Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, Louis Calhern, Marc Lawrence, James Whitmore, Marilyn Monroe

Directed by John Huston

Written by Ben Maddow and Huston; adapted from the novel by W.R. Burnett

 

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“Crime is just a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

Picture a more realistic Ocean’s Eleven, better written, better acted and with a powerful keynote on the blurred line between blue uniforms and black trenchcoats.  Add to this some of the film noir genre’s most beautiful cinematography and it’s most unflappably badass tough-guy and you’ve bought yourself a vacation in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle.

The elements – the hand-picked group, the score, the double-cross – is, to a society inundated with more caper films than explosions in a Michael Bay film, pretty routine.  And yet even knowing the pattern and watching it develop, The Asphalt Jungle deceives the viewer; not with a clever trick, or a tacked-on attention-getting plot twist, but in creating one of the first instances of unlikely sympathy in an film audience: simply put, we find ourselves cheering for the criminals.

Avoid the shrugs – sixty-two years ago, this was a big deal.  Crooked cops, while at a century-mark in city barracks’ infestation, were not shown to be in entertainment.  Protagonists weren’t usually criminals, and when they were it had to be because of some silly misunderstanding.

These time-told maxims have no place in film noir, however, or under the lens of the immortal John Huston, who before Jungle had shown moviegoers everywhere the gritty world of steely gumshoes and devilish dames two years earlier in Key Largo, as well as in another Humphrey Bogart vehicle – 1941’s genre-defining The Maltese Falcon.

Given free reign by producers at MGM Studios, Huston collaborated with writer Ben Maddow – who got a nomination in that winter’s Academy Awards; the film got four – and the two set off on a caper story with more meaning that mischief, more dynamism than dynamite.

German immigrant and crime genius “Doc” Riedenschneider comes out of the clink with seven years’ worth of planning for a score to end all scores – half a million dollars for effortlessly robbing a high-end jewelry store of all its rocks.  He enlists the help of a small-time bookie who puts him in touch with a bent lawyer named Emmerich looking for money anywhere he can get it.  The idea in motion, the trio put in a search for a driver, a locksmith and a “hooligan” – what I can define a half a century later loosely as a strongman.

Enter Dix Handley, introduced in the opening scene as a massively tall figure draped in a black coat disappearing into the liquid dark of sunrise away from a patrolling police cruiser.  A Kentuckian obsessed as much with horses as he is his home he lost to debt years ago, he’s been doing small time robberies and stick-ups for the better part of a year in the city in order to raise enough money to buy back the old ranch.  Correction, to raise enough money to gamble for more money in order to buy back the old ranch.

Naturally, this makes him familiar with the bookie, where a chance meeting with Doc in the same smoke-filled lounge makes Doc recommend Dix for the hooligan spot.  Agreeing to a fifty-fifty split, Doc and Emmerich put the players in motion and the game is on.

But of course, nobody trusts nobody in the jungle.

Emmerich, played in deliciously slimy candor by stage veteran Louis Calhern, naturally wants all the money for himself, and enlists the help of an immoral private eye.

Doc, not an amateur by any means, sees a possibility that Emmerich will try and swindle them, and confides in Dix – who is as strong in honor as he is in physicality.  Every party proceeds carefully, and surprises riddle holes in the plot from then on out as rapidly as a machine gun.

Sterling Hayden, gruff, statuesque former war hero, is Dix.  At six-foot five, Hayden literally towers over the other characters (Gifted character actor Sam Jaffe is about a foot shorter as mastermind Doc) and is a massive creature of animalism.  In other words, a true bad ass.

“Why don’t you quit crying and get me some bourbon?” He yells at one of the group, rubbing indifferently at a bleeding stomach wound following the robbery.

Louis Calhern, who I remember best as the larger-than-life Julius Caesar of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic, dives low in society to portray the sly lawyer Alonzo Emmerich, who ignores his bed-ridden wife to canoodle with a girl “young enough to be his granddaughter”, a girl who calls him “Uncle Lon” and has since cost him so much in party favors that he’s flat broke.  It’s a sublime and desolate performance from an actor usually cast in grandiose roles.

And I’ll just mention that this particular blonde looker – called “babe” and “baby” by seemingly all the film’s male characters – is none other than Marilyn Monroe in an early role, who steals every scene she’s in despite not even being listed on most opening night posters.

No one in the cast overdoes their parts.  The performances blend into the sequences and subtle plot turns like ingredients in a blender – all part of the bigger import, the greater good.

And then there’s the noir bits.  It’s all there, the mysterious, gritty setting, the tough but good guy, the beautiful dark (and blonde) haired squeeze, and the slimy villain.  In the dead of night, black cars with criminals and cops sneak around under a canopy of dripping railings, drenching arc-sodium lamps and steam from clogged sewer vents.  My favorite sequence in the film includes the dancing antics of a voluptuous schoolgirl in front of a club’s jukebox, jiving to some jazz underneath the aroused eyes of Doc.  In a fixed spot, the camera is bizarrely only at torso-height, and her dancing becomes almost dizzying as for a few moments she goes out of focus and then back in, before it cuts to an almost frightening view of the frenetic, almost erotic look on her face.  A noir fan soon finds the Jungle a lovely place to visit.

And to study.  Huston’s film displays an alluring amount of firsts that, while not coming at odds against the studios, extended how far realism can go in what is marked on the surface as just fantasy.

“Sounds like a soul in hell,” remarks a frightened wife of one of the criminals while a passing police car whines along a narrow alleyway.  Cops are not loved figures here; they are crooks, or beasts, or – even more astoundingly – annoying flies that bug the getaway attempts of criminals that are suddenly heroes.

Hayden’s Dix only wants to get back to his home, and while we are not blind to the fact that he’s a petty, violent, money-grubbing thug, we want this for him. And Emmerich may be a lecherous snake, but his final conclusion – a way to circumvent the law and its punishments – is sudden and upsetting.

The Asphalt Jungle drops the viewer into a seedy word of smokey, dimly lit rooms, light-splashed cars and shadowy treachery.  And yet, it’s not a place unfamiliar, or even outright repulsive.  In the city beneath the city, people live and die by their own desperate needs, but they are not inhuman.

Turning aside our own perspectives as to who deserves what, whether from the law or from our own set of morals,  puts this film in a category of its own: Film la réalité noir.

Images courtesy of filmnoirblonde.com, moviefilmreview.com and flickr.com, respectively.

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