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Classic Film Review: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

By Anthony Moretta

The Asphalt Jungle is brilliant for two reasons: its humanity and John Huston.

Huston directs from a script he co-wrote with Ben Maddow, based on W.R. Burnett's novel. I don't need to tell you who John Huston is, but if I do, it's pretty pathetic. Look him up and learn something.

Hayden plays Dix Handley, the watchman and muscle for a crew of crooks assembled by recent convict, Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe). Along with the lock man, Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), and driver, Gus (James Whitmore), they steal a king's worth of precious stones. Cobby (Marc Lawrence) is the muddy bookie who brokers the heist, fronted by the fixer, Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a shady lawyer and five-cent millionaire, too broke to actually pay what's promised, but with a good face to buy some credibility for Cobby.

Dix is a no-luck gambler, fixing to head back home to a horse farm with his best gal, Doll (Jean Hagen). Ciavelli's a family man, with a concerned wife and sick baby boy. Gus owns a run-down diner, with a cat munching on the counter. Doc is all business and the brains behind the caper.

Emmerich spills about his lack of funds once the jewels are in his sight, and plans to split with the take together with his goon, Brannom (Brad Dexter), and trophy girlfriend, Angela (Marilyn Monroe). Brannom jumps the bid and pulls his piece on Dix and Doc, but gets the worst of it by the quick-triggered Dix, who's eager to do Emmerich in as well. Dix gets plugged by Brannom's stray bullet and Doc's cooler head prevails as he presses Emmerich to collect on an insurance buy-back after he dumps Brannom's body to make good on the money owed to the gang.

The cops find Brannom floating in the river and try to piece his death with the heist and connect it to Emmerich, who coaxes an alibi out of Angela. But Cobby is slapped into telling the truth by corrupt cop Ditrich (Barry Kelley), looking to save his own ass. With that, the police are hot on Emmerich, Doc and the rest of them, nabbing the former two and Gus. Emmerich offs himself before being handcuffed. Ciavelli doesn't survive the slug to his gut he took on the night of the robbery. And Dix manages to slip the heat, wounded and warming to a cold finish next to Doll, on a getaway to the country. But, like Ciavelli, Dix doesn't make it and the film ends with his death on a horse ranch.

Sure, this film is hard and lit like a basement casino, breaking the noir nose and letting all that is awesome about the genre gush out. This someplace city in somewhere America is a mash of buildings and alleys. Concrete leftovers of a demolished past. The heist sequence plays out seamlessly, every detail highlighted and every moment woven with wired nerves. We got cops and robbers, dames and dirt bags, in a town that'll "clip ya just for a clean shirt."

But what classes this joint up and sets it apart from the era's other crime movies is the unguarded humanity and honor of its thieves and their loved ones. They look out for one another in the face of double-crosses and dodgy bullets. Gus brings the ailing Ciavelli home, waiting for the doctor to arrive, consoling the wife and fighting back his own tears. Dix and Doc stick strong after Emmerich's episode and are housed by an Italian grocer who feeds them spaghetti, as a favor to Gus. Doll is over the moon for Dix, fixing pretty with her false eyelashes and hearing none of the danger and despair that follows his bloody ribs out to the horses. Doc flips through a girlie calendar and later foots the jukebox for a group of teenagers, dancing and having a swell time, while he watches, whisking some youth back up from the floor and waiting out his final march to jail. And even Emmerich, the shittiest of them all, can't hold on, penniless and purged from his lover. All of this is meant to ground the story. Most of us will never be caught up in this type of stuff. But we can relate to the compassion, the care, the camaraderie.

And then there's Huston. A master. He knew how to build worlds for outcasts and paint moving portraits out of dust and defiance. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), Beat the Devil (1953), The Misfits (1961), and the list goes on and on. It's no wonder Hayden goes a long way here. Broad-shouldered, tall, brooding and steely. Like Huston. And as with the other actors, Huston makes space for Hayden. The camera fits, stops, stutters and spurts. It peers forward and steps back. The performers come to the screen, then lead us to the corners and edges. Much like Robert Altman's endlessly wandering lens (especially in The Long Goodbye [1973]), Huston doesn't pull the audience to a spot with the actors to follow. Instead, space opens up fluidly, organically, in the context of natural rhythm and behavior. The corridors and rooms are lived-in, laced with these characters' histories. They know how to navigate their confines and aren't concerned with blocking them neatly. And when outside - on the streets or grassy greens - the shadows and sun guide the course, paying no attention to what feels comfortable or clean. The Asphalt Jungle has a groggy heartbeat, pulsating through Huston's steady hands.

Anthony Moretta is from Brooklyn, NY. His writing has appeared in Out of the Gutter Online and his independent film project, Travels, is currently in post-production. He's also developing an original comic book series and writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet.