Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Forgotten Film Noir: The Asphalt Jungle

The Asphalt Jungle (1950, John Huston)
*mild spoilers*

How many ways can a team of filmmakers create a heist film? More to the point, what can matter in such a movie, where can the stakes be created, and where might they bring the characters? The question appears deceptively simple, for what might be at the forefront of a film lover’s thoughts when someone mentions ‘heist film’ is the heist itself, both its preparation and execution, which is a reasonable reflex, if a decidedly easy one. So much more can enrich a story surrounding a heist. Who is committing the act, why are they doing it and, what further hurdles might the group of anti-heroes encounter after the completion of the mission, for, as one should have realized, the heist is not over until they have truly escaped the authorities. For a full experience, a heist need concern itself with the before, the act itself, and the aftermath. 

It is difficult to say which character The Asphalt Jungle concerns itself most with, for there are literally three to four people who receive near equal screen time. There is Dix, played by Sterling Hayden, a small time hoodlum in his mid thirties who has already done time in jail for some petty to mid-serious crimes. At the start of the film he is already on the run from the authorities for armed robbery. He also has a taste for betting on horses with a bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence), although his attempts at quick earnings always conclude in failure. Cobby himself is a special character, a man with some close connections to the police force which enable his little operations to continue in effect, actions which frequently involve illegal actions as well as illegal persons. Newly released former inmate Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a genius tactician when it comes to heists, has spent the last few years in prison concocting his next hit with great detail. All he needs now are some new allies and the funds to prepare and execute. Said funding will come from upper class lawyer Emmerich (Louis Carlhern), a successful man whose looks can be deceiving, for beneath the fine clothing and beautiful house are ruined finances, mostly due to his careless and lavish spending, both for himself and his mistress, a young blonde firecracker played by none other than the legendary Marilyn Munroe in of her very first screen roles. Together, all these characters and more will venture into a heist so perfectly planed, it is any wonder how something could have gone wrong...

John Huston, one of the great American directors of his time and quite frankly of all time, whose brilliant storytelling brought such gems The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of Sierra Madre to life, brings his talents to the fore of this 1950 slow burn of a film. Similar to the two aforementioned classics, close inspection of The Asphalt Jungle’s plot create the impression that is it rather run of the mill material. In a film such as this one, the individuality of the characters, the interaction of their personalities, their histories and how they react to everything happening truly make the movie. It would not be entirely wise to argue that if one has seen one heist movie, then one has seen them all, but there is not much variety surrounding the overall story for movies of this ilk. Still, for an audience to care one iota about the proceedings, it is prerequisite that at least some effort be invested in building a complete enough story arc. Huston and the screenwriter and are up to this task, and in fact they do not merely content themselves with setup and execution of the elaborate theft, but also what transpires afterwards. In that sense, The Asphalt Jungle can be considered a cut above the sea of heist films for it provides a ‘fuller’ experience, or a more complete experience if you will. 

It is rather obvious why the characters like Dix, Doc, Cobby, Emmerich, Gus (James Whitmore) and Louis the safecracker specialist (Anthony Caruso) would want to participate in the event. In everyone’s case they want and even need money, desperately so. In the case of Doc, he additionally wants to get back into the game of what he does best, that is, plan and perfect great thefts. So far, so good. The heist requires various details to be understood and put into effect with great precision, which the characters do to the best of their abilities, but certain unforeseeable variables cause the plan to go off the rails, and here is where the film truly begins to shine. For as great a planner as Doc may be, the fact remains that he has recently spent time in prison, meaning that he cannot be infallible. Whether the hurdles that present themselves can be mostly attributed to Doc or not is an interesting  debate. Doc receives word, through a date with a pretty girl no less, that the lawyer Emmerich may not be as honest as he portrays himself to be (ironic, no?). This worries Doc, but he goes along with Cobby’s reassurances that the funding is intact. Another silly event is how the explosives utilized to bust open the safe where the museum jewels lie produces, unsurprisingly, the building to shake a little. This shake in turn causes the alarms to go off and thus alert the police, who are quick to make their way over to the scene of the crime. Even though that in of itself is not what undoes the team, it nevertheless causes certain complications, especially for Louis, who does not even make it out of the museum looking all that good anymore. The character of Doc, who looked near infallible at the beginning, is beginning to seriously show cracks in the armour.

It appears as though every wilful action the characters take, be it at the command of Doc or not (most are) further worsens their odds against either the law or the treacherous Emmerich. This plays into the final third of the movie, the most interesting section in the opinion of this reviewer. We mentioned earlier how The Asphalt Jungle gives viewers a fuller heist film experience seeing how it deals with the aftermath of the crime, and even though the setup is more than serviceable with some nice character moments and the manner in which the protagonists put the plan into action once they arrive at the museum, the film really kicks into high gear the moment Doc, Dix and Louis walk away with the jewels. Right there and then it seems as if everything they attempt to get away scot free with their prize only makes the dark clouds of doom more ominous. In almost all instances, their actions can be seen as functions of who they are as characters, which really makes it all the more fascinating to witness. In order not to provide too many details of what transpires during the last 30-40 minutes, this portion of the review shall remain as vague as possible, but suffice to say that witnessing these characters try to escape all the hurdles present before make up some of the movie’s stronger scenes. With the stakes and the tension raised to an incredibly high degree, the characters are forced to make some moves, not all of which produce the desired results.

The quality direction certainly helps in conveying the sense of suspense and drama involved in such a caper, as well as creating a gritty mood to the overall picture. However, the wonderful cast is so pitch perfect and eclectic that it succeeds in outshining whatever John Huston brought to the picture. Not that was any sort of goal in mind, but it is mostly the idiosyncrasies of the people involved which make all three portions of the picture stand as tall as they do. Who better to cast than Sterling Hayden as a man who comes off as a brute at first but posses a bit more smarts than people would give him credit for? Sam Jaffe is unforgettable as Doc, a polite and intelligent little man but who holds the answers to how terrible things can be done. Louis Calhern is sublime as Emmerich, an aging man who is now facing the prospect of financial ruin after years of prosperity. They say lawyers are a bunch of blood suckers, and Emmerich fits the bill perfectly when he is invited to partake in Doc’s plan. Even the smaller cast members are exquisite, such as Marc Lawrence, who lends a comical nervousness to Cobby, Anthony Caruso as the laid back safecracker, and even Jean Hagen, whom we haven’t mentioned at all in this article so far. She plays Doll, a down on her luck acquaintance of Dix’s who spends a few days at his apartment until she can pick herself up again.   

While not the best Huston film (both Falcon and Sierra Madre are superior), The Asphalt Jungle is still very good entertainment for those who enjoy the genre.


Univarn said...

I never thought much of the plot for this film but there was definitely some great character development. What I remember most about the film is the direction. I really loved the way it was shot and the way the camera was used.

edgarchaput said...

@Univarn: Interesting that you would mention that. I didn't think the camera work was all that memorable. It does what it required: show what needs to be shown and when.

There are flourishes of inventiveness, like the introduction of Doc (down the dark entrance hallway of Cobby's seedy business establishment, camera always behind him) and when Dix kills Emmerich's private eye (the camera feels very dynamic in that precise moment), but I didn't think that was necessarily one of the movie's most effective aspects.