Written by Christine Bamberger
USA, 1950. 112 min. MGM/ Loew’s Inc. Cast: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, Marilyn Monroe. Music: Miklós Rózsa; Cinematography: Harold Rosson; Production Design: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons; Produced by: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.; Written by: W.R. Burnett, Ben Maddow, John Huston; Directed by: John Huston.
The Germans probably have a long word for the way that we sometimes find ourselves rooting for the villains in movies, and rarely have we felt that as strongly as we do for the German-American Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) and his carefully selected team of gem thieves in The Asphalt Jungle.
John Huston, director and co-screenwriter (with Ben Maddow) once said that each character in this suspenseful film has his own special vice, and though you may not admire these people, you will certainly find them fascinating. So finely (but subtly) drawn is the humanity of W.R. Burnett’s characters, however, that you may indeed admire–or at least relate to–certain attributes of some of them.
Doc is a hardened thief with a penchant for young girls, but he never seems overly lascivious about it, and he is kind and in a sense honorable toward his partners in the actual heist. The “hooligan” Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) plays the horses, beats up on people, and ignores his girlfriend, Doll (Jean Hagen), but he shows a vestigial pride about taking money from a crooked alcoholic lender (Marc Lawrence) who does not respect him. Ultimately, horses are integral both to his downfall and to his hoped-for salvation; his sole desperate need is to get home to the Kentucky ranch where he once felt happiness. The “box man” (safe cracker) on the job is Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a family man who wants to ensure that his sick child doesn’t get worse. James Whitmore plays the savvy hunchback Gus Minissi, who’s willing to be the driver in the heist, but who loves cats and will do all he can to help out a friend in need.
Even criminals perceive villains in their community, and in this story it turns out to be the double-crossing Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), who is bankrupt in more ways than one. Smooth and courtly he may be, but at heart he is kin to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’s primitive Fred C. Dobbs–unable to see beyond his own selfish concerns when it comes to the agreement to share the loot, and willing to go to heartless lengths to protect his extravagance. Still, Calhern manages to convey to us how lost and desperate even this character has become; somehow we feel sorry for him.
The two main lawmen in the movie are as intelligently portrayed but as flawed (each in his individual way) as the criminals. The cop on the take (Barry Kelley) is not above extorting one of his erstwhile providers of funds, while the Commissioner (John McIntire) delivers the film’s only moments of uncharacteristic preachiness as he melodramatically demonstrates how hard the police force works to protect citizens every day. So peremptory and remorseless is his manner that he comes across as a less appealing character than the heistmen.
Newcomer Marilyn Monroe plays her first significant role as Emmerich’s mistress, and within limited screen time does a good job of communicating that, although her interest in him is chiefly financial, she is torn by more than just greed when she realizes that telling the truth could send him to prison.
The Post-War years and the 1950s saw not only the emergence of film noir, but of a particularly gritty branch of it that usually was filmed at least in part on location in a large city: The Lost Weekend, The Naked City, The Sleeping City, The Killer That Stalked New York, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Panic in the Streets, The Unfaithful, Kiss Me Deadly, etc. The look of these films must have been particularly startling to audiences accustomed to city streets (or even re-creations of Grand Central Station) filmed on back lots; and the moodily lit, sharp black-and-white images convey a desolation that never had been as plain or naturalistic before.
The Asphalt Jungle is especially iconic because we never learn exactly what big city we’re in; it must be in the Midwest because of its distance (10 hours, Dix says) from Kentucky and its proximity to “Chi,” but nothing in its skyline or signage tells us exactly where. Except for the opening and closing scenes, almost all the action takes place at night.
The use of music is also stunningly effective–Miklós Rózsa wisely dispenses with it completely during the real-time robbery scene, making the tension even tighter (and precursing the famous silent robbery in Dassin’s Rififi five years later). In contrast with his lusher scores for Double Indemnity and Spellbound, he provides a sparer background for The Asphalt Jungle until its climactic final scenes.
The look and the feel of the film were a decided departure for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and studio boss Louis B. Mayer was famously opposed to Arthur Hornblow Jr.’s decision to produce such a dark and realistic portrayal of the seamier side of life. MGM’s recently hired vice president of production Dore Schary was coming to greater power at the studio, though, as he could see that social relevance was making commercial headway as a theme with the public. Even the studio most famous for its glossy musicals, stylish dramas and family comedies was making such hard-hitting films as Battleground and Border Incident, and not long after the release of The Asphalt Jungle, Schary would in fact replace Mayer as the head of MGM.
But there are many spots of warmth within this bleak film, which make it even more believable than some of the more nihilistic of the noirs by illuminating for what these people-gone-wrong strive: the compassion that Gus and Doll and Doc show Dix, and the ways that he is finally able to respond; the camaraderie of two second-generation Americans meeting in a taxicab, and the way that the cabbie Schurz looks after Doc; the joy of youths dancing in a roadhouse; the beauty of the Kentucky countryside.
Not only did The Asphalt Jungle have a profound influence on several films to come (most notably The Killing, Topkapi, Reservoir Dogs, and The Italian Job), but it was remade in three different versions: a 1958 western called The Badlanders; a British production in 1963, Cairo; and Cool Breeze, a 1972 film with an all-black cast.