Asphalt Jungle (1950): John Huston’s Seminal Oscar Nominated Heist Caper, Starring Sterling Hayden and Marilyn Monroe

Arguably John Huston’s masterpiece, “The Asphalt Jungle” is a tautly made, realistic crime film that boasts fine portraiture and a great ensemble of mostly character actors.

An elaborate jewel robbery is planned by criminal mastermind, Doc Riedenschneider Oscar nominee Sam Jaffe), with the financial backing of corrupt lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern). Doc carefully assembles a group of semi-professional criminals and proceeds with his robbery. However, from the very outset the robbery and the subsequent escape fail, because of ill-fated circumstances.

John Huston directed this naturalistic noir, which is derived in part from a hard-boiled tradition and a code of social decay. Adapting W.R. Burnett’s novel to the screen, Huston and Ben Maddow instill the film with a gritty dialogue and authenticity unmatched in films of that period.

One of the first films to depict crime from the point of view of the criminals, rather than the police, or law enforcers, “Asphalt Jungle” had a huge influence on the genre, manifest in the early work of Stanley Kubrick, and decades later on Tarantino’s feature debut, “Reservoir Dogs.”

Surrounding the  criminals is a society that is almost as corrupt as they are. Society’s hypocrisy, illustrated by the crooked dealings of bad cops and the irresponsible judgments given by uninvolved onlookers, is a bitter comment on the realities of the noir world.

In contrast to Huston’s other noir films (“The Maltese Falcon,” “Key Largo,” both starring Humphrey Bogart), in this picture, the claustrophobic quality is less pronounced.  The few grotesque characters in “Asphalt Jungle” exist only on the periphery of the action, rather than at the core.

Though male-dominated, the ensemble features two great turns by women who would become stars in their own right, Jean Hagen (Oscar-nominated for the 1952 musical, “Singin’ in the Rain”) and especially Marilyn Monroe (who appeared in the same year in “All About Eve”).

As many noir scholars have observed, “Asphalt Jungle” is a classic noir in its exploration of despair and alienation. The failure of Doc and his associates to transcend the common nature of criminals also suggests the irony that one can found in later Huston’s films.

This film serves as the dividing line between the old John Huston and the new Huston.  After this picture, Huston adapted other classic literary works, such as “The Red Badge of Courage,” “Moby Dick,” and an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana.”

Many critics, such as James Naremore, have singled out the all-male milieu and the cynical view of romance and marriage, but I disagree.  Though the male criminals are largely sympathetic, women play major roles in the tale, and there are three of them.

One of most remarkable things is that Asphalt Jungle was a studio movie, made at MGM under the new, tough leadership of Dore Schary.  There was no inference by the studio or censors with Huston’s work, which is relentlessly grim and uncompromisingly realistic in graphic detail.

Detailed Plot (Scene by Scene)

Criminal mastermind Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is released from prison after 7 years, whereupon he goes to see the bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) in an unnamed Midwest river city (Cincinnati, Ohio?).  Cobby arranges a meeting with Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a high-profile lawyer, who becomes intrigued by Doc’s plan to steal jewelry worth a million dollars.  Doc needs $50,000 to hire a “box man,” a driver, and a “hooligan,” to help him pull off the caper. Emmerich agrees to provide the money and offers to assume responsibility for disposing of the loot.

Doc first hires Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a professional safecracker who, in turns, gets Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), a hunchbacked diner owner, as the getaway driver. The final member of the gang is Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a strong, dependable man who’s Gus’s friend.

In an emotionally crucial scene, Dix shares his dream with his Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen), who is in love with him, to buy back the horse farm that his father had lost during the Great Depression. Having lost ill-gotten gains betting on the horses, he needs the job to pay his debts.

During the meticulously planned crime–a 10-minute sequence–the criminals carry out their work in a calm, professional manner. Ciavelli hammers through a brick wall to get into the jewelry store, deactivates a door alarm and lets in Doc and Dix, then opens the main safe using explosive liquid (“the soup”).

Unfortunately, the explosion sets off the alarms of nearby businesses, bringing the police to the scene. On their way out, Dix has to slug a security guard, who drops his gun, wounding Ciavelli. The men get away unseen, but a police manhunt begins.

Ciavelli insists on being taken home by Gus. Dix and Doc take the loot to Emmerich, who confesses he needs more time to raise the cash. Broke, he had sent the private detective Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) to collect sums owed to him, but Brannom returned only with excuses. Emmerich then plots to double cross the others with Brannom’s help. Emmerich suggests to Doc to leave the jewelry with him, but Doc and Dix get suspicious. Dix  kills Brannom, when the latter pulls a gun but gets wounded himself.  Dix wants to shoot Emmerich, but Doc persuades him not to. Doc tells the lawyer to contact insurance companies and offer to return the valuables for 25% of their value.

Emmerich disposes of Brannom’s body in the river, but the police find the corpse, along with the list of people who owe Emmerich money, and question him. He lies about his whereabouts, and after they leave, hey calls Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe), his young mistress, to set up an alibi.

Under increasing pressure from Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire), police lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley) beats the bookie into confessing in a vain attempt to save himself (he is arrested for corruption).

Hardy personally arrests Emmerich, who “saves” himself by committing suicide. Gus is picked up, but when the police break down Ciavelli’s door, they find they have interrupted his funeral.

Doc and Dix then separate. Doc asks a taxi driver to drive him to Cleveland, but is spotted at a diner by two policemen.  Ironically, he gets arrested due to the fact that he spends to much time at a diner, watching voyeuristically a young, beautiful woman dancing to various jukebox songs for which he generously paid.

Doll gets Dix a car, and then, despite his initial refusal, insists on going along.  When he passes out from loss of blood, Doll takes him to a doctor, who phones the police to report the gunshot wound.  Dix regains consciousness after a transfusion and escapes before they arrive.

With Doll bu his side, Dix makes it all the way back to his Kentucky horse farm across the Ohio River. In the film’s very last and touching shot, he stumbles into the pasture and collapses dead, surrounded by his beloved horses.

In his exemplary mise-en-scene, Huston treats the material with utmost respect and precision, avoiding any moralistic judgment on the characters on either side if the law. He shows in visually graphic detail the position and movements of each character before, during, and after the heist.  There is no use of any gimmicks, and the absence of music during the robbery, relying on naturalistic sounds, heightens the tension involved in the entire process.

There were some concerns with the script’s detailed depiction of the heist and the fact that the character of Emmerich killed himself.  However, neither the studio nor the censors interfered, and both the heist and the suicide remained in the final cut.

Despite its artistic achievements, the movie was not a major success, perhaps due to its downbeat tone and gloomy ending, though Huston’s lyrical fatalism is impressive.  The picture reaffirmed Huston’s status as a major director, capable of handling diverse material. And it made a bona fide star of Sterling Hayden after nearly a decade in the business as an actor in B-level movies.

Cast:

Sterling Hayden (Dix Handley)

Louis Calhern (Alonzo D. Emmerich)

Jean Hagen (Doll Conovan)

James Whitmore (Gus Minissi)

Sam Jaffe (Doc Riedenschneider)

Marilyn Monroe (Angela Phinlay)

Running Time: 112 minutes

 

Oscar Nominations: 4

Director: John Huston

Screenplay: Ben Maddow and John Huston

Supporting Actor: Sam Jaffe

Cinematography (b/w): Harold Rosson

 

 

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