John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle is a tremendously influential film that hits just as hard today as it did in 1950. When it comes to caper films, this bad bitch laid down the blueprint. Much like Rififi five years later, The Asphalt Jungle worried the studio and other tight-assed conservatives due to the detailed depiction of its heist. Suits were afraid that less morally bound people would attempt to imitate the caper. That was 64 years ago. After watching it today, I don’t feel influenced to rip off a high-end jewelry store, but I would like to imitate Sterling Hayden’s aggressively gritty masculinity. Shot with Huston’s naturalistic visual style and featuring an ensemble of baddasses, The Asphalt Jungle is an essential noir.
Criminal mastermind Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has planned a jewel heist worth a cool million. In order to pull it off, he seeks the aid of corrupt lawyer Alonzo (Louis Calhern), who has the funds to help Doc assemble a team, fund them, and fence the goods. For their driver, they hire Gus (James Whitmore), a hunchbacked diner owner with underworld connections all over town. For their box man (safecracker), they hire Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a slick s.o.b. who agrees to the job because he needs money to take care of his sick kid.
And then there’s the muscle. The cat who doesn’t think twice about pulling the trigger or punching out any law who may stand in their way. For that they hire Dix Handley, played by the actor James Ellroy called the “poet brute of noir,” Sterling Hayden. This grizzled tower of a man never needs to act. His face, his snarl, his booming voice, hell, he just needs to silently be in frame and he commands the scene.
And his Dix Handley character is one of my favorite antiheroes in all of noir. He may be a tough bastard, but he’s also incredibly sympathetic. In one of the film’s best scenes, he talks about the farm his father used to own, and how he loved to ride the horses there. Looking at his face, it’s clear these were the happiest times of his life. It’s like Charles Foster Kane and Rosebud – riches don’t mean anything to Dix, he just wants to ride a horse again on the old farm. He gets his wish (sorta) at the end of the film, in one last heartbreaking, but freeing moment.
The tagline of the film is “The City Under the City” and that’s just what it depicts: several of the nuances and characters of the underworld. There’s crooked cops, bookies, fences, safecrackers, hoods, the whole cadre of mugs. Huston open the film with Dix prowling the streets in the early morning light, being pursued by the cops. This sets the stage for a city of shadows and deceit, of dead ends and backstabbings. And hot damn is it a gritty ride.
The Asphalt Jungle, like many film noirs, depicts the trappings of fate. The band of crooks can plan their heist down to the last detail, but they can never account for what Doc curses as “accidents.” A string of them occur after the heist, leading to the men barreling towards their doom. And since the heist occurs about halfway into the film, there’s another hour of time for the cold hands of fate to wring everyone’s neck.
Oh, and Marilyn Monroe is in it. She doesn’t do much, but she has a crucial role.