The Asphalt Jungle

Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one’s all right, he turns legit.

It could be said that John Huston created the template for the private eye movie with his version of The Maltese Falcon; I think the same is also true of The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and the heist movie. In terms of plotting and development, this film lays out the pattern that almost all subsequent efforts have followed. Others have played around with the structure and characterization within this sub-genre, but the basic concept of a group of professional thieves assembling to plan and execute a raid before seeing everything fall apart remains the standard formula to this day. Aside from its influential status, The Asphalt Jungle is also a first-rate film noir and a compelling crime drama. Unlike Criss Cross or The Killers, the gang are not foiled by a scheming femme fatale or by having their judgement clouded by emotion. Instead, their downfall is hastened by mistrust born of greed and the little glitches that even the coolest planner couldn’t hope to foresee.

The credits fade from the screen and are replaced by a bleak, deserted and forbidding cityscape where a cruising patrol car prowls ominously. As it does so, a man keeps to the shadows and flits silently from one piece of cover to the next, like prey being stalked by a relentless hunter. The man is Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) and at this stage the only thing we can say with any degree of confidence is that he’s anxious to avoid a brush with the law. Later, we learn that Dix is what’s termed a hooligan, a low-class common criminal using violence and brawn rather than brains and finesse. Dix is the man we follow throughout the movie, and it’s by this means that we’re introduced, one by one, to all the major players in the drama: Gus (James Whitmore), the physically deformed wheelman; Cobby (Marc Lawrence), the bookie with connections in both high and low places; Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the ex-con with a big reputation; and eventually Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the big-time lawyer in need of money. When Riedenschneider emerges from prison with an apparently foolproof plan for a headline grabbing jewel heist, the scene is set for the paths of all the main characters to cross in a game of lies, betrayal and violence. By the time the end credits roll, a daring plan is hatched and put in place, enormous wealth is stolen, promises are broken, and men die abrupt and bloody deaths.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the film is the way the career criminals come across in a far stronger light than the traditional representatives of law, order and respectability. The Asphalt Jungle was made by MGM just as Louis B Mayer’s time in charge was drawing to a close. Apparently, the old mogul wasn’t the least bit impressed by what he saw as a movie peopled by a succession of disreputable types. The fact that the police are portrayed as oafish and corrupt, and that the patrician lawyer is in reality an adulterous confidence man must have raised a few eyebrows at the bastion of wholesome, all-American values that was MGM during the Mayer years. The inclusion of a crusading, moralising police commissioner (John McIntire) looks suspiciously like a sop to silence the protests of the outraged sections of the studio brass. If that was the intention, then I’m not sure it worked out – the almost insufferable, whiter than white sermonizing results in his becoming little more than a cardboard cutout compared to the complex and layered figures ranged against him. Frankly, there’s a lot of John Huston’s fondness for the perverse in this whole setup. The director had a great eye for skewed, noirish imagery throughout his career, and he was also drawn to those dramas that featured characters who were either flawed or were a step or two removed from the mainstream. The film is full up of perfectly realized scenes that highlight the twilight world of these off-centre people: the threatening opening, the charged atmosphere of the planning sessions in Cobby’s back room, and the cool detachment of the heist itself. The latter sequence, with its minimal use of dialogue is a wonderful example of extended tension. In fact, dialogue all through the film is treated as a precious commodity, every word being weighed and delivered to extract maximum effect so that even seemingly throwaway lines are actually loaded with significance. In a similar vein, the use of Miklos Rozsa’s score is rationed too, lending it greater impact when it’s finally allowed to burst forth during Dix’s frantic and fateful drive home.

Sterling Hayden’s performance as Dix is the glue that holds everything together and keeps the narrative focused. Physically, Hayden was ideal casting as the muscle of the gang, and his presence dominates every scene where he appears. His cocksure contempt for the trashy city types that circumstances have forced him to associate with is evident in his arrogant, swaggering manner around the other hoods. The only time he allows the mask of tough insolence to slip a little is when he’s alone with Jean Hagen’s Doll. This fragile woman seems to draw out Dix’s humanity and it’s her presence that encourages him to reminisce with a touching innocence about a happier, cleaner youth growing up on his Kentucky farm. Despite the strident claims of the police commissioner that Dix is a man without conscience or feeling, the viewer can clearly see that he’s an all too human figure. He may be hardened by the necessities of the life he’s had to lead, but the heart of a simple farm boy beats strong below the surface. Although Jean Hagen’s role may have been a small one she is spot on in her portrayal of a lonely and vulnerable woman adrift in the apathetic environment of the big city. The one thing that almost all the characters have in common is their desire to escape the stifling confines of their urban wilderness. Sam Jaffe’s Doc sees the heist as the ideal means to secure a leisured retirement in Mexico and Emmerich views it as an opportunity to dig himself out of the financial and personal wasteland in which he’s mired. Of course both these characters also share a fatal fondness for the company of young women, and that weakness is partly responsible for their coming to grief. Jaffe’s calm inscrutability was well suited to the part of the mastermind who comes to realize that even the most intricate planning and preparation can only take one so far, sooner or later the vagaries of fate step in and throw a spanner in the works. I don’t think I’ve seen Louis Calhern do anything better than his Lon Emmerich, a study in dissipated disillusionment that’s simultaneously sympathetic and repulsive. Huston often shoots him in close-up to catch the shifting emotions and self-doubt that are particularly evident in the eyes – a wonderfully subtle performance. I’d also like to single out Marc Lawrence, whose sweaty turn as Cobby, the real weak link in the chain, is a fine piece of twitchy character acting. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that although she’s prominently featured in the reissue poster I’ve used above, Marilyn Monroe has a relatively minor part in the movie.

The Asphalt Jungle is widely available on DVD from Warner Brothers, and the transfer on the US disc is especially strong. The image is clean and sharp, and the excellent contrast highlights the skills of cameraman Harold Rosson. The disc includes a commentary track by Drew Casper and James Whitmore, along with a short filmed introduction by John Huston. All told, it’s a very nice presentation of the movie and one that I have no complaints about. The film is a highly accessible slice of prime film noir, whose only weakness is the inclusion of the inserts involving John McIntire’s commissioner and his upstanding officers. These bland, colourless figures are an unconvincing addition, however, they do serve to emphasise the authenticity of the playing around them. This one is a great movie that can be viewed time and again without losing any impact. An easy recommendation.


43 thoughts on “The Asphalt Jungle

  1. So when did Marilyn Monroe get top billing in this film, let alone feature on the poster as though the film’s all about her? Mind you, if you’re going to risk it all for anyone…

    I remember buying this along with Kiss me Deadly for the best of noir double bills. It’s a brilliant film, isn’t it, not least, as you mentioned, the tension-loaded heist sequence itself (how many times has this been copied over the years?). I also love the way Doc’s fatal flaw leads to his downfall. Jaffe and Hayden are perfectly cast, and as you say Calhern is excellent also as Uncle Lon.

    Great review – I’m tempted to dust it off and have a viewing tonight.

    • Cheers Mike. Yeah, I picked that particular poster since the image just appealed to me. I’ve seen other “revisions” like this before, where a performer seems to magically rocket up the credit listings when fame has spread. It’s a bit of a cheat of course, but wholly understandable when a company is trying to squeeze as big a return as possible out of reruns.

      • A truly great film noir. I never get tired of “The Asphalt Jungle”.
        The scenes toward the end with a mortally wounded Hayden trying to “get home” is truly memorable. Like Mike, I’m going to watch it again tonight too!
        One thing that always occurs to me every time I see this one is the odd usage of the term “hooligan”. It’s made to sound like some specialised term; well-known and used extensively in criminal networks. But for the life of me, I can’t remember ever hearing it being used in quite this way, before or since. I have always suspected that it’s purely an invention of the screen writer!
        A very good review of a classic film.

        • Thanks Dafydd. Yes, it’s a real knockout ending, isn’t it?

          Like yourself, I wondered about the use of “hooligan” in this context; I’ve never heard it used that way before either. If anyone’s able to clear that one up I’d love to hear from them.

      • Another Marilyn Monroe film I noticed that happened to is Love Nest, where she’s got a fairly limited role, but gets the photo on the DVD. (Heck, the DVD probably wouldn’t have been produced if Marilyn weren’t in the film.)

        And as for movies that have a fun “This is how our foolproof plot gets foiled?!” twist, try Richard Harris’ Juggernaut.

        • Cheers Ted. Monroe’s image has become so iconic that it’s hardly surprising that marketing departments would want to capitalize on it as much as possible.

          Juggernaut is a movie I haven’t seen in years, though I do have it on DVD. I remember it as one of those 70s features that’s essentially a bit of fluff, but entertaining fluff for all that.

      • Wonderful wonderful film. Was lucky enough to see it at a cinema who were showing it especially. I should be more annoyed about a star later receiving top billing, but if it helps more people see the film, I guess that’s good. And as Mike said, if you’re going to risk it all for anyone…

        • Yes, it’s hard to complain too much about altered billing or marketing tactics when it helps the work become better known and expands the audience.

  2. Just a word about Mr. Mayer at MGM. From his departure to the present day there is no MGM studio as we know or imagine it to be. The inexorable decline had begun and continued. Mayer is the soul of MGM from 1923 to 1951. There were some successful films made after his departure, but cast and crew dated from his time and by a generous definiton could be attributed to his taste. Cyd Charisse, Esther Williams, Stewart Granger and others all disliked Schary. Maybe despised is a better word.

    • Barry, I do acknowledge that Mayer was instrumental in taking MGM to the top of the tree in his time in charge. Like most moguls I guess, he seemed to be loved and loathed by different people, and the same seems to be true of reactions to Dore Schary. For myself, all I can say is I have a preference for the style of pictures that Schary favoured.

  3. Great job with this classic, Colin! It remains one of the all-time best for noir and heist films. You defined what a ‘heist’ film is exactly, and what it distills right down to (versus for the more fun and escapist ‘caper’ variety). John Huston certainly did it again with this one. You’re right, too, that this one loses nothing when viewed time and again. Well done, my friend.

    • “Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one’s all right, he turns legit.”

      Kudos for picking just the right quote for this one, too.

      • There’s so much quotable dialogue in this movie – like all the better noirs I suppose – that it was tough to decide which one to use. The one I went for in the end just seemed to sum the film up perfectly.

    • Hi Michael, I love noir and I also love a good heist movie, and the two are kind of natural cinematic partners. I reckon The Asphalt Jungle is the best of its type, and that’s quite a distinction.

  4. Great review for a great movie Colin – that poster is highly reminiscent of the type I grew up with in Italy – looks like it’s based on an image from NIAGARA if I’m not mistaken. This was almost Huston’s last Hollywood movie and after the well-publicised debacle over THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE at MGM (recounted in gory detail in the book PICTURE by Lillian Ross) he left for Europe and didn’t come back for nearly 10 years. Mayer is reputed to have said of it, “That Asphalt Pavement thing is full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty things. I wouldn’t walk across the room to see a thing like that.” Incidentally, WR Burnett’s original novel on which Huston’s film is based is well worth a read.

    • Cheers Sergio, I think you could be right about the Niagara connection there.

      I think Mayer’s comment on the movie illustrates how out of touch he had become with the direction of the industry by that point. As I said in reply to Barry, Mayer’s influence is undeniable but I’m no particular fan of the style of films he championed. Our tastes all differ though.

      I’d really like to give Burnett’s novel a go some time. Is it still in print?

      • Mayer was one of the great movie moguls in the sense that, like Warner, Zanuck, Goldwyn and Cohn, he was larger than life and seemed to really embody the exaggeration and ballyhoo at the heart of the Hollywood machine – Zanuck was the only one of them however that actually had any proven talent as a filmmaker. I agree with you Colin that the standard MGM output is not my favourite from the Golden Age, preferring the vim and zip of Warner to the glossy opulence of Metro.

        Burnett’s novel is in print on paper, or anyway very easily and inexpensively available, and certainly available for download too.

        • I guess for all their faults, and there are plenty of horror stories circulating about all of them, these guys literally built Hollywood. I think too, for the most part, they had a love of movies that went hand in hand with their business sense – something that doesn’t seem to be the case in the modern era of the bean counters. All the studios and their larger than life bosses churned out movies that varied in tone and emphasis, and it’s natural that different people will have different preferences. The really important point though is that it’s that variety and mix that made classic era Hollywood into the treasure trove we can still appreciate today.

          And thanks for the update on Burnett’s novel. Now I’m going to have to go and chase down a copy.

  5. Mayer was there prior to Thalberg and fourteen years after his death. Thalberg ran a unit, albeit successful, Mayer ran the studio. Whatever Phillip French’s prejudice’s are, the results are in. One can personally prefer whatever…but disaster followed for the studio after Mayer’s departure, and according to my aacquaintances following the ascencion of Schary. In any case, after Schary, the deluge.

    • Fair enough. But wouldn’t similar issues arising from the growth of television and the legal changes that forced an end to the studio monopolies have come along and put MGM under pressure anyway, regardless of whether Mayer or Schary had been running the show?

  6. That is analysis based on conjecture. No one knows what happens next. We do know that Fox, Warners, Columbia, and especially Universal, prospered. MGM went down. Republic, the same. Allied Artists had a rebirth. But, MGM was the jewel in the crown. After Schary came a bunch of people that were worse. But, that was not a sinking ship, but a sunk ship. What and how Mayer would have handled all the elements you mention…maybe not, but the success and the ability to evaluate and present talent goes with him.

    • Perhaps. I don’t know enough about the studio politics at the time to decide one way or the other but, as you say, some studios stayed in the running as others declined.
      It has to be acknowledged though that the post-war cinema audience was a different one to the that of Mayer’s and MGM’s heyday and some kind of change, either at the top or in terms of the kind of output was inevitable.

      • Nothing to do with studio politics. This is about results. Jack Warner remained in charge. As did Harry Cohn at Columbia and while Zanuck stepped away, he returned.

          • Sure…But the decline was dramatic. You need to see and hear Esther Williams conversation with Robert Osborne in which she touches on Schary and Cyd Charisse on either Silk Stockings or Singing In The Rain DVD. Esther, I don’t know, but Cyd and I did a successful revival of The Plesure of His Company and became friendly.

            • Hmm, what I was getting at was whether or not the roots of the studio’s decline were already in place before the changeover took place. The reason for my wondering is that I feel the traditional MGM fare was falling out of fashion in the post-war climate. I mean the product of WB, Columbia and Universal was of a different nature, and they all survived or seemed to do better.

              • The roots of destruction were in place, for all. Universal was beneath the others but somebody got smart and brought in some big stars on creative deals. MGM continued making MGM product after Mayer, just cheaper and more pretentious. Not good. As far as internal disruptions go, everyone hates everyone. my only point is ultimately, Mayer was gone, and so was the success. That there may have been modifiers, well, of course.

                • That’s kind of what I was thinking. Which really brings me back to my earlier point, and I’ll freely admit it amounts to no more than spitballing on my part, that Mayer’s MGM was on its way out anyway. It seems to me that the real issue was less about whether change was needed and more about how radical that change needed to be.

  7. No radical change anywhere other than Universal where they got creative with compensation for James Stewart, who had not been in a success for some time. The others continued with westerns, musical film version of novels and ultimately wide screen at Fox. Fox had tried the same thing in 1930 and for a variety of mostly technical reason related to exhibitors, failed. The stars were almost the same in 1960 as they had been in 1950 barring deaths and old age. The point about Mayer is do not disparage him. He was a great showman. His successors, not so much.

    • I don’t think I was necessarily trying to disparage him, the success of MGM under his tenure speaks for itself. But I make no bones about the fact that the house style of that period isn’t one that appeals to me. With Schary there did appear to be a shift in emphasis, whether it was a success or not is another matter, that brought the studio’s output a little closer to my own tastes.

      WB, Columbia and other studios’ films always had a different feel to them which it appears was more easily adapted to the changing market of the 50s.

  8. One of my favorite movies ever. The ending is one of the most tear jerking ever too. I grew up with thoroughbreds, I know how he felt.

    • Hi Muriel. That ending just works so well doesn’t it? It’s incredibly affecting and yet so appropriate too. I love the subversiveness of the whole thing, the way Huston (and Hayden too via his excellent performance) makes sure the your sympathies lie unquestionably with Dix by the end. All those little inserts of McIntire’s commissioner preaching have next to no effect in changing anyone’s mind about who we ought to be rooting for.

      • I read that the “commissioner” moralizing bits were definitey tacked on afterwards as a requirement by the Hayes office. Apparently the plot of the movie, where every criminal fails utterly by the end, leaving behind a trail of victims, widows and orphans isn’t enough to show that crime doesn’t pay. The only person who comes out relatively “unscathed” is that morally compromised bimbo, Angela: she tells the truth and no doubt moves on to her next sugar daddy. Even Doll would have gone to jail for aiding a fugitive. *No one* gets away with it in this story.

        • Hi Muriel. It certainly seems plausible that the preachy bits were grafted on at some point; they don’t really fit the rest of the picture and, as you say, fail to add anything that the narrative hasn’t already implied. The “everybody loses” aspect is typical of the kind of sour cynicism that Huston so often favoured too.

  9. Pingback: The Badlanders | Riding the High Country

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