The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is a naturalistic film noir crime film classic (resembling numerous B-films) of the early 1950s from A-list director John Huston. The realistic, documentary-like, urban crime/heist film - advertised as "A John Huston Production" - was one of the first films that completely and specifically detailed how to pull off an authentic-looking heist - something usually considered morally improper under the Production Code.
The sparse, gritty and tense film with a linear narrative is often considered the definitive heist or caper film, often copied and paid homage to by later films, many made during the sub-genre's flourishing in the 1950s:
- Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956), also with Sterling Hayden
- Mackendrick's British film The Ladykillers (1955)
- Jules Dassin's French-made Rififi (1955), with a tense 30-minute heist sequence
- Ocean's Eleven (1960) (also a remake by Steven Soderbergh, Ocean's Eleven (2001))
- The Italian Job (1969)
- Dog Day Afternoon (1975), with Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik who robs a Brooklyn bank to pay for his boyfriend's sex-change operation
- The Usual Suspects (1995)
The same storyline was also used in three other films: the jewel heist caper Cairo (1963) set in Egypt, Cool Breeze (1972) with an all-black cast, and the Delmer Daves western The Badlanders (1958) with Alan Ladd.
The hard-boiled MGM film of urban corruption, low-life alienation, and claustrophobic, small-time despair was adapted by John Huston and Ben Maddow from W. R. Burnett's novel of the same name. [Burnett also wrote another American crime novel upon which the seminal gangster film Little Caesar (1930) was based. And Huston wrote the screenplay for High Sierra (1941) starring Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino - another adaptation of a Burnett novel.]
Huston's work was honored with four Academy Award nominations but no Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Sam Jaffe), Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best B/W Cinematography (Harold Rosson, who lost to The Third Man (1949)). It lost mostly because of tough competition from the multi-lauded Best Picture of the year, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950). [Because of her well-regarded part in The Asphalt Jungle as the mistress of a corrupt lawyer, Marilyn Monroe was cast in a similar bit role in All About Eve.]
Populated with great character actors in a superb ensemble cast, the film sympathetically displays the believable motivations and everyday, idiosyncratic human personalities of the assembled characters, mostly two-bit criminals (one with a family) and a recently-paroled mastermind criminal (Sam Jaffe) who all dream of and long for a quick, million-dollar jewelry store robbery to provide salvation and a means of getting away for their impoverished lives. The gang members include:
- ex-con and mastermind "Doc" Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe)
- professional safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso)
- hunchbacked getaway driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore)
- 'hoodlum' or hooligan thug Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden)
- white-collar, untrustworthy lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) -- not a gang member, but the gang's financier
The members of the gang are not one-dimensional, like the amoral gangsters in The Public Enemy (1931) or Scarface (1932), but proud professional men who have turned to theft. And the women are not alluring femme fatales. The ambitious plans of the minor-league, commonplace criminals in the city's underworld (a tagline from the film's poster reads: The City Under the City) are doomed to inevitable failure, although they are not led to their doom by the women in this noirish film.
By this time, oft-nominated Huston had already directed some of the finest films ever made in the 40s: The Maltese Falcon (1941), Key Largo (1948) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (he won an Oscar for Best Director and Best Screenplay), and in the next year he would direct the classic The African Queen (1951). The film was remade or refashioned three times - Delmer Daves' turn-of-the-century Western gold robbery titled The Badlanders (1958) with Alan Ladd and Ernest Borgnine, the robbery of King Tut's treasures in the Cairo Museum in the British film Cairo (1963) with George Sanders and Richard Johnson, and a diamond robbery in the all-black film Cool Breeze (1972) with Thalmus Rasulala and Judy Pace.The Story
The film opens with shots of a bleak and decayed urban environment in an unnamed (Cincinnati?), smoggy midwestern locale - this establishes a documentary, nitty-gritty feel to the film. Empty city streets of brick and concrete are marked by power poles that are strung with a tangle of electric lines for trolleys. The only sign of movement in the early morning gloom is a lone black police car that patrols the isolated area - its radio reports on a holdup at the Hotel de Paris by an "armed suspect, tall man, Caucasian, wearing a dark suit and soft hat." (A few moments earlier, a man of that description, soon introduced as 'hoodlum' Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden in his first major starring role), ducked behind a pillar as the car passed.)
Anti-hero Handley enters a cafe identified as serving "American Food - Home Cooking." The diner operator, a hunchback named Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), cooperatively hides Handley's gun ("heater") for him in the luncheonette's cash register just before the police enter and book the tall drifter as a vagrant. In a lineup with two other suspects who have recently been arrested, the grim, dirty-shaven, Irish-American Handley is identified as a 36 year old, out-of-work ex-con with a previous arrest in 1937 for illegal possession of firearms. During a one to five year state prison term, he escaped in 1939 and was re-arrested in 1940 and released in 1941. Police Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley) cannot coax an identification from an eye-witness who suddenly has developed "cold feet". When the witness is hesitant about identifying the cold-staring Handley, he fingers his collar / tie as if knowing that identifying him would be suicide (his telltale gesture is similar to what the short narcotics dealer suspect in the lineup did who attempted suicide using his necktie the night before - adjust his shirt collar). The suspects are dismissed from the "show-up."
Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) wrathfully blames his lieutenant [a corrupt, two-faced, on-the-take officer] for a rise in city crime: "39 thefts, 33 burglaries, 18 robberies, 7 assaults, 5 morals offenses in the past thirty days. Quite a record, even for the 4th Precinct, Lieutenant Ditrich." Hardy also criticizes his officer for overlooking the rampant bookie and horse-gambling operation in his own precinct - he suggests harsher tactics: "You don't close 'em hard enough. Rip out the phones, smash up the furniture." Another former con, "Doc" Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), is reported to have left state prison a day earlier en route to the city, but the Lieutenant was also lax in trailing the recently-paroled criminal: "He loses you five blocks from the depot and one of the most dangerous criminals alive is now at large in this city." Ditrich is given "one more chance to make good" on his responsibilities.
In the next scene, a taxicab delivers the aging Riedenschneider, his face half-hidden to raise curiosity, to a questionnable neighborhood (according to the driver) composed of run-down warehouses - specifically to the establishment of a slimy, bow-tied bookie named Cobby (Marc Lawrence). After being allowed entrance, the well-dressed "Doc" (with aliases The Professor and Herr Doctor) first displays his lechereous, voyeuristic tendencies when he leafs through a pin-up calendar hanging on the sparse, dingy wall. Cobby serves himself a drink of liquor and toasts as he rationalizes:
Well, here's to the drink habit. It's the only one I got that don't get me into trouble.
Emotionless and gentlemanly, the mild-mannered, business-like professional criminal then courteously offers to Cobby what he considers a foolproof plan that he devised in prison during his seven year sentence - his proposition is delivered with a heavy German accent:
Doc: I got a proposition. A big one.
Cobby: How big is big?
Doc: Too big for you, Cobby.
Cobby: Now wait, Doc. I don't like to brag, but I'm doin' all right. I'm makin' book, I'm in the chips. What kind of proposition is it?
Doc: A plan for the caper, and it's a good one. I could sell it for a hundred thousand dollars in the open market, but that would be throwing money away. I prefer to execute it myself and make...half a million dollars. (He pauses for dramatic effect.) Maybe even more. Of course, I will have to do a little checking as the plan is some years old. But not much checking, not much. I need roughly $50,000 to operate...
He proposes that an influential, but crooked attorney that he heard about behind the walls, a "Mr. Emmerich," has the money to invest, and Cobby could serve as the go-between with the shady, wealthy big-time lawyer who could acquire the hard cash to finance the burglary. Envisioning making a quick buck, Cobby retreats to a back room to telephone Emmerich, while "Doc," left to himself, scrutinizes the attractive girlie calendar (with his spectacles this time) for a second look. Their conversation is interrupted by the surly, giant-sized Dix Handley who has sought out bookmaker Cobby to bet on the horses - gambling on the races is one of his "crazy" passions and obsessive weaknesses that has put him in continual debt. Handley, who already is behind in his gambling "twenty-three hundred and some" accuses loudmouth Cobby of unfairly treating him and making him look small in front of Doc:
"Don't bone me!...Did I ever welch?...You just boned me...I'm not askin' you any favors. I'll go getcha your twenty-three hundred, right now."
Back in the diner, Gus strokes a milk-sipping cat on his greasy-spoon counter and shows his love for animals when a truck driver patron speaks about his love of running over cats ("I run over one every time I get a chance. Some people feedin' cats and some kids haven't got enough to eat"). Gus tosses the customer out by his coat-tails, threatening: "If I ever see you runnin' over a cat, I'll kick your teeth out." After promising to loan $1,000 to Handley so he can pay Cobby, heart-of-gold Gus also advises his loner pal to lay off holdups for a while, due to recent step-ups in police efforts to curb crime on the boulevard: "Take my advice and knock off for a while. The happiness boys are on a rampage. Headquarters is givin' 'em a push...Go home, Dix, stay home. Don't get your flag at half-mast. Remember, you still got ol' Gus."
The third burglar who will eventually join Gus and Dix in Doc's assembled ring of caper thieves is introduced by Gus' phone call to Italian-American family man Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso). He is a professional safecracker who admits that he can't lend Handley the balance: "I've got mouths to feed and rent to pay, and all that stuff." But then, after closing the door on his wife Maria (Teresa Celli), who is rocking their crying infant in the background, he reverses himself: "I guess I can make it all right."
Dix's eager-to-please-and love, tough-girl moll Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen, who would soon play her career's definitive role as Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain (1952)), who has been "locked out" of her lodgings (at the "clip joint" - the Club Regal) due to a police raid, seeks shelter in his place. As her mascara runs down her fluttering, teary eyes with false eyelashes, he consents for her to stay. But afraid to encourage her and show any emotion, he warns in his typical monotone voice: "Don't you go gettin' any ideas, Doll."
That evening at Emmerich's second residence, "Doc" confidently and intelligently offers his meticulously-researched plan to the cultivated, distinguished man in his fifties, attorney Alonzo "Lon" D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern):
Everything is here, from the observed routine of the personnel to the alarm system, the types of locks on the doors, the aging condition of the main safe, and so forth and so forth. Take my word for it, Mr. Emmerich, this is a ripe plum ready to fall...Perhaps you know my reputation. I've engineered some very big things.
The take of a million dollars worth of jewels will amount to about a half-million dollars "in actual cash" after the rocks are fenced, according to the knowledgeable Emmerich ("because you know as well as I do that in no case will a fence give you more than fifty percent"). Doc further describes the three things he requires as backing to successfully carry out the robbery:
- money to operate
- and finally, the disposing of the take
The personnel would be "paid off like house painters - they'll be told nothing about the size of the take. Sometimes, men get greedy." The three "helpers," totaling an expense of $50,000, would include:
- a "boxman" or safecracker who would need to be paid the most, "maybe $25,000." Cobby suggests Louis Ciavelli for the job (the "best boxman west of Chicago, expert mechanic, been in some very big capers, and what I hear, he can open a safe like a back of a watch - only he costs.")
- a "topnotch" getaway driver who should get $10,000
- a quick-trigger, reliable "hooligan" or gunman who should get $15,000 ("Most of these fellas are drug addicts, a no-good lot or they wouldn't be hooligans. Violence is all they know, but they are unfortunately necessary.")
Doc attempts to convince Emmerich to financially back him and put up $50,000 to handle expenses. Repeating the words "half-a-million, eh," Emmerich smoothly decides to finance the operation. Although Doc is slightly leery of the suggestion, he also accepts Emmerich's idea to handle the disposal of the take. Fencing the stolen jewels himself would save the money that would have to be split with a fence:
Oh, I suppose a fellow should stick to his own trade, but uh, I know some pretty big men around here that might not be averse to a deal like this - if they're properly approached. Highly respectable men, I might add...It might mean a lot more money for all of us.
As he leaves, Doc is promised a place to stay, cash from Cobby for living expenses, and "some fancy phone numbers" for his well-known penchant for chasing after young ladies. Doc describes how he kept his sanity behind the prison walls for so many years by behaving himself (while planning and dreaming of escape to idyllic Mexico):
Doc: It's a matter of temperament. I cause no trouble. The prison authorities appreciate that. They made me assistant librarian.
Emmerich: I'm afraid I wouldn't make a model prisoner.
Doc: After this job, it's Mexico for me. I'll live like a king. Mexican girls are very pretty. I'll have nothing to do all day long but chase them in the sunshine.
Emmerich also has an expensive, high-living lifestyle to maintain for his own fatal flaw - a blonde, childlike companion named Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe in a minor but significant star-making role) - she pretends to be his 'niece' (a 50s' euphemism for mistress) and calls him "Uncle Lon." She is resting on his sofa in another room. He compliments and describes Angela as "some sweet kid," giving her all that she requests. He appreciates her thoughtfulness to order "salt mackeral" from the market, his favorite food for breakfast. She kisses him, falls into his lap, and then goes off to her private bedroom.
While gazing at one of her sparkling high heeled shoes, he phones Robert Brannom (Brad Dexter), a private detective that he hires to collect about $100,000 owed to him by debtors: "Use the method called for in each particular case and don't tell me anything about it. All I want is results."