Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Heist movies have a different internal energy than a lot of film noirs. Movies about sex and murder have a certain inner fire. They’re fueled by lust or bloodlust, and it’s up to the creators of those movies to get our adrenaline pumping, to tap into our inner adulterers, our inner murderers. Heist movies, on the other hand, are colder at the core because they’re not about passion but process. That’s the key to their delicious appeal. They tap into the part of us that wants to be a professional transgressor.

John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle is maybe the best heist movie ever made. If it’s not the best, then it certainly set the template that most other great heist movies (Rififi, The Killing) would follow. It assembles a large cast of character actors, arms them with a master plan to knock over a huge score, and then sets the wheels turning toward an eventual unraveling.

Sam Jaffe stars as Doc Riedenschneider, a criminal mastermind with a foolproof plan for a jewel heist. He goes to see a sweaty, smalltime bookie (Marc Lawrence) who puts him in contact with a morally compromised lawyer named Emmerich (Louis Calhern). Emmerich agrees to front the money for the heist, but we find out find out pretty quick that he has alternative plans for the jewels. The only person that Doc can really trust is a surly hood named Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) who just wants enough money to get the hell out of the city.

The cast here is superb, and superbly utilized. Character actors often relegated to the back of the frame are suddenly up front and center, and everyone rises to the challenge. Jaffe manages to be both likable and creepy as Doc, a brilliant tactician who also happens to have a soft spot for teenaged girls. Louis Calhern gives an elegantly nuanced performance as Emmerich, the very model of self-deluding corruption, and Marc Lawrence—who was in approximately every B-movie ever made— shines as the little bookie with a bundle of nerves and a big mouth. Throw in a scene-stealing James Whitmore as a feisty, hunchbacked getaway driver; Marilyn Monroe as Calhern’s much younger mistress; and Jean Hagen playing a dim-but-sweet cocktail waitress, and you have an ensemble with no weak link.

Leading this gang of thieves and misfits is Sterling Hayden as Dix, Jaffe’s right hand hooligan. Like fellow noir stalwart Charles McGraw, Hayden is about as artless as a punch in the gut, but he has a quality that seems readymade for the smoky backrooms and cheaply furnished apartments of film noir. Hulking and gruff, he looks as if he’s been up all night, drinking, gambling, and stalking his way through a city he hates. With this film alone, Hayden established himself as an icon in the genre. (He made a lot of other noirs or varying quality, but starred in two other masterpieces Crime Wave and The Killing.)

All this great casting would be for nothing if there weren’t steady hands at the wheel, but the work behind the camera is as good as the work in front. Harold Rosson’s exquisite cinema-tography is a mixture of the realistic and the atmospheric. The opening scenes remind me of something out of neorealism, but Lawrence’s hole-in-the-wall gambling den is bathed in smoke and shadows. Meanwhile the topnotch script (co-written by John Huston and Ben Maddow, from the book by WR Burnett) is finely crafted, giving dimension and good lines to even the smallest character parts (hearing a police siren in the distance, a safecracker’s worried wife says, “it sounds just like a soul in hell”).

The main creative force behind the camera was, of course, John Huston, a director who could make any kind of movie, and did, though his prodigious output was wildly uneven. He made great movies, shitty movies, and every kind of movie in between. For every masterpiece (The Maltese Falcon), he made a piece of junk (Freud). And when he wanted to, he could even make a movie that seemed both great and shitty at the same time (Reflections in a Golden Eye).

With The Asphalt Jungle, Huston reached the peak of his game. One might object that The Maltese Falcon is better, but Huston’s direction here is snappier, more interesting. There’s a showdown late in the film between Hayden and Brad Dexter (playing Calhern’s henchman in another of the film’s fine performances), and the scene is a lesson in how to use the camera to build and then release suspense. Likewise, the jewel heist itself is a classic bit of cinema and a blueprint for all the heist flicks which followed it.

The entire movie feels way. Huston marshaled his cast and collaborators into telling a story that is ultimately rich with pathos but for the most part unfolds with the cold logic of an arrest report. These characters make their living out of crime (“just a left-handed form of human endeavor” Calhern observes), and for much of the movie Huston was content to sit back and let us watch them at their work because he instinctively understood that it was the work we wanted to see, the work of professional thieves. By making that the emphasis, he created a prototype. What The Maltese Falcon was to detective flicks and Double Indemnity was to the femme fatale movie, The Asphalt Jungle was to heist movies. It is classic, indispensible film noir.


For an interesting look at the career of John Huston, read here. I disagree with some of what it says--Falcon and Jungle are masterpieces, not simply casting coups--but it's a smart look at his body of work.


StephenD said...

One of the classic heist movies. I started thinking of it again after I saw Kubrick's "The Killing" a couple months back. From first impressions, I liked "The Killing" more, but I want to go back and see "Jungle" again. John Huston was one of the great American directors.

Jake Hinkson said...

The Killing is terrific, a masterpiece, but I hate that damn voiceover. It's the only flaw the movie has, really. Have you seen Phil Karlson's Kansas City Confidential? Another stellar heist flick, as is the Jules Dassin movie Rififi. Nothing like watching a bunch of guys pull off a robbery.

StephenD said...

I've heard more complaints about the ending (read: dog) than about the voiceover. True, it occasionally took you out of the movie, but I didn't mind it all that much.

Rififi is on my list. I've only heard Kansas City Confidential mentioned once or twice, but it sounds like it would be up my alley.