The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Dir. John Huston. Starring Sam Jaffe, Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern

In 1975Roger Ebert interviewed John Huston, who by that time had peaked more than twenty years before and must have had some idea that he would never come close to the quality of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The Maltese Falcon again. Ebert noted that Huston’s movies had an unusual habit of being unsuccessful in the moment but very well-regarded years after their release. In a tone that Ebert thought was “sardonic,” Huston replied:

“Of course it’s about as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it. It’s always nice when pictures are revived years later, it gives you the satisfaction of seeing them finally accepted, and God knows ‘Beat the Devil’ and ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ were no great shakes their first time around. But as far as the, ah, material rewards are concerned, it’s better to have a success from the first.”

It’s funny that he thinks of The Asphalt Jungle here, which clearly fits the bill as a movie that is “ahead of your time.” A heist movie like The Asphalt Jungle was a mostly new entity in 1950, and audiences were not quite ready for it; it broke even by a slim margin. One never doubts that John Huston would have been a success in virtually any era of the movies once the folks in them started talking. But one wonders how much better The Asphalt Jungle might have been if Huston had a 1970s board of censors and a 1970s audience to play for, rather than an early 1950s pairing that was only willing (or able) to stomach so much lawlessness.

The Asphalt Jungle is filled with strong acting, sneaky brilliant camera work, and the intelligent writing that’s one of Huston’s great hallmarks as a filmmaker. However, it has one scene that practically ruins the movie, disrupting the flow of the narrative while expressly moralizing where it’s not welcome. Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire), the movie’s only honest man, puts on a little show for some reporters at a press conference in his office. A police officer who has been on the payroll of the criminal element in this city is probably going to jail, and Hardy has an interest in ensuring that this new day in law enforcement is one which is squeaky virtuous. He turns on four police scanners, one at a time, and lets the cacophony of calls for help wash over the press. What would happen if we weren’t here? he asks them. No one would be able to help. “The battle’s finished. The jungle wins.” In other words, the only thing that separates men from bestiality is their concept of law and their strict adherence to it. One can believe that Huston, a World War II vet and sometime propagandist, finds that line of thought at least slightly appealing. But one also wonders how much of that spiel is an overcompensation for the rest of the movie in which the criminals are terribly human and, in the words of Rhett Butler, awfully sorry they got caught. (The last line of Hardy’s dramatic monologue paints Dix, the muscle in the jewel heist, as a “hooligan…without human feeling or human mercy.” Dix is a hard man, but nothing about him signifies a lack of humanity; to me, it’s the clearest hint that Huston is throwing this in there for the people who would try to block his movie, not trying to preempt Doug Mulder’s “thin blue line” argument.)

Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is calm and gentlemanly, and more inclined to smoke a cigar than waste words. His nods are of the Old World, precise and exaggerated to show deference. Hardy calls him one of the world’s most dangerous criminals, but Riedenschneider is a peaceful type. During his prison term, he was made an assistant librarian because he never made trouble. He pointedly refuses a gun at one point in the movie because he doesn’t want to hurt, or be hurt, by police officers. He is a thief and a criminal mastermind whose talents would be better spent in the service of his fellow men, sure, but the primary violence he commits is against insurance companies. Emmerich (Calhern) is another seeming gentleman, a celebrity lawyer, and he is flat broke. His life is built on the fineness of appearances and he has never given real thought to what consequences there are to putting on the Ritz. Dix (Hayden) is not awfully smart, but for a hired tough he’s not nasty at all; he punches a cop’s lights out with a single blow which is a testament to his efficiency. He builds a strong loyalty to Riedenschneider, who trusts the big man from the jump. Even minor characters like Gus (James Whitmore), the slightly deformed owner of a diner, reject wanton cruelty. A truck driver eating in his diner says that he runs over any cats he sees in the road; Gus, whose cat is eating his dinner on the bar, throws the man out and threatens to beat the man to a pulp if he ever sees him run a cat down. The movie ends, as it must, alas, with the entire crew either dead or in custody. One dies from a freak gunshot wound after lingering for a while; one manages to make a mad, incredible dash days after being shot in the gut; another is killed in a brief shootout; one kills himself, unable even to write a meaningful letter to his wife before he swallows his gun. It is a tremendously ironic end for men who have eschewed getting their hands dirty with anything so staining as blood.

The vice of these criminals is a vice that hits a little closer to home. Most moviegoers are not criminals of caliber like the ones in The Asphalt Jungle, but I would venture that the majority of them share the vice that draws these miscreant moths to the flame. A pensive Riedenschneider muses, after a reflection on how the perfect plan, like Sterling Hayden’s perfect plan in The Killing, went haywire: “I got hungry. Greed made me blind.” The promise of a good payout brings in people like Dix and Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso); Riedenschneider sets up the jewel heist as his one last job, but makes a bad decision about Emmerich because Emmerich offered up a significant (and totally non-existent) sum for the diamonds in the first place. Each man is called to crime not from any special kind of venality, but from a willingness to parlay greed into lucre. On that front, no one is more culpable or more interesting than Cobby (Marc Lawrence), who looks and acts like Fredo twenty years before Fredo came into print. Cobby is Emmerich’s somewhat threadbare go-to and gofer, the one in this criminal underworld who pays off the cops and arranges meetings, but who is kept in his place through a mixture of a weak will and lack of self-confidence. His greed expands further than his thirst for a profit, although the smell of money makes him loopy just the same as the rest of them. His moment of epiphany is less beautifully phrased than Riedenschneider’s, but it’s no less pointed. A dead man, two men wounded, and a loss of $30,000 for him, he laments, for jewels that are so hot they can’t even try to sell them. “Here I am with a good business,” he says, “money rolling in…I oughta have my head examined.” A shrink – a good listener, even – would tell him that it’s his burning desire to be taken seriously, to call the shots in some small way, that pushed him to cough up $30,000 in the first place. Emmerich’s PI buddy (with tarsier eyes of his own), Brannom (Brad Dexter) convinces Emmerich to go to Cobby for the loan, knowing that the little man with the thin mustache won’t be able to resist feeling like a big shot. Other characters are unable to check their desires and pay the price for it; Riedenschneider stands out, hanging around at a diner three minutes too long because he wants to watch a girl shake her hips to a song on the jukebox. Cobby, even though his end is less fatal and no more ignominious than anyone else’s, is an especially credulous wanter.

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