Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Stubs - The Asphalt Jungle

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950) Starring: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire  Directed by John Huston. Produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr. Screenplay: Ben Maddow and John Huston. Based on the novel, The Asphalt Jungle by W.R. Burnett. Music by Mikos Rozsa. Run Time: 112. Black and White. USA. Film Noir, Drama, Crime

Next, on my Summer of Darkness survey, is the classic The Asphalt Jungle. This film is both an example of not only film noir, but also of the caper film. We see in great details how a crime is planned and committed. While this may not be one of the first examples of the caper film, it is one of the best.

Unlike a lot of other film noir, The Asphalt Jungle doesn’t have a real femme fatale, though Marilyn Monroe, who has a supporting part in the film, is certainly a woman to die for. Rather than a woman toying with the lives of men, The Asphalt Jungle concentrates on what happens when the best laid plans go wrong. There is really no one in the film that you want to root for, after all this is a criminal enterprise, you do come to know some of the men well enough to at least be drawn in by them. You might not like them, but you do see how they are all victim of circumstances, just trying to get along the best they can.

John Huston once did an intro that is used on the DVD release by Warner Bros. of this MGM film, wherein he talks about the film as being about vices, whether it’s betting on horses, drinking, young girls, or the good life. The Asphalt Jungle (subtitled The City Under The City) is about how vices drive men to do what they do and how they can be their downfall.

The main character is a guy named Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a country boy in the big city. He is a petty criminal who uses his ill-gotten gains to bet on the horses. When the film opens, Dix is picked up in a seedy coffee shop run by Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) for a stick up and put into a line up which includes William Doldy (Strother Martin), but the witness, a Night Clerk (Frank Cady) gets intimidated by Dix and doesn’t identify him even though Dix is the obvious choice.

After the failure of the lineup, Police Lt. Ditrich (Barry Kelley) is called into see Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire).  Ditrich is a corrupt policeman, whom the Commissioner doesn’t like, but who he can’t prove as corrupt. Hardy chastises Ditrich for the crime in his district and for failure to permanently close the gambling houses. Hardy brings up the fact that under Ditrich’s supervision, a recently paroled gangster managed to slip the detail tailing him and is running loose in the city. Hardy gives Ditrich one more chance to make this right.

Meanwhile, the criminal mastermind Hardy spoke of, Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) takes a cab to see Cobby (Mark Lawrence), a bookie who runs the betting parlor that Dix happens to use. Doc has not been idle in prison and is anxious to get on with his next big plan, a jewel heist. But he needs money and came to Cobby to introduce him to Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a crooked lawyer who is known in the joint as being willing to help with such ventures. Into the room bursts Dix, upset that Cobby has cut him off from gambling. And even though Cobby raises his limit, Dix still feels boned by him, especially in front of someone else. But Dix does make an impression on Doc.

Back at Gus’s diner, Dix tries to retrieve the gun he left there, but Gus won’t give it back to him. Gus has taken a liking to Dix and doesn’t want to see him run out and rob someone. He offers to help him. Dix needs $2300 to pay off Cobby. While that is more money than Gus has on hand, he promises to come through for his pal. Gus calls Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) for a loan. At first, Louis tells Gus that he has his own issues, a wife and new baby, but in the end he does say he’ll help him out.

Back at Dix’s apartment, Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen) shows up with a suitcase. Doll has lost her job at the Club Regal, referred to as a clip-joint (strip club) after the police raided and shut it down. No job means no money for rent and Doll has been locked out of her apartment. She’s come to see if Dix will put her up for a few days. While it is obvious they have a past, their relationship is undefined. Dix offers to let her stay, but warns her not to get any ideas.

At the riverside house he uses to keep his mistress Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe), Emmerich listens to Doc lay out his plan about robbing Belletiers jewelry store. Doc tells him he needs the $50,000 to pay for three men he’ll need to do the job: A safecracker (referred to here as a boxman), a getaway driver and a hooligan. The reason for the hooligan (and that word is used over and over again in the movie) is because “they are unfortunately necessary”. Instead of cutting them in for a share of the proceeds, Doc wants to pay them for their services: $25,000 for the safecracker, $10,000 for the getaway driver and $15,000 for the hooligan. The next issue they discuss is how to fence the jewelry and Emmerich himself offers to do that, telling Cobby and Doc that he knows a lot of important people who would be willing to help with something like this.

Emmerich not only promises to help, but tells Doc that Cobby will see to it that he has a place to stay, money for living expenses and phone numbers for female company. It is apparently well known that Doc likes the young girls. Doc even tells Emmerich that he plans to go to Mexico after the heist. “Mexican girls are very pretty. I'll have nothing to do all day long but chase them in the sunshine.”

After his meeting, Emmerich goes into another room to find Angela lying on the couch. This was a star-making role for a young Monroe. She calls him Uncle Lon, as if she is his niece, a 50’s euphemism for mistress. Angela is obviously attractive, but she is also rather simple. After she tells Emmerich that she’s ordered in his favorite breakfast food, salted mackerel, she goes off to her private bedroom. This is the 50’s and there was a production code after all.

When he’s alone, Emmerich calls a private detective, Robert Brannom (Brad Dexter) who he wants to collect about $100,000 that is owed him by his debtors and former clients. Emmerich doesn’t want to know how Brannom gets the money; he only wants to see results.

The next morning, Dix wakes up on his sofa to find Doll has made him coffee. She has spent the night in his bed alone. She has over heard Dix talk in his sleep about the “Corncracker”, which Dix tells her was a tall black colt. In his dream, Dix manages to make his father and grandfather proud with this riding prowess. He confesses in real like the colt bucked him off right away leading his father to remark “Maybe that'll teach ya not to brag about how good you are on a horse.” Dix’s real dream is to return home to Kentucky and buy back the homestead the family had to sell after his father died.

Doc is at Cobby’s when Dix comes to pay off his debt. Cobby tries to warn Dix about betting indiscriminately and even offers to cut him next time there’s a fix in. Doc is impressed by Dix’s reputation as a hooligan, but Cobby tries to dissuade him telling Doc that Dix is strictly a small time hood.

Doc tells Cobby that the woman he dated last night told him that Emmerich is broke, but Cobby doesn’t believe him. After all Emmerich has two houses and six servants. While Doc is still there, Ditrich comes by and when he sees Doc, the man the commissioner told him to be on the lookout for, he backs away. Cobby follows Ditrich to the door. Ditrich tells him that there is pressure on him and that he needs to raid the betting parlor and put Cobby in jail. But Cobby bribes him and agrees to shut down for a couple of days.

Emmerich is visited by his PI Brannom who tells him that none of his debtors came through. Emmerich admits to Brannom that he’s broke and needs to get out from under his own debt. He also tells Brannom that his plan is to double cross the robbers and take the jewels and leave the country. But he’s still short the $50,000 to put his plan into action. Brannom asks for a 50/50 split with Emmerich for the suggestion that Emmerich get Cobby to put up the money. He tells him that Cobby wants to be a big shot and will do it.

With Cobby already agreeing to act as paymaster for the operation, Doc interviews Louis, the same man Gus called for a loan. Louis is an experienced box man and agrees to take $25,000. Both Louis and Cobby recommend Gus for the getaway driver. To round out his crew, Doc picks Dix to be the hooligan.

In a rather quick scene, the assembled gang listens to Doc as he maps out the timing of each step in the heist.

That evening at 11:30, the plan goes smoothly. Louis climbs down a manhole, walks along a tunnel to the designated spot where he tunnels through the wall into the Belletier’s. He next climbs up the basement stairs to the street, deactivates the alarm and opens the door for Dix and Doc. They next go to the main safe, which is protected by an electric eye. After sliding on his back under the eye, Louis then picks the lock on the gate and drills holes in the safe door. Using his own nitroglycerin “soup”, Louis manages to blow the door off.

From this point on things start to go wrong. The force of the blast has set off alarms in the surrounding businesses and police are starting to show up on the scene. But the burglars finish the heist and Doc puts all the jewelry in a suitcase. The crew jumps the first policeman through the door, with Dix knocking him out. But when the cop drops his gun, it goes off and the bullet hits Louis in the stomach. When they get him out to Gus, Louis refuses to go to the doctor, and insists on being taken home.

Doc and Dix go to the rendezvous with Emmerich and are not too pleased to find Brannom there. They are also not happy when Emmerich tells him it will take longer to raise the money than he thought. They refuse to let him hold on to the jewelry in the meantime. But Brannom won’t let them leave, pulling his gun on the pair. But when Doc throws him the suitcase, Dix manages to pull his gun and kill Brannom. However, Brannom did manage to nick Dix with a bullet in his side.

While Dix wants to kill Emmerich, Doc prevails. He tells Emmerich to approach the insurance company about buying the jewels back at 25% of their value. Emmerich agrees to do it.
At Louis’ apartment, Gus tries to convince Louis’ wife Maria (Teresa Celli) that the doctor will be there soon and that Louis will be all-right.

Emmerich, meanwhile, disposes of Brannom’s body in the river. Dix and Doc take refuge with one of Cobby’s friends at Donato’s grocery store. There Doc gets a call that the insurance company agreed to pay for the jewels and they just have to wait through the weekend.

With publicity about the heist and a reward offered, the taxi cab driver who took Doc to Cobby’s comes forward. Ditrich is then dispatched to Cobby’s with a search warrant. Through strong arm techniques Ditrich gets Cobby to cooperate and fink. The police then start to pick up the crew, arresting Gus and then going after Louis. But they are too late and the box man has already died of his wounds.

Next the police, with the commissioner in tow, descend on Emmerich and Angela. While she had once provided Emmerich with an alibi for the night of the crime, Emmerich tells her to recant her story and tell the truth, which she does. When Emmerich goes to call his wife, he sits down and instead starts to write her a note, but he tears it up before he finishes it. And before the policeman standing guard can stop him, Emmerich kills himself with a gunshot to the head.

Doc and Dix leave Donato’s but run into a policeman who recognizes Doc. When he asks to look into his briefcase, Dix knocks him out and the two escape, though Doc has gotten a slight head wound. The two go to Doll, who is apartment-sitting for a friend. She puts the two of them up and they nurse Doc back to health. Doc plans to take a cab to the edge of town and then pay them to take him to Cleveland, but before he leaves, he borrows $1000 from Dix. It is only after Doc leaves, that Dix’s wound starts to bleed again.

Doc catches a cab and finds the driver is a fellow German, named Franz Schurz (Henry Rowland) who agrees to take him to Cleveland for a $50 tip.

Meanwhile, Doll buys a car for Dix, who even though he’s bleeding, plans to go back to Kentucky. He relents and lets Doll go with him.

Franz and Doc stop for food at a diner on the edge of town. And even though Franz is eager to get going, Doc is infatuated with a young girl, Jenny (Helene Stanley), who is there with two boys. Doc can’t resist watching her dance one more time, even putting up the money for the jukebox. It is while he is watching Jenny that police arrive and see him through the diner’s window. Once he steps outside, he is arrested.

Dix and Doll keep driving, but Dix is weak from loss of blood and collapses at a train crossing. Doll takes him to Dr. Swanson (John Maxwell), but Dix regains consciousness and overhears the doctor on the phone to police about a gunshot victim. Gathering up all his strength, Dix races out and he and Doll drive away.

Surrounded by reporters, the police commissioner gets a little preachy about how there are more good cops than bad and that people need the police when they’re in trouble. He tells the assembled reporters that everyone is in custody, with the exception of Dix.
In the final scene, Dix makes it to his boyhood home, where, with Doll trailing after him, he falls to the ground and dies surrounded by the horses he loved.

Many past reviewers have commented about the film’s naturalistic style, but this not a documentary on crime nor is it presented as such. Nothing shows desperation better than black and white photography. The lines between right and wrong are all gray here. None of the main characters are hero material, but we find ourselves caring about Dix nonetheless. Dix is a prototype of what became to be known as the anti-hero. Actors like Al Pacino made their careers playing them.

Sterling Hayden, perhaps better known as Brigadier General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove (1964), gives a lot of depth to Dix. He is not really such a hooligan, but more of a fish out of water. He robs so he can bet on the horses, but it’s really the horses themselves that he longs for, not the money. Hayden would also appear in another film noir caper movie, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). While he said he didn’t like acting, Hayden did appear in dozens of films throughout his 40 year career, including Johnny Guitar (1954), Suddenly (1954), Crime of Passion (1957), The Godfather (1972), 1900 (1976) and Nine to Five (1980).

Louis Calhern also puts in a great performance as Alonzo Emmerich, the seeming successful lawyer who has more than just a slimy side. He is dirty, but he has no honor. His plan is to rip off the burglars and live on the jewels they steal. He cheats on his wife and he asks his mistress to lie for him. There is little to like about Emmerich, but still we want to see what he’ll say or do next. Calhern’s Emmerich is a far cry from his performance as Trentino in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) and it shows the range this actor had.

And the last actor I wanted to mention is Sam Jaffe as Doc Riedenschneider is what holds the film together. It is his master plan that the criminals are trying to carry out. He is an older man here, who letches after younger girls, even to the point of his own capture. Still the audience is willing to watch him watch young Jenny’s moneymaker, even as the police slowly tighten the noose around him. Jaffe’s 50 year film career spanned from 1934’s The Scarlett Empress to 1984’s Rio Abajo. In between Jaffe would appear in such classics as Gunga Din (1939), Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Blacklisted in the 1950’s for being a Communist sympathizer, Jaffe would also appear in Ben-Hur (1959) and TV’s Ben Casey series which ran from 1961 to 1965.

But even with a great cast, a film needs great direction as well. John Huston certainly came through here again as well. Huston has been discussed on this blog in the review about The Maltese Falcon (1941), but he deserves note here again. Huston presents a dark world where no one is really ever on top and never for very long. Almost everyone has a weakness or a vice that leads to their downfall. Huston manages to tell a story with a lot of characters which still manages to let you see who they all are. And while you don’t get to know them really well, you know them well enough to understand their motivations, even if they aren’t always law abiding men.

If film noir shines a light on the darker side of man’s endeavors, then The Asphalt Jungle is certainly one of the better film noirs ever made.

The Asphalt Jungle is available at the WB Shop:

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