Monday, June 28, 2021

Movie Reviews: The Asphalt Jungle

The Asphalt Jungle
directed by John Huston

How many heist movies have you watched where there is a snitch, doomed love, people being hunted separately by cops or other crooks, a brainy mastermind, or an initially successful crime caper that goes wrong because of greedy backstabbers? 

Many of those films are descended from The Asphalt Jungle. 
I enjoyed watching this 1950 film because it featured some leading actors with whom I was only familiar with from much later films as character actors, most notably Sterling Hayden from The Godfather (1972), and James Whitmore from Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Tora Tora Tora (1970). 

The Asphalt Jungle was also notable for being one of Marilyn Monroe's early roles. This is a typical film noir in that the so-called bad guys have all of the positive and negative traits found in all humanity. Some are loyal and trustworthy; others can't be trusted any farther than you could throw them. Some cops protect the innocent. 

Other police want to bully crooks or bring down men who offend their personal ideas of moral behavior. Still others are totally corrupt and shake down "bad guys.

Dix Handley (Hayden) is a small time armed robber in an unnamed Midwestern city. Dix likes to drink and bet on horses. Dix is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Dix grew up on a Kentucky horse farm, as he will tell anyone who cares to listen. The only person who actually does care to listen is Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen) a woman who is likely a prostitute (the film is coy about this) and is in love with Dix (the film is quite unsubtle about this though Hagen's acting is sublime).

Dix has contempt for and indifference to Doll. Dix wants to make enough money through robberies or gambling to buy back his family horse farm, which his father lost. 

But so far, Dix hasn't made any money. Dix's best and apparently sole friend is Gus (Whitmore), a disabled diner owner and skilled getaway driver. 
Gus has a temper but looks out for his buddies. Just don't mention his disability. He won't like it. The nattily dressed loquacious pedantically precise criminal brain Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison.

An older man, Doc declines retirement. 
Doc does high stakes robberies and burglaries. Doc has a job that could net at least $500,000. 

As Doc explains to the credulous bowtied bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence), he needs a man to finance the job and fence the jewels. 

Doc has planned everything down to the second. Cobby brings in the bigshot criminal lawyer Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to finance the caper. Cobby has pathetic hero worship for Emmerich, who is living the life Cobby would like for himself, far away from the low level criminal hustle and bustle. 

Emmerich doesn't have to deal with threats from corrupt cops like the brutal Lt. Dittrich (Barry Kelley). Dittrich protects Cobby from arrest or investigation from self-interest, not friendship.

Alonzo Emmerich has a successful law practice, a devoted but sickly wife (Dorothy Tree) and an equally devoted if somewhat naive and expensive young mistress (Marilyn Monroe) who calls her older lover "Uncle Lon". This would seem to be a nod to some women's practice of calling their paramours "Daddy". 

If Emmerich is occasionally embarrassed by his adultery, the police commissioner Hardy (John McIntire), who already dislikes Emmerich, is morally outraged by Emmerich's preference for younger women.

Emmerich likes Doc's plan but insists on fencing the jewels himself, promising a better price for everyone. Doc hires Dix and Gus for their muscle and driving skills.

Doc also brings in Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) another friend of Gus' who is widely acknowledged as being a top safecracker. Louie is a new father who is constantly amazed and amused by the challenges of marriage and fatherhood. The even tempered Louie just wants to provide for his family. 

These people all neglect to inform each other of their true motivations and intentions. The dialogue and script were gritty, realistic, and poignant.

There's humor. When one police officer asks another what were his impressions of the Marilyn Monroe character the lower ranking officer says something along the lines of "Hubba hubba!" and starts describing her with his hands. 

His superior drily responds "That's not what I meant." 
Another police officer tries to blame poor results on cops who work for him, saying "They should get an award for being dumb."

His boss isn't having it and rebukes him saying ,"Well you picked them so you should be first in line for that award!" Calhern as Emmerich has to do a lot of acting with face movements and body language. There are scenes where we know that Emmerich knows something that other people don't. 

How he handles this often bounces back and forth between regret, frustration, fear, and resignation, often seemingly all at once. 

Huston is sympathetic to his characters, if not their crimes. The movie is primarily told from the criminal point of view. The police get a few shout outs but most of them with speaking roles are unpleasant at best and brutal at worst. This is a movie you should see if you like classic crime/noir drama.