The Asphalt Jungle (1950) John Huston

Note: There are spoilers in the article.

Everyone has a weakness and if you let it consume you it just might do you in.  Young girls, expensive living, horses, it does not matter, they can all become vices and destroy you. That what happens to the various characters in John Huston’s classic caper film “The Asphalt Jungle.” Written by Huston and Ben Maddow based a  novel by W.R. Burnett whose tough yet effortless style is responsible for such other memorable films like “Little Caesar” and “High Sierra.”

“The Asphalt Jungle” is the first caper movie to detail in a realistic gritty style, a step by step process on how to pull off a heist job.  It definitely set the standards for future heist films to come like  “Rififi”, “The Killing”, “The Anderson Tapes”, “The Usual Suspects”, “Reservoir Dogs”  and even a lesser film like “Ocean’s 11” all of which owe a debt of gratitude to this film. The characters that we are now familiar with in so many other heist films are all there, the brains behind the plan,  the brawn,  the safe cracker, the getaway guy, the stoolie, and the double-crosser who wants everything for himself. The women are there too, Doll (Jean Hagen) and Angela (Marilyn Monroe) whose biggest weaknesses are they love their men too much.

Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is just out of prison and wants to pull a big heist, one he had planned long before being sent away. He hooks up with a small time bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence) who brings in the money man, a slimy lawyer named Emmerich (Louis Calhern), who is actually in debt, has a beautiful and very young mistress, despite being married. Her name is Angela (Marilyn Monroe) and she has expensive taste. Emmerich and his thug partner Bannerman (Brad Dexter) convince Cobby to put up the front money, you see they have plans to steal the jewels from Doc and company and fence it on their own. Doc brings in Dix (Sterling Hayden) as strong arm, Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) as the pro safecracker and Gus (James Whitmore), as the getaway guy. The heist goes well except during the getaway, Louis is critically wounded. This is the first of a series of actions that unravel a “perfect plan.” Gus is soon picked up by the police, Cobby turns stoolie after being beaten up by a former friendly corrupt cop. Dix will kill Bannerman when he and Emmerich try to take the jewels, however, Dix is wounded himself from a shot Bannerman got off before dying. When the cops come to pick up Emmerich at his house he commits suicide. Doc decides to get out of town heading for Cleveland but is picked up by two police officers at a pit stop when he waited a few minutes too long before moving on, drooling over a young teenage girl dancing to music on a juke box. Dix plan is to head back to his home in Kentucky. He and his girl Doll (Jean Hagen) take off but that wound is still bleeding, and as he reaches the ranch he collapses and dies in his field of dreams.  

From the first shots where we pick up Dix roaming the dark deserted city streets trying to avoid the police to the approximately 10 minutes heist scene, to the final scenes where Doc and then Dix meet their fate Huston films it all with  a commanding  intensity and strong atmospheric camerawork, extracting a series of fine performances from the cast.

The plan is done in by the weaknesses of the men. Doc would have escaped from the city had his weakness for young girls not held him back a few extra minutes. He had to watch the young teen girl boogie to the tunes on the juke box. Emmerich was simply done in by greed, a common theme in Huston films (Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon). Even Dix had to try to make it back to his old Kentucky home and the horses he loved only to die trying.

Huston cast the film with a fine group of actors but there was no star power. For Sterling Hayden, this was his first leading role in a major film. Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe and Jean Hagen were known entities but lacked marquee strength. Marilyn Monroe was still a starlet in what was essentially her first important part in a major film. She was not even Huston’s first choice for the role of Angela; he originally wanted Lola Albright for the part. Monroe does not have much screen time as the young play thing to the sleaze ball lawyer but she manages to make a big impression with her limited exposure and she looks great.

In 1958, a western called “The Badlanders”(available via Warners Archive Collection) starring Alan Ladd was a loose remake. An even looser version was tried as a TV show in 1961. Basically, they used the title and changed everything else turning it into a standard cops and robbers series.  Needless to say, the show did not last long.  Other remakes include a 1963 film called “Cairo”, with George Sanders, and in 1972, a blaxploitation version called “Cool Breeze” was released with a cast that included Pam Grier. 

The film received four Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Sam Jaffe), Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.  Interesting enough MGM had two other films they pushed for best picture that year, “Father of the Bride” and unbelievably “King Solomon’s Mines” were both nominated.

Overall, “The Asphalt Jungle” holds up very well retaining a sense of realism, three dimensional characters, darkly lit noirish lighting, and claustrophobic close-ups. The film is more visually representative of Warner’s ripped from the front pages of newspapers 1930’s style than the glossy films you would expect from MGM.

Watch this film and you will see everything that is missing in the unrealistic thrill seeking super acrobatic capers that today’s stars like Tom Cruise and others attempt to entertain us with in multiplexes.

****1/2

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13 comments on “The Asphalt Jungle (1950) John Huston

  1. R. D. Finch says:

    John, what a well written post about a great movie. I especially like the point you develop about how each character’s weakness contributes to the bleak outcome–a great observation. This film along with “The Maltese Falcon,” “Sierra Madre,” and “The Dead” are my favorites of the many wonderful films Huston made. Like most movies of this type, it’s basically a male affair, but both Monroe and especially Hagen make strong impressions in their smaller roles. It is amazing that the movie didn’t get an Oscar nomination although Huston did get a well-deserved one for his direction. I thought Hagen’s supporting performance was also nomination-worthy. She was especially good at the end. You single out the camerawork for special attention and rightly so. This seems a very atypical movie for MGM, more in the story and visual style of Huston’s Warners movies. I checked out cinematographer Hal Rosson’s credits, and he doesn’t seem ever to have worked in this noir style again, but rather in the more usual MGM visual style of “On the Town” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” both of which he photographed. I’d say that this and “The Killing” are my two favorite of the many American movies of the heist genre.

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  2. John Greco says:

    R. D.
    thanks very much, I have not seen THE DEAD yet, but of the other Huston films you mention I have to agree with you, they are my favorites too. The film definitely deserved an Oscar nomination, what were they thinking give a slot to KING SOLEMONS MINES and ignoring this.

    Interesting enough MGM did do some crime films generally on the low budget side, I’m thinking CAUSE FOR ALARM and JEOPARDY, of which the latter I coincidently just watched again and am writing about. Overall, though, as you say, this was an atypical film for MGM. And yes, Hagen deserved a nod from the Academy. I think her two best roles were this one and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.

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  3. […] The Asphalt Jungle at “Twenty-Four Frames:                          https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/07/03/the-asphalt-jungle-1950-john-huston/   Meanwhile, over at his second blog, “Watching Shadows on the Wall” he is featuring […]

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  4. Dave says:

    John – It was a busy weekend, so I am just now finding the the time to leave a comment on this great post… The Asphalt Jungle remains one of my favorite noirs of all time and is arguably the greatest heist film ever made. I agree that your point about the weaknesses of each character doing in the meticulously planned job. That is an aspect of the film that I have obviously realized before, but haven’t given it a whole lot of thought until you bring out here.

    And the look of this one is also great, which as you note is ironic considering the typical MGM films. If you didn’t know where or when it was made, you would almost instantly assume that it was a Warners gangster picture.

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    • John Greco says:

      Hey Dave, thanks. I was aware of your fondness for this film sp I am glad you like the writeup. It certainly is one of the best and you cannot help comparing it to THE KILLING with Hayden being in both.

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  5. […] The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston)****1/2 One of the first caper movies and still remains one of the best. Soderbergh should have sat down and studied this film before doing his Ocean films. A review is currently up at 24frames. CLICK HERE […]

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  6. Sam Juliano says:

    John: I agree with R.D. Finch in that my absolute favorite Hustons are SIERRA MADRE, THE DEAD, THE MALTESE FALCON and this film. Again you’ve framed the film perfectly and have elaborated on it’s lasting reputation as a (or even THE) quintessential heist film. It’s certainly a close call with Kubrick’s THE KILLING and Melville’s LE CERCLE ROUGE and Dassin’s RIFIFI. The whole matter of the weaknesses of the men is the film’s most fascinating aspect and it’s true that it’s raw and gritty style is very Warnerish.

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  7. J.D. says:

    Quite possibly my fave heist film of all time. It’s a film that just fires on all cylinders, propelled by Sterling Hayden’s incredible performance as the ultimate tough guy. I love how he says certain lines in this film, like when he accuses that guy of trying to “bone” him. He says it with such contempt! Great stuff.

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    • John Greco says:

      “I love how he says certain lines in this film, like when he accuses that guy of trying to “bone” him. He says it with such contempt!”

      totally agree with this. Hayden is one of a kind.

      thanks again RD!

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  8. john streby says:

    A great film, but I think reviewers and commentators have overlooked the superb performance by Louis Calhern as the corrupt, over-his-head-in-debt lawyer Alonzo Emmerich. In particular, his acting in the double-cross scene is outstanding. As he begins his
    pitch to the others, he radiates confidence, but you can see that ebbing away by Calhern’s subtlety of expression and pacing (which, of course, also required a great director like John Huston). And the reaction by Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) when Emmerich becomes emotional after his partner-in-betrayal, Bannerman, is shot dead represents great screenwriting: “Are you a man or what, trying to gyp and double cross with no guts for it. What’s inside of you, what’s keeping you alive?” What an incredibly pointed question that so many men and women ought to have asked themselves at crucial times. George Bush should have asked himself that before he allowed a group of neo-cons led by Dick Cheney to do his thinking for him. Lyndon Johnson, who showed so much political courage on civil rights, yet he didn’t have the guts to heed Douglas MacArthur’s deathbed advice not to get our boys mired in a land war in Vietnam, because, as he later put it, he wasn’t going to be the first American president to preside over a defeat. Or maybe O.J. Simpson, who thought he could make a miracle happen again and get away with an armed robbery.
    “What’s keeping you alive” has so much power that I used it in my just-finished novel about the rise and fall of a populist documentary filmmaker who has left a trail littered with betrayed former friends and associates. One such victim, who is the narrator of the novel, would like to exact the revenge of the righteous, and has the tools to do so, but can’t muster the will to do it—until, that is, he watches “The Asphalt Jungle” on TV and is stricken by the relevance of Handley’s incisive rejoinder. The book is titled “The Devil Won’t Care” and will be available by Labor Day through iUniverse.

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    • John Greco says:

      John,

      Thanks very much for your commentary, I am delighted to have your here. Calhern is superb, it is a wonderful subtle performance that has probably been overshadowed by Sam Jaffe’s and Hayden’s but he does deserve to be individually singled out. I think it is his aristocratic aura that he is above it all that stands out, then we begin to watch him crumble (the killing of Bannerman and later on the police come to arrest him) taking the cowardly way out. I love the writing in this movie, Huston and co-writer Ben Maddow deservedly received an Oscar nomination.
      Look forward to your upcoming novel, thanks again!

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  9. Adam Zanzie says:

    You know how one of the common complaints of action films is that there’s nobody to root for? The Asphalt Jungle is one of those films where I have no idea who to root for–and that’s a good thing. With the exception of a couple of ultra-slimy characters (like Dietrich the corrupt lieutenant, or Bannerman the right-hand man), I practically love all of these characters. Dix, Doc, Emmerich, Doll, Angela, Cobb, Louis, Gus, the sick wife… I love them all. They’re antiheroes, but you can’t help but like them. Maybe it goes back to Emmerich’s famous line, which is probably the most telling line in the film: “After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor”.

    Of the “good” guys, perhaps the only one who can be likable at all is John McIntire’s Commissioner. As much as we want to see Doc and his gang escape free, there’s no denying McIntire’s speech about how necessary the police are, good or bad. With that being said, I’ve heard some suggest that part of Huston’s motive with this film was to have a subtle laugh at the establishment and the way the police would handle such crimes back then; maybe that’s why the criminals in this film are somewhat more likable.

    There was a quote by Orson Welles in which he tried to make a case that Kubrick’s The Killing was a better film–surprising, considering that Welles was one of Huston’s best friends. Personally I’ve never been interested in comparing the two films, since, with the exception of Sterling Hayden’s presence in both and the involvement of horses in the plots, they’re two different films about different things. Kubrick’s film is about giving up (“Ehh, what’s the point?”), and Huston’s films is about the utter tragedy of being caught and killed. That’s why the fates of Dix, Emmerich and the Doc all leave me so emotional. Thank you, John, for writing up on this amazing film.

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