Lawrence Russell

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) dir. John Huston writ. Ben Maddow and John Huston (based on the novel by W.R. Burnett) cine. Harold Rossen star. Sterling Hayden (Dix Handley), Louis Calhern (Alonzo Emmerich), Jean Hagen (Doll), James Whitmore (Gus), Sam Jaffe (Doc), Marilyn Monroe (Angela), Barry Kelley (Lt. Ditich), Anthony Caruso (Louis), John McIntyre (Commissioner), Brad Dexter (Brannon)

The modernism in this drama is in the documentary feel of the settings and the real-time sequences that depend on characterization for emotion rather than music. The style is not unlike the neo-realist drama of de Sica where humans are isolated within an indifferent urban architecture, moving through a semi-tone universe in a gray anticipation of Fate.

In The Asphalt Jungle, the streets are empty corridors of stone and concrete, a cage of trolley wires and power poles, where the characters move in a lonely passage between dusk and dawn. Unlike the movie criminals of the nineties, there are people behind them -- families, lovers -- so their actions have consequences. And unlike most contemporary crime dramas, the story doesn't end with the last bullet, although the last bullet is carried to the end.

Doc Riedensch (Jaffe), a Jewish criminal of German origin, is released from prison and immediately heads to see Cabby (Lawrence), an illegal Bookie, with a plan to steal some diamonds from an upscale jewelry store called Belleteer's. Cabby is the eye of the needle, as it's through him that the essential characters pass who come to make up the gang that performs the heist: Dix (Hayden), the big Irish-American "hooligan" with an obsession for horses and gambling; Gus (Whitmore), the hunchback greasy-spoon operator with a heart of gold; Louis (Caruso), the Italian-American "soup" (nitro) man who can "crack any safe in under four minutes"; and Emmerich (Calhern), the crooked lawyer with an anxiety-invalid for a wife and a "niece" for a mistress.

"Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor"

The robbery is a simple "hole-in-the-wall" forced entry into the store from the furnace room.The safe is blown with some nitro. The blast disturbs the alarms, which attract the police... and the night watchman who is easily overpowered as the trio of Doc, Dix and Louis coolly make their exit. But as the watchman's gun hits the floor, it discharges and fatally wounds Louis the safecracker in a random stroke of fate. Nonetheless, they slip into the night, return Louis to his wife where he dies later in the company of a priest.

The next consequence has been foreseen by the canny Doc -- a double-cross by Mr. Big, Emmerich the lawyer, who is supposed to buy the diamonds before reselling to a fence. Emmerich is waiting for Doc and Dix with his shakedown man, the volatile Brannon who has had one whiskey too many... and is shot dead by Dix, although Dix takes a bullet too. Emmerich confesses that he did the double-cross because he's broke, and invites Dix to shoot him. But Doc suggests he approach the Insurance Company, negotiate a 25% buyback of the jewels. Emmerich is forced to dispose of Brannon's body in the river and use his mistress Angela (Monroe) as a false alibi.

The police visit Emmerich as he plays Casino with his wife, interrogate him about his associate Brannon, whose body has been pulled from the river. When they leave, his wife expresses dismay when Emmerich tells her Brannon may have been connected to the Belleteer robbery.

Wife: (concerned) Can we go on playing?

Emmerich: Certainly -- why not?

Wife: Oh Lon... when I think of all those awful people you come in contact with... some of them are downright criminals!

Emmerich: Oh, there's nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor....

Later, when Emmerich's alibi collapses and the police prepare to arrest him, his child mistress frets about Cuba:

Angela: What about my trip, Uncle Lonnie?

Emmerich: Don't worry, baby -- you'll have lots of trips.

Emmerich withdraws to another room on the pretext of phoning his wife, shoots himself.

Meanwhile Cabby the Bookie is slapped around by the corrupt cop Lt. Ditrich and confesses, betraying the gang for a better deal with the judge. The police descend on Louis as he receives the last rites. Gus and Cabby are already behind bars as Dix and Doc read the papers and realize they have to get out of town. Doc has bonded with Dix, both men recognizing the other's innate integrity. Doc offers Dix half the loot, but he declines, and gives Doc a thousand bucks to help him get to Cleveland.

Dix pulls back the curtain, watches as Doc crosses the street, disappears into the night:

Dix: That squarehead, he's a funny little guy... I just don't get him at all.

Doll: Maybe it's because he's a foreigner -- they just don't think like us.

Dix: Anyway, he's got plenty of guts.

Doc is picked up on the outskirts of town when he lingers in a cafe to watch a young girl dance at the jukebox... and Dix dies from his bullet wound in a meadow where he staggers to meet some horses in a hallucinatory quest to complete his unfulfilled dream. Yes, crime doesn't pay. As the Commissioner tells the Press when they question him about the corruption in Lt. Ditrich's ward: "Suppose we had no police force? The jungle wins."

The approach is out of the tradition of American naturalism as seen in the novels of Norris, Dreiser, Lewis, and others, where character is determined by environment, the architect of fate. The characterizations are driven by the human need for freedom rather than the psychopathic need to kill. Each man has a weakness, but none have a pathology, which marks The Asphalt Jungle as quite different from the gangster films of the time, where greed and nihilism presage the future we understand today.

A bit slow for contemporary tastes, it nevertheless has that moody noir feel and raw dialogue that represent the period. Most of the scenes are interiors, so the ambience is controlled by shadow and artificial light, a sunless world where gray is reality. The opening sequence shows Dix walking through the empty business arcades and alleys of a silent, anonymous American city as a black police cruiser trolls the streets looking for a robbery suspect... "a tall man, Caucasian." The loneliness is pervasive, so crime is an attitude, the only road to freedom when you live in a concrete crypt.

Reinvented as a Western --The Badlanders -- in 1958, again from a novel by W.R. Burnett. Cairo is a 1962 remake set in Egypt while Barry Pollack's 1972 version Cool Breeze is a response to the black crime vogue started by Shaft. Influential, as a film by Huston often is.

© LR 5/7/99


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