Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) - John Huston

Doc is fresh out of the pen with a foolproof plan to knock off a jewelry store, one last big score before he retires to chase pretty girls in Mexico. He recruits a small group of low-life criminals to help with the job: Gus as driver; Louis to crack the safe; and Dix for muscle. With "the goods" secured, Doc and Dix make their rendezvous with Mr. Emmerich, the financier and fence, whose attempt to double-cross the thieves sends things spiraling out of control.

Director John Huston carved a sub-genre in noir with this stylistic and moody heist film. Often copied, no one has equaled it for its brilliant character development and ability to suck the viewer into the lives of bottom-rung criminals living on the dirty edge of post-war society. The film also exemplifies wonderfully well why black & white cinematography captured the mood of the genre in ways that color photography never could. The dark and shadowy scenes perfectly match the souls of the amoral characters here, and are analogous to the blanket of desperation that grips their lives.

We meet Dix (Sterling Hayden) first, slinking along in the early morning. The cops are looking for him, suspecting him of a nearby hold-up. Dix makes his way to Gus' diner (James Whitmore). Gus hides Dix' revolver in the cash register just before the officers arrive to take him in for questioning. We'll soon learn that Dix likes to play the horses--not well--as he'll return to Gus' to hit his friend up for a loan. At the station, Dix stands in a line-up. He has a long rap sheet. (Look for the middle suspect--a young, skinny Strother Martin in his first screen role.) Dix is released after a victim refuses to finger him as the perpetrator.

Dix hides to elude the police.
Next, we meet Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), just out of seven years in prison. He comes to Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a smarmy bookie who has connections. Doc asks him to arrange a meeting with Mr. Emmerich, an attorney who'll finance Doc's caper. Dix arrives to place a bet, and while there, takes offense at something Coffy says and storms out; but in the process, leaves Doc impressed that here might be a man he can count on in a pinch. Later that night, Cobby and Doc visit Emmerich (Louis Calhern). They don't know it, but Emmerich is broke. Unable to support his lavish life style, he sees Doc's plan as a way to get out from under. Emmerich agrees to put up $50,000 so Doc can hire help. He also offers to fence the stolen goods, thereby increasing the overall take for all of them, estimated at upwards of $1 million.

Calhern is perfect as a man who hides behind a facade of wealth. Ostensibly calm, he is a practiced liar, devious, and as desperate as the thieves. In one scene, he confesses his plight to an associate, wringing his hands across his face in anguish. Emmerich has the film's best line. Talking with his bed-ridden wife, he calms her fears about the awful people he comes in contact with. "Oh, there's nothing so different about them," he says. "After all, crime is only... a left-handed form of human endeavor."

As the other two men leave, Emmerich steps into the adjoining room and we discover the cause for the man's financial straights. He leans over his mistress, Angela (Marilyn Monroe), dosing on the couch. A girl like that costs a lot of money to keep happy. Monroe, just 24 here, had appeared on screen before, but this surely was the start of her rocketing to fame as a sex-symbol. She looks like a girl used to getting what she wants, and knowing how to string along a sugar daddy. She only gets two scenes in the film, but they do the trick. Alluring and sensual, she is surprisingly thin and quite lovely. She'll look even better later in an off-the-shoulder black number. Emmerich's expression says it all. All he can do is utter "some sweet kid."

Dix receives a visitor at his simple apartment, Doll, played by Jean Hagen. Hagen gives a fine performance, the best in the film. Doll needs a place to stay for a few days; because the cops raided her place of employment, a clip joint, she's missed payday. Dix and Doll's relationship is the most interesting in the film. We can infer from their conversations they have a history. Perhaps once lovers, they at least seem kindred spirits, similarly downtrodden and unable to catch a break. Like all the characters in this dark story, they clearly haven't made the best choices in life. Still, you sort of feel sorry for both.

Dix either isn't able to express his feelings or doesn't want to. When she asks to spend the night, he says sure, "just don't get any ideas." Still, a smile creased his lips when he saw who'd come to call, and her face lights up expectantly later when he calls her on the stairs as she's leaving the next day. By her gaze, you know she has feelings for him. Like the men in the story, she seems scarred by life, trapped in a dead-end existence. The way she watches him finish his drink, you wonder if she's also an alcoholic.

Hayden as Dix and Hagen as Doll.

By now all the principals have been introduced, and we already know everything we need about the men in a few short scenes. Huston and collaborator Ben Maddow knew how flesh out their characters with little dialog. The script is highly entertaining, filled with clever slang and the nomenclature of the criminal underworld. Doc calls a safe cracker, a "boxman," and when Cobby insults Dix, Dix reacts angrily: "Don't bone me!"

In the asphalt jungle, no one is clean. A corrupt police lieutenant, Ditrich, who's earlier been read the riot act by the police commissioner for losing tract of Doc after his release from prison, interrupts Doc and Cobby in Cobby's office. He's obviously taking money under the table from Cobby. When he realizes who's sitting there, he leaves without speaking.

Doc: That copper, he recognized me.
Cobby: How'd you know he was a copper?
Doc: I can smell one a block off.
Cobby: Oh, don't worry about Ditrich. He's on my payroll. Practically a partner. Me and him, we're like that. [Cobby holds up his index and middle finger]
Doc: Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one's all right, he turns legit.

A heavy sense of dread permeates the film, the end preordained. Capers like this never end well. The script portends the unrealized hopes for two of the gang. Besides Doc's wish to make Mexico afterwards, Dix laments to Doll about the loss of his family's horse farm, an incident from his youth that has left him deeply scarred. One big score will enable him to buy it back, and the first thing he'll do is "jump in the creek and wash off the dirt of the city." Louis echos the thought that urban life in the post-war city is filthy. Upset that his new son is sick because his wife takes him out in the morning for fresh air, he says it's too cold and barks, "there's no fresh air in this city!"

Doc goes over the plan with his men.
In a wise decision, director Huston doesn't linger on the actual robbery--it's not really the point of the film. It starts off like clockwork, but soon begins to unravel. A night watchman enters the scene. Dix wrestles the man, who drops his weapon. It goes off and Louis is fatally wounded in the stomach. With loot in hand, the robbers disperse. Doc and Dix meet Emmerich to make the exchange, but the shady lawyer doesn't have the promised cash. Doc rejects his offer to stash the jewels there, a decision that doesn't sit well with Emmerich's hired thug.

The end comes as expected, with all the bad guys paying a price for their crime. Cobby proves to be the gang's weak link, confessing under police pressure. As the cops close in, Emmerich isn't man enough to face the music. He at least lets Angela off the hook. His alibi, he tells her to "just tell the truth, baby." The old sap actually loves her.

Doc and Dix split up. Doc looks on his way to safety with the jewels sewn inside his coat, but is waylaid as he stops at a diner where he sits enchanted as a young girl jitterbugs to a juke box. Huston pushes the censor envelope with Jaffe's lecherous look. The best camera shot in the film occurs here, the lens following the girl as she moves to the window, slapping hands and twisting hips. She moves away and we glimpse two cops in the shadows, standing outside looking in.

Doc's vice.

Capturing the mastermind.

The film ends as it began, with Dix. He and Doll escape toward Kentucky. Shot in the side from his encounter at Emmerich's, he's hallucinating from loss of blood and barely conscious. Doll stops at a doctor who proclaims that he won't get far: "He hasn't got enough blood left in him to keep a chicken alive." Somehow they manage to cross the Ohio River and arrive at the old family farm. Dix staggers into the field of bluegrass and collapses as a colt comes to nuzzle his face. Home at last.

Dix makes it home.

The story is based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, who also authored Little Caesar (1931) and High Sierra (1941), two other crime dramas brought successfully to the screen. He also wrote the screenplay for The Great Escape (1963).  Harold Rossen handled the cinematography, so central to the mood of the film. He received an Oscar nomination for his efforts. For his career, Rossen was a five-time nominee.

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