The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Directed by John Huston
Adaptation of the novel by W. R. Burnett
Screenplay by Ben Maddow & John Huston
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Scored by Miklos Rozsa
Edited by George Boemler
Older men are behaving badly with childish endeavors. Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), you can call him “Doc,” has the demeanor of a butler or a gentleman. He is a man of pleasures, “because what else are there?” You wouldn’t think of him as a famous mastermind in crime fresh out of prison, who had passed the time by planning his next heist. He has his eyes set on what’s likely to be a million dollar burglary or even more. So without any foundation he will need funding. Through a bookie called Cobby (Marc Lawrence), he requests a meeting with Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), an older married lawyer who easily circumvents the law, and is having an affair with Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe). Doc offers Mr. Emmerich to split his profits for a sum of $50,000 to hire the necessary skills to pull off the job. The deal goes through. Erwin’s team takes form with Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), his safe cracker, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), the driver and the muscle Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden). The plan seems infallible, and does succeed, however little by little the unexpected occurs, and with so many hired experts in crime, someone’s bound to double cross. Men do tend to get greedy.
Who’s it about?
The Asphalt Jungle is a crime noir. There really isn’t a hero or a main lead, although you can’t really view a heist film as having a hero. Every character serves as a tool for their job with their own motivations. Dix Handley is held in a little bit more of a light of honor. Along with Erwin Riedenschneider the two men seem to be the focus of the film as it begins and ends following their stories.
Without the crooked lawyer and the events surrounding him this film wouldn’t be interesting. If Erwin Riedenschneider and Dix Handley are the most prominent focus of the beginning and end of the film, Mr. Alonzo D. Emmerich is for sure at the center of the stage. He’s a man with no spine, has a pleasant wife (Dorothy Tree), is a person who even the cops know is no good, and he’s charmed the likes of Angela Phinlay into an affair with him.
As much as I should hate this man Louis Calhern played him with a few moments of obvious diabolical selfishness to the people he was talking to. It was like he all of sudden felt more pleasant and charmed by the idea of ripping you off while almost announcing it right in front of you. How marvelous. I didn’t laugh aloud but it was kind of amusing to me. Those were moments I could see horns growing out of his head. His mustache makes it funnier. His most obviously notable line was, “Oh there’s nothing so different about criminals. After all crime is just a left handed form of human endeavor.”
I don’t have a whole lot of thoughts on this film. In terms of motifs and character psychology, I don’t think there’s that much to examine. I should mention that although I like noirs, I’m not much of a fan of heist films (at least not yet). This is because it’s rare in these stories when a criminal’s drive and motivations are explored. Greed alone usually isn’t a very complex emotion. It’s not difficult to understand. This isn’t in the film, but picture a goon saying, “I want that gold watch. Give it to me… before I hammer you with my meaty paw…” Yep. The Asphalt Jungle isn’t like that thankfully. It’s slightly charming older men making a plan so that they won’t have to resort to crime anymore by hiring the younger guys. I do enjoy crime films very much once we see a human within the guy who thinks he can outsmart the system and other crooks. Either that or I like seeing a person that is so foreign to us, and so off kilter, that it’s impossible to not be interested in his or her make up. This film didn’t really show me either of those characters, at least not in much depth.
Telling the whole story
One thing that I did like about this picture is how the process of putting together this kind of job unfolds. It’s not always put to this detail. Often a team is already assembled and they just need to convince one more essential expert. You know, the action hero who is more than just a cut above everyone in the universe. Perhaps I haven’t seen enough older films. With the Asphalt Jungle everything is a problem until they solve it. It’s step by step. One man calls another man. Another talks to a friend in secret, because they agreed to the job, but they aren’t totally equipped as normal due to circumstances. So that’s where they come in. Yeah, there’s a few little sub plots. Cool deal. That’s nice.
Why everyone isn’t a criminal
The other thing that separates John Huston’s film from other heists is that no situation is perfect. Not one man is invincible, and it’s refreshing to see that policemen aren’t complete idiots. In many modern films criminals taunt and laugh at the police by doing completely insane things with ease (insert impossible car/helicopter/motor boat chase scene here). Fortunately car chase scenes hadn’t become prominent until many many years later. The police in the Asphalt Jungle quickly find leads and details, and once they have them, all they have to do is find you. They very most likely will. I’m pretty tired of all these films about a guy being “so good” at his job, and yet you see him in the next scene narrowly escaping by simply running away. The reality is that they virtually never get away. Oh yeah, and real expert criminals don’t have to run with their tail between their legs.
With this film, just as it takes the time to show you how a crime is built, it also shows you how one wrong leads to others. I’d say the intensity of this film climaxes 3/5ths in and spirals back down again. It’s built up and then deconstructed. I actually do like that idea when I think of it, but when watching the film the most interesting scenes aren’t towards the end. The problem is that deconstruction isn’t that complicated in the Asphalt Jungle. There isn’t any backup plans, and the subplots disappear. This does make me want to find a similar film with carefully conceived events within deconstruction, or how about destruction and chaos? That sounds like fun.
“Do I have to talk to him? Couldn’t I… just talk to you?”
Fans of Marilyn Monroe should barely expect to see her much in this film as it was one of her first appearances. She serves almost no significance to the main story other than for Emmerich to call upon her for a little help later. She’s just a moll. Also Jean Hagen is in this film as Doll Conovan. Even though she has a more major roll, and she does a decent job, she mostly just serves as a friend, and supporter (as well as obvious admirer) of Dix Handley. She doesn’t have anything to do with the heist itself. The writer’s didn’t give women much of a purpose in The Asphalt Jungle. Which at the time, they probably weren’t thought much as criminals.
Sir, what says you?
So the Asphalt Jungle was worth the watch. It wasn’t worth reviewing. I would rather review something I love or really hate so at least I had something to passionately write about. Either that or I like reviewing something controversial in which I’m lukewarm because it’s difficult. The film wasn’t mind blowing contrary to it being viewed as an essential viewing, an award winner, and being critically acclaimed. However, that’s the opinion of someone (me) who isn’t a major fan of burglary themes. For the genre this was a good one.
I enjoyed everything up until the heist and some of the after effects that unfold. That’s where it started off with a more intricate scenario. After that the film kind of slowly but surely abandons you in shame. I think I’m spoiled by psychological drama. I don’t think this is the most fanciful review of mine. However I believe it reflects the subject I studied. The fact that Marilyn Monroe is the most famous thing that everyone remembers in this picture and she isn’t even in it much, leads me to believe I’m not wrong. You should also know that my Netflix account is chalk full of 1 star and 2 star ratings. Most films are lucky to get 3 from me. So watch it once. It’s a good one. Enjoy it.
“Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one’s alright he turns legit.”
“Frankly I don’t like the guy, but I never saw a hooligan I did like. They’re like left-handed pitchers. They all have a screw loose somewhere.”