Monday, March 06, 2006

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The Asphalt Jungle (MGM, 1950) directed by John Huston, based on the novel by W.R. Burnett.
Main cast: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Marc Lawrence, Marilyn Monroe, Barry Kelley, Anthony Caruso, Dorothy Tree, Brad Dexter. Noteworthy bits by Strother Martin, Frank Cady, Ray Teal, Gene Evans, Don Haggerty.

"If you want fresh air, don't look for it in this town."

The Asphalt Jungle epitomizes not only film noir, in a number of ways, but also the sub-genre of the caper film. This is not to say that there were not precedents in terms of Caper Film. Only one year earlier, Universal released a great example with Criss Cross, directed by Robert Siodmak. It's a matter of opinion whether Criss Cross is superior to Jungle. I say the Huston film is greater because of the range and depths of its characters (discussed below). And before the Siodmak example, there were many number of other movies centered around plots to pull off a robbery or a heist: Larceny, Inc. (1942, Lloyd Bacon) comes immediately to mind. But that film, enjoyable as it is, has a light touch and an optimistic outlook. The Asphalt Jungle is not afraid to show us seedy, down-and-out characters who are nevertheless complex and deeply human. In contrast to Larceny, Inc, these are not charming criminals.
To place The Asphalt Jungle more solidly into context, let's consider that Huston had directed two other famous films that form a kind of trilogy with it: The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). Surely no other director can claim three disparate, yet similarly-themed films, all of which have been considered "great" by critics and audiences over the decades since they have appeared.

The "trilogy", as I term it, is made up of films concerned with groups of desperate people attempting to gain access to, and possess, something that will lead to their ultimate redemption. "Redemption" here should be taken in its most generalized sense, and perhaps least of all in a spiritual sense. In The Maltese Falcon (of the three, perhaps the one with the darkest and most ambiguous view of humanity) redemption (financial or otherwise) seems so far from any one's mind that it may not seem worth mentioning. Yet the trio of Greenstreet, Lorre and Astor does have a desperation about it that seems less concerned with some strange, elusive reward that the "black bird" appears to promise and more consumed by the pursuit itself. One reason Falcon is so re-watchable is that the characters' true motivations are cloudy at best. We can place any number of interpretations onto the desperation we see in these people. All three of them seem strung-out, weary from a years-long search for this apparently unattainable goal. Maybe the film is a metaphor for the "quiet desperation" we are told every human life has at its center. Or maybe the falcon is a kind of inverse Holy Grail, a dark unattainable god, eternally shrouded in mystery.

With The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Huston takes the desperate search theme out of doors and into the wild. Some have termed Treasure a film noir, and a case can be made for this, but the film plays out more as a fatalistic adventure yarn. Where Falcon was dark and claustrophobic in its look and feel, Treasure is set largely in sun-drenched deserts and craggy mountainous terrain. The harsh natural conditions and hostile roaming bandits symbolize the relentless struggle merely to exist: nothing new to these hard-luck men. This quest for gold dust is only the latest--and maybe also the most vehemently pursued--of their attempts to escape the lousy hand life has dealt them. Their motivations are unambiguous: money from the gold will make them rich. As in Falcon, the desperate, plotted- quest--troubled by double-crosses and plenty of bad luck--comes to naught. We are left with the near-maniacal laugh of Walter Huston at the end: most human endeavor ends in a pile of dust carried away on a gust of wind.

Two years later, The Asphalt Jungle presents us with a larger set of characters, all of them as desperate as the trios in Falcon or Treasure. But where the two earlier films had people who were mostly on the same page in general terms of their back stories and motivations, JUNGLE has men and women who inhabit the underworld, that 'city under the city', however peripherally. Most of their needs are spelled out, and the backgrounds are painted in memorable detail. We see little men like Cobby (the late Marc Lawrence in an extremely realistic performance) and Gus (James Whitmore, who may be the only surviving prominent cast member); a woman with nothing but a romantic illusion to cling to (the great Jean Hagen as Doll); men whose lives have been crippled by crime and who persevere only through their own folly-laden dreams: Doc (who sets it all in motion, expertly played by Sam Jaffe) and Dix (Sterling Hayden). There is also family-man safe-cracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), whose motivations are understandable to us all and whose desperation is painful to watch at times. While Dix is often seen as the central protagonist in Jungle, he really shares that position with Alonzo Emmerich. Emmerich is a corrupt lawyer: a formerly wealthy, urbane man reduced to the same doomed schemes as his cohorts, men to whom he feels superior and whom he ultimately intends to double-cross. Emmerich is almost tragic in the Greek tradition: he has farther to fall than Dix and the rest, but he has already met the ground halfway as the film begins. He's broke, and more debts can be called in to support the new scheme. Unlike the younger men, who could possibly take other paths, there is really nowhere for him to go but down. Emmerich's scenes--rendered immortal by Louis Calhern's performance, the greatest in the film--are the most interestingly complex. He pretends he is smarter than everyone else, but he knows that hubris has brought his life past the crisis point. He is painfully aware that neither the money from the stolen jewels, nor the foolish romantic escape with his mistress (Marilyn Monroe) will ever redeem him.

When it arrives, the caper sequence, around which the film ostensibly revolves, is very brief and anti-climactic. This is surely Huston's intention: it's all over in a few minutes and nobody actually gets what they want. The stolen jewels are brought to Emmerich and a violent scene leads to a foil of the rich man's double-crossing scheme. In the end, everyone can see that this particular gleaming treasure--like the dust in Treasure or the 'black bird'--is ultimately worthless: the jewels are too hot and no one dares fence them. So Doc ends up with most of them in his black bag. He begins pursuit of his dream of a tropical isle, surrounded with dancing girls and ends up in a roadside bar where he feeds nickels into a jukebox as a pretty teenager bops around for him. The waiting cops close in quickly, and all is over for Doc.

Emmerich, too, is soon caught. The alibi plan with the mistress doesn't hold water. And the police make a direct connection to him and his dead henchman Brannom (Brad Dexter). Making short work of it, he goes into his private office and shoots himself in the head.

Other characters meet their ends behind bars (Cobby and Gus) or with ironic justice (corrupt detective Barry Kelley, who tries to play both sides), or in death (Ciavelli). At the close of the film, we are left with a mortally wounded Dix, driving toward his dreamed-of horse farm. At his side is the faithful Doll, who knows the jig is up. Dix has never given up his illusions, where the other characters probably never believed their own. He dies, with poetic rightness, in a field surrounded by curious horses, as poor Doll is left to her own devices. The film, which opened on a dim stretch of urban asphalt, closes on a sunny rural vision.

What makes The Asphalt Jungle a great film noir? The wide array of doomed characters--all put into dramatic perspective by Emmerich's tragic fall-- and a persistent feeling of encroaching doom go a long way to give this film its stature. In this way, the film exemplifies the strong fatalism that is essential to Noir.

Besides the great screenplay, major contributing factors to the the film's success are:
--Dialog: some of the most intelligent, yet convincing dialog in all of Noir (by Huston and Ben Maddow) characters who sound real, who say what someone might actually say or be thinking.

Some examples--
Dix: "I was up on that colt's back. My father and grandfather were there, watching the fun. That colt was buck-jumpin' and pitchin' and once he tried to scrape me off against the fence, but I stayed with him, you bet. And then I heard my granddaddy say, 'He's a real Handley, that boy, a real Handley.' And I felt proud as you please.

Doll: Did that really happen, Dix, well, when you were a kid?

Dix: Not exactly. The black colt pitched me into a fence on the first buck and my old man come over and prodded me with his boot and said, 'Maybe that'll teach ya not to brag about how good you are on a horse'..."

Mrs Emmerich: "Oh Lon, when I think of all those awful people you come in contact with, I get scared.

Emmerich: There's nothing so different about them. After all, crime in only a left-handed form of human endeavor."

--Cinematography: realism is enhanced by the look of the film, starkly, yet vividly shot in black-and-white by Harold Rosson. It's worth noting that Rosson uses some sophisticated camera techniques, such as deep focus and and the extreme foregrounding of a single character. If, while watching, the viewer imagines a B-movie version of this story, with conventional camera work and a lackluster cast and script, the greatness of The Asphalt Jungle becomes even more evident. The consummate technical work and artistry involved elevate the film far above any genre or pulp limitations.

--Music: underlining the bleakness of Huston's vision right from the opening credits is the music score by Miklós Rózsa (who also scored Criss Cross). In a departure from his approach with scores for Double Indemnity and Spellbound, Rozsa places his cues sparingly. The score only calls attention to itself under the main titles and during Dix's wild death ride. For the robbery scene, Rozsa provides no music , and dialog is minimal. While it's far briefer, we can see in this scene the true precursor of the long burglary in Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955), famed for its nearly complete silence.

--Direction: it is John Huston himself who may deserve the lion's share of credit for this film. Taking the advice of an older director he had known (possibly Josef Von Sternberg), he directs each scene as if it were the most important one in the film. This gives every scene its own sense of urgency and keeps a consistent tone, making the film one long, tragic descent into doom.


--in 1961 the ABC TV network began a series entitled "The Asphalt Jungle", starring Jack Warden and Arch Johnson. It apparently had no connection to the Huston film apart from the title. Duke Ellington provided music. The series ran on Sunday nights for only 13 episodes.

--Oscar Nominations (no wins) in 1951:
Best Director: John Huston
Best Screenplay: Ben Maddow/John Huston
Best Supporting Actor: Sam Jaffe
Best Cinematography (b&w): Harold Rosson

Written by Jay M


  1. I love this film. Love it, love it, love it. A Canterbury Tales of noir, in that there are so many characters so interestingly drawn out. I love the first five minutes, with the bombastic Rozsa score, the bleak gray city at dusk (or down), that miserable coffee shop that Dix flees to... a memorable film in every way.

    A part I get a kick out of is the scene fade out as Jean Hagen removes her flash eyeleash - ever notice that? That just seems so lifelike and credible. A neat detail.

    One of my top 10 noirs.

    Wes Clark

  2. Would just like to say how interesting I found this piece. It's quite articulate in its opinions on film noir.

  3. By the way, I once read Sterling Hayden's autobiography, and he looks back fondly on this film. (Why wouldn't he? It's probably his best.) He said he read that scene where he's describing his family farm, and his horse, and how they lost all of it to John Huston as an audition. After his reading was over, Huston said, "Who told you that you couldn't act? That was wonderful." Indeed, it was. - Wes Clark

  4. Notice how Marilyn Monroe is on the poster twice, but her name is not mentioned?

  5. Dix and the Professor - what a combo.

    One the better noir flicks around. The darkness is simply swell.

    Good thing Hayden didn't have to worry about them pinko-commies tying to sap and impurify precious bodily fluids in this flick. Just muscle for the Professor.

    Hayden is sterling in this flick - one of his best. Truly a warped character. As good as Cagney in White Heat.

    Can't take a powder from this one. I watch it again and again, when I ain't got dames on my mind.

    Hard-Boiled Dick

  6. I saw "The Asphalt Jungle" this weekend at New York' Film Forum, on a big screen, and I was blown away (had seen it about 4 times before on a TV screen). The story, the acting, the photography, the composition of every scene was truly absorbing. The ending is so emotional, makes me cry every time. And hats off to Jean Hagen: incredible acting range in this woman (the silly silent film star in "Singin' in the Rain). Poor Dix, the love of this woman could have changed his life if he could have escaped, even in part, his obsession with the past.