

Add in classy photography from Harold Rosson and a very impressive score from Miklós Rózsa and you have an all-time great movie, with one of the classic closing shots in all of noir. It is not the best film in the countdown, but I fail to see a glaring weak spot in the entire thing.


  1. Dave,

    One of the very few films of this type that got me caring about each individual- their fears, their weaknesses and their fates.

    A good film, no doubt.

  2. Claustrophobic and intense with a wonderful cast filled with great character actors. Add The Killing, Ocean's 11 and Up Tight (directed by Dassin, a black exploitation remake that has disappeared off the map. Has anyone seen this?) to the list of films that owe a debt to Huston's work. A meticulous piece of work. Excellent review Dave and an excellent choice for the top 10.

  3. Dave, another one of my all time favorite noirs. Tremendous review and another excellent pick!

  4. I guess I'm the only one here that didn't like this film very much (yes because of Sterling Hayden in the main part, lol). Though I generally like Huston. Maybe I need to watch it again. A bunch of miserable suckers, really, who had it coming. It happens in noirs very often, but I couldn't even root for anyone here -- so unsympathetic they were, all of them. Maybe I could make an exception for Marilyn, just 'cos I love Marilyn, but not for anyone else.

  5. Dave, this happens to be one of my favourite noirs, hell, one of my favourite films, too. Your review has done full justice to this amazing movie. The performances, the pacing, the character developments, the photography - they all work in perfect sync. And the fatalistic ending - that certainly took this genre to a whole new level altogether.

    Yeah, how John Huston managed to get away with showing criminals in a sympathetic light in those days of the draconian Hays' Code, is a baffling mystery. And the camaraderie between the thieves, as you've observed, also forms a vital aspect of the plot.

    And as chance would have it, this happened to be my first conscious viewing of film noir.

  6. I do agree with you Dave, in that the technical aspects of the heist here do not match Dassin's brilliant RIFIFI, but there's no question this is a towering entry in this genre, and one that is often held as a model in so many ways. I never found this film, however, as superlative as THE KILLING, and it much to do with the emotional connection to these nonetheless fascinating characters. In trying to find a critical assessment that I can fully stand with, I reference here Dnny Peary in his celebrated GUIDE FOR THE FILM FANATIC, where he makes claim that the film's reputation has diminished. Says Peary:

    "The reputation of John Huston's seminal heist film, which he and Ben Maddow adapted from W.R. Burnett's novel, has diminished somewhat. Because Huston strove for realism, he deglamorized the characters involved in the crime: the result is that we find the characters and their story interesting, but we don't feel empathy for any of them. Ironically, the success of the heist is of paramount importance only to the most respectable participant, Calhern- the piece's villain--so we don't particularly care if the heist fails as we do in a film like THE KILLING, where all the thieves (whom we have sympathy for) desperately need money to have a chance for a happy life. In this film we care only for the women who suffer because of their men's foolish endeavors."

    Peary does go on to praise the "uniformly excellent acting" and the picture "building a convincing case for their being persuasive corruption on ever level of society including the police (but then he says, "spoils it, when in the film's worst scene, Police Chief John McIntire lectures the press about how 99% of cops are honest, and they're out on the streets 24 hours a day protecting the public.) Adds Peary: "One of the picture's best scenes though, has Jaffe explaining the details of his proposed crime and revelaing the budget--it's almost like a producer trying to see a script to a studio."

    Does anyone wish to take Mr. Peary on here?

    There is certainly enough greatness in this film (and it's a dazzling entertainment) to warrant a dismissal of these charges, and I think Dave's magnificent and exhaustive essay makes a stellar argument for the yay-sayers, which I am mostly behind.

  7. A great way to start the top ten Dave. I always go back and forth over which noir is greater this or The Killing. Both boil over with tension and suspense from scene to scene. Unlike Quirky I think that Hayden does a magnificent job in both of these films. This may even be John Huston's best movie. I think it's slightly better than The Maltese Falcon and on alternating days of the week better than The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. ......M.Roca

  8. Maurizio, I have always believed THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE to be Huston's greatest film, with THE MALTESE FALCON as the runner-up, but I can't blame you for choosing this either. I have now elevated FAT CITY and THE DEAD to lofty positions among his work too.

  9. Well those are definitely the top 5. Prizzi's Honor and Key Largo are also pretty good......M.Roca

  10. Excellent placements there Maurizio!!! And yes PH and KL would be right behind those.

  11. Sam, I'm not going to try to take on that opinion simply because I haven't seen either film in a really long time. But I do think The Asphalt Jungle is the better film, and that Hayden's character is very sympathetic. I remember finding that final shot with him lying in the grass quite moving when I first saw it as a teenager.

  12. Stephen - I agree completely.

    John - I haven't seen UP TIGHT and actually know very little about it... I need to investigate a bit.

    Jeffrey - Glad to see another of your favorites in the countdown!

    Quirky Character - I think Hayden is one of the finest of all noir actors, so I can't get on board with disliking his films simply because he is in them. Are the characters unsympathetic? I can see that, but so is a large portion of the general population, which I think is the point of the story. They may be unsympathetic, but that is due to their personalities, not simply because they are criminals.

    Shubhajit - Yes, this is an early one that any noir fanatic will likely seek out as they start exploring the genre/style. It really is a collaborative effort where, as you say, every element really seems to come together.

  13. Sam gets his own response space because I want to try and respond to the criticism from Pearry. I think the main issue that I disagree with is the idea that the heist only matters to Calhern, which I think is completely off-base. It might not matter equally to everyone - Gus and Louis seem to be grudgingly drawn in - but it has great importance to the others. For Doc, it's his ticket out of the constant scheming. For Dix, it means the opportunity to return home. He's never going to make it unless he pulls off something big - he ends up making it back anyway, but we see how that turns out for him in the iconic closing shot. This is the same dynamic as The Killing, but Pearry doesn't seem to recognize this. Yes, some characters in The Killing might be more sympathetic, but I think he's off base to back the idea that the audience somehow has "understanding" for the characters in The Killing and their needs for money, while not being able to in The Asphalt Jungle. Sympathy for a guy trying to pay back a loanshark? Or a weaselly man getting money to appease a nagging wife? I don't see how that is any more sympathetic than the situation of Dix.

    The criticism about the moralizing police commissioner is valid, but that one was one of the concessions that Huston had to make in order for censors to OK the project.

    I have no problem with Pearry (or anyone) saying The Killing is better than The Asphalt Jungle - ask me tomorrow, I might actually rank them that way. They're that close in my opinion. But I don't think this is due to characters in one film being sympathetic while in the other they aren't.

  14. M.Roca - Glad to see you love this one as well. Here is how I would make a personal John Huston Top 5:

    1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    2. The Asphalt Jungle
    3. The Maltese Falcon
    4. Fat City
    5. Key Largo

    Doniphon - Agree on your assessment here... you should revisit this one and see how it holds up for you!

  15. Yeah thinking about it a little more Key Largo deserves to be in Huston's top 5. I love Bogie and Robinson too much in this film.
    1. The Asphalt Jungle
    1. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (tie)
    3. The Maltese Falcon
    4. Key Largo
    5. Fat City
    5. The Dead (tie)........M.Roca

  16. Dave, that's really a fantastic response there to Peary's criticism!!!

  17. And Donophon, what you say is more than fair enough.

  18. Burnett's novel must be heralded here. Every characterization, nuance, incidence, as well the plot are taken from the book. Huston gave the story cinematic form, and a top cast fully realised the characters. The opening scene is the best of any noir with that thumping music from Miklós Rózsa.

    But the best line in the movie is not in the book. As her safe-cracker husband is dying, Maria Cavelli responds to a wailing police siren: “Sounds like a soul in hell”.

  19. Definitely in agreement with you that The Asphalt Jungle is the greatest heist flick ever made. I remember, however, that when I saw The Killing for the first time I was a bit puzzled by the similarities between the two films. In an audio interview on the new Space Odyssey DVD, Kubrick is talking to a DJ about the plot of The Killing and then the DJ says, "Oh, yeah! Wasn't Marilyn Monroe in it? And doesn't Sterling Hayden die at the end?" Then Kubrick replies, "No... he doesn't die. He gives up. You're thinking of The Asphalt Jungle. That's why you thought Marilyn Monroe was in it."

    Strange because everybody always touts Kubrick as the supreme auteur (and don't get me wrong, I'm a massive Kubrick fan) when he may or may not have been influenced by Huston's film. I've brought this up to fellow cinephiles on occasion, and they try to dissect the different approaches between the two filmmakers: Huston wants us to sympathize with the thieves, and does so by making fun of the police establishment; while Kubrick is hellbent on showing just how nasty the thieves are, and refuses to kill off his Hayden character because death would be too rewarding for him ("Ehh, what's the point?"). But the presence of Elisha Cook, Jr. in The Killing is another thing to make me wonder if Kubrick was borrowing a little from Huston; Cook had starred in The Maltese Falcon a decade earlier.

    Sam Jaffe is wonderful in Asphalt Jungle. I can never get enough of that diner sequence towards the end- the scene in which he watches the girl dance shortly before getting arrested.

  20. Sam Juliano said...
    ' Peary does go on to praise the "uniformly excellent acting" and the picture "building a convincing case for their being persuasive corruption on ever level of society including the police (but then he says, "spoils it, when in the film's worst scene, Police Chief John McIntire lectures the press about how 99% of cops are honest, and they're out on the streets 24 hours a day protecting the public.)'

    A real noir-lefty has to agree with a radical "critic"[*hawk-ptoo*] who objects to ANYTHING good about law enforcement. This is because ALL of these characters came out of the 1970s when referring to cops as barnyard animals was proof of one's "street cred" as a "street-fighting man" speaking "truth to power".

    At the same time, the ideology of "film noir" was taken up by the radicals infesting college "film studies" programs.

    The "film noir" ideology was cooked up by some French communists [that's an exacta beloved by film studies majors]in the 1950s---I first read it in a French film mag "Cahiers Du Cinema" in the early 1960s for French class, but it was WAY too bolshie for me: I preferred POSITIF, MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE.

    My parents were BLACKLISTED out of show business in Hollywood in the first wave---not just predictable, but inevitable: like the others they were CP die-hards and police-state cheerleaders. My parents had the same lawyer [Aubrey Finn] as DALTON TRUMBO, another sanctimonious blowhard.

    My dad was Executive Secretary of the Radio Writers Guild, and mom was a minor actress ELLEN PRESCOTT. I loved them and miss them EVERY day, but damn it, they had a fatal blind-spot when it came to Communism, the Soviet Union, etc.

    Over the years I've been friends with many children of blacklistees and even had a few girlfriends with that pedigree. We find you "film buff" guys VERY VERY STRANGE with your willful delusions about Hollywood history.
    By indulging in your "noir" fantasy life, you think you're showing "solidarity" with yesterday's losers.

    You are only exposing your shaky mental process. You do NOT sound like "street-fighting man" "speaking truth to power". You sound like little girls playing dress-up.

    I managed movie theaters for many years in Manhattan. I KNOW Bogie disliked "Treasure" because it was a FLOP, and he hated "Beat The Devil" too, another Huston dud, which Bogie produced and lost his shirt on.
    "Asphalt Jungle" also failed with audiences---the manager of the old Capitol told me [when I ran the Criterion] the reason: "NO STARS".
    The movie theater "trades" of the day will ratify everything I said here.

    Logic had nothing to do with the predicament you've created for yourselves, with your left-over commie ideology from the '50s---French too, ugh. This is end-stage delusion.

    You plainly lost your battle with reality long ago, so perhaps sitting in the dark with the shadows, fantasizing an imaginary life far in the past, is all that's left for you.

    Matthew H. Davidson

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  22. I've been reading this blog and Mark Lawrence’s Cobby is the shifty, nervous bookie that is hard to ever get a handle on, it's the hardest thing but is truth.