Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 112m 25s
"Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."
—Alonzo D. Emmerich
The best heist films examine how distinct character types react in situations that intensify with precious little warning. The placement of people in tough circumstances informs almost every sequence in John Huston's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, a heist movie of tremendous dimensions that has influenced a vast assortment of caper films. Fate may bring the heist participants together, but they succumb to their own weaknesses, mostly for women or money, or some combination of the two. The outcome may seem overly predictable thanks to the many permutations of the heist story inspired by THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, yet even today there is never a dull moment, in part because director and co-writer Huston so clearly considers the criminals the most worthwhile characters.
Recently released from prison after doing seven years, Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has devised an ingenious heist with a projected $500,000 net profit. All he needs to make it happen are the start-up funds and the proper personnel. Doc discusses his plan with Cobby (Marc Lawrence), who knows criminal defense lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the man Doc has heard could back the heist. Soon skilled safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) and his friend Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) are recruited. The last man brought into the mix is the main protagonist, 36-year-old William "Dix" Handley (Sterling Hayden), a small timer from Boone County, Kentucky with some priors and an unfortunate habit of betting on horses. Like any problem gambler, Dix feels confident his luck is bound to change, and it would seem it has when Dix is recognized by Doc as a good potential "hooligan" for the pending job.
The proverbial noir tough guy with a moral compass, Dix hopes to escape the filth of the city and return to the country life he lost. The crime-infested Midwest city of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE seems to wear on everyone as the representation of the urban scene seldom ventures far from the film's title. Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley) is chewed out by Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire), who has grown tired of crime running wild in the streets. A significant part of the problem is Ditrich, a corrupt cop on the take. The grim realities of city living are audible on police radios, with crime events that occur around the clock. Some of the characters openly detest their urban environment. After his planned return to a farming community, Dix vows to cleanse himself in a creek to remove "city dirt." Louis confidently states, "If you want fresh air, don't look for it in this town!"
The narrative winds down with Commissioner Hardy's idealistic notion that a sometimes-corrupt police force is better than nothing. Without a police force, even one tainted by corruption, calls for help would go unanswered. Under such a scenario, "The jungle wins." Hardy hurts his credibility when he goes on at length about Dix Handley, who he describes as a merciless thug, when in truth Dix is not that type of criminal at all; he only wants to return to an uneventful country life. Dix is another doomed film noir protagonist whose obsession with the past will factor in his demise. In one of the cruelest of film noir conclusions, Dix returns to rural America only to be mocked by the same animals that ruined his urban existence. Apparently city filth cannot be scrubbed away; those immersed in this noir city end up dead, jailed, or widowed.
Interestingly, at one point Doc tries to steer Dix away from his determined return to country living. The more I watch THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, the more I find Doc to be the most honorable character. He may be a notorious crime figure, but he is intelligent, analytical, articulate, pleasant, patient, a great communicator and a credible leader who commands respect. Rare is the person who can claim to possess all of those qualities. His one major flaw is his fondness for young, good-looking dames. Not long after his character is introduced, Doc is shown flipping through a calendar of sexy pinup girls. Later he fantasizes about chasing cuties in Mexico. "One way or another, we all work for our vice," he says. Ultimately Doc's roving eye for beauty leads to his capture after he becomes fascinated with Jeannie (Helene Stanley), an energetic gal with a passion for dancing to snappy jukebox tunes. Doc is painfully aware of what eventually brings him down, but before that happens he blames his own greed on a heist gone awry. "Greed made me blind," he admits.
A fatal combination of lust and greed also finishes Emmerich, a far less sympathetic person than Doc. In a bad way financially, Emmerich is not satisfied with his share of the heist as proposed by Doc. The private investigator Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) rightly blames Emmerich's financial woes on his spunky kept blonde Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe). The young and vibrant Angela is the antithesis of Emmerich's bedridden wife May (Dorothy Tree), whose only wish is for her husband to play card games with her. Any character portrayed by Marilyn Monroe would have to be about the most unfair competition imaginable for a sickly wife. Naturally, perfect-looking young blondes do not come cheap. Emmerich maintains a separate residence for Angela, whose only job is to take naps and be well-rested for those numerous evenings Emmerich shares with her. A woman figures in the decline of Dix as well, even if without bad intentions. His gal Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen), a personable dancehall girl, is the most well-meaning female in the film, but she does give Dix aspirin, a blood-thinner, after he had been shot.
As he did so effectively in KEY LARGO (1948), director John Huston systematically builds tension in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. Few scenes lack some type of stress between the characters involved. Dix almost boils over when pressured by Cobby, who sweats perpetually over all things related to money. Gus tosses an obnoxious bigmouth out of his diner. Louis goes off on Gus over the phone. But the best instances of strained communication occur when Emmerich attempts to deceive suspicious cohorts or visiting cops. Louis Calhern (top-billed next to Sterling Hayden) was cast perfectly as the sleazy Emmerich, a loathsome character to be sure, but portrayed with a certain dignity by Calhern. Perhaps after too many years of defending shady criminals, something rubbed off on Emmerich that could not be removed (city dirt), or maybe he just could not pretend to enjoy casino games with his wife any longer. Sterling Hayden, so ideal as Dix, also appeared in another of the great heist film noirs of the 1950s, Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING (1956).
The supporting cast is exceptional. Brad Dexter, who went on to play such a great heel in 99 RIVER STREET (1953), is effective here as Emmerich's no-nonsense associate. The familiar voice of John McIntire immediately brings to mind his performance as Sheriff Al Chambers from PSYCHO (1960). McIntire possesses the perfect speaking voice to express moral arrogance ("Married 20 years. Consorting with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter. It's disgusting!"). As if I need to comment, Marilyn Monroe makes for a stunning mistress in one of her earliest credited roles. I love the way she runs like an excited kid when her Angela character learns she is going to go on a trip. Though young, she already has grown accustomed to swaying male behavior with a mere look and a suggestion ("Couldn't I just—talk to you?"). And Jean Hagen, unforgettable as "triple threat" Lina Lamont in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952), shows how amiable she could be here as a nice enough girl who "never had a proper home."
Cinematographer Harold Rosson lensed two of the cinema's most famous color films, THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, but he handles B&W film noir visual schemes with equivalent flair. In an approach that would characterize the noir film of the 1950s, his use of location footage is apparent from the very beginning of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, and his often claustrophobic compositions accurately reflect the noir sensibilities of the time, as the assorted screen captures within this review confirm.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc presents this John Huston classic in a fairly sharp 1.37:1 transfer. This new 2K digital restoration offers substantial improvement versus the Warner DVD presentation released in 2004, which distorted the original 1.37:1 image by squeezing it to 1.345:1 for 4:3 televisions. Ported from the DVD version is the fine audio commentary track led by film historian Dr. Drew Casper. The track also features archival recordings of actor James Whitmore, who portrayed the hunchback Gus, the crippled man of this film noir. Dr. Casper, Professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and author of POSTWAR HOLLYWOOD, 1946-1962 (2007), points out that THE ASPHALT JUNGLE was hardly the typical product conceived at MGM, a studio famous for its musicals, family comedies, and adventures. He goes into great detail about Huston, who worked in various genres but consistently focused on men under pressure. Huston's men are not necessarily that likable, but one is compelled to admire their resourcefulness, despite the character flaws that work against them in the end. Casper describes Huston as a post-classical filmmaker since his films deal with absurd situations and the dark irony of inevitable failure. As fate gets in the way of character aspirations, the existential sensibility of Huston's work is evident. According to Whitmore, Huston was only half-hearted in his approach to THE ASPHALT JUNGLE because he was eager to direct QUO VADIS (1951), a project from which Huston would be removed as it turned out. Also culled from the Warner DVD is a brief archival segment (50s) with Huston.
The remaining supplements are unique to this Criterion edition. At the top of the list is the documentary feature PHAROS OF CHAOS (Leuchtturm des Chaos, , 119m 2s), written and directed by Manfred Blank and Wolf-Eckart Bühler. Essentially it is the type of thing Werner Herzog sometimes does, with a camera following around a human oddity for a sustained timeframe. In this case Blank and Bühler film Sterling Hayden aboard the 65-year-old actor's river barge "Pharos of Islandia," where he smokes hashish and drinks liquor from the bottle six months per year. Hayden's alcohol abuse in particular becomes a major topic during the course of filming. Hayden almost drowns after a night of drinking and probably would have had he not been plucked from the river by his son Dana. Hayden has an annoying habit of saying "hmm?" or "huh?" after every idea he expresses, but that persistent quirk somehow becomes less intrusive as his "war with himself" unspools. A sailor at the age of 15 and a captain by the age of 20, the itinerant Hayden is the author of WANDERER (1963) and VOYAGE: A NOVEL OF 1896 (1976), but of course he is best remembered for a Hollywood career he mostly resents. Hayden named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee and was rewarded with a busy movie career throughout the 1950s.
|PHAROS OF CHAOS|
"Eddie Muller on The Asphalt Jungle" (24m 10s) allows film noir historian Eddie Muller, decked out in movie wiseguy garb, to make his case for THE ASPHALT JUNGLE as the starting point of a new genre. Muller considers Huston's film to be the first of its kind to associate everyday people with criminal activity. Huston greatly admired the work of author W.R. Burnett, who preferred to present his material from the criminal's perspective. Burnett was the author of LITTLE CAESAR (1929) and HIGH SIERRA (1941). The latter was co-written for the screen by Huston, who endeavored to stay true to the Burnett novel THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1949). In fact, Huston made sure the movie rights were picked up before the novel was completed, which challenges the Whitmore assertion that Huston was not overly excited to be working on THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. Leave it to Muller to unearth a terrific footnote I never would have thought to look up: Helene Stanley, the diner dancer, worked at Disney as the model for CINDERELLA (1950) and SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). Her scene plays somewhat differently when the viewer is aware of that.
"More Than Noir: Cinematography in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE" (20m 12s) collects the thoughts of cinematographer John Bailey, who rightly identifies cinematographer Harold Rosson as a master of both foreground and background action (I would add middleground). He uses the introduction of Doc as a sterling example of Rosson's command of camera placement and lighting. Though the film under review certainly conveys the visual elements of film noir that had become popular, Bailey notes characters seldom appear entrapped by environments (though Dix and Doll seem visually oppressed when they share the front seat of a car in the film's concluding moments).
Next up is an episode of the Canadian television program CITY LIGHTS from October 10th, 1979 (48m 28s). Host Brian Linehan interviews Huston, who discusses some of his most notable productions, such as THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951), THE MISFITS (1961), FAT CITY (1972) and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975). Huston does not reference THE ASPHALT JUNGLE among his favorite accomplishments as a filmmaker. "The Huston Method" (6m 1s) confirms that Huston always set out to be faithful to the source material he admired. Also on hand is a theatrical trailer (2m 37s) and a booklet essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien. I cannot recommend this Criterion release more highly.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Sam Jaffe), Best Director, Best Writing, Screenplay (Ben Maddow, Huston) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White. W.R. Burnett's novel would be adapted another three times by MGM: THE BADLANDERS (1958) directed by Delmer Daves, CAIRO (1963) directed by Wolf Rilla, and COOL BREEZE (1972), directed by Barry Pollack.
Other notable film noir heist efforts of the 1950s include Richard Fleischer's ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950), Jules Dassin's incredible RIFIFI (1955) and Robert Wise's underappreciated ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959).