|Directed by||John Huston|
When criminal mastermind Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is released from prison after seven years, he immediately goes to see a bookie named Cobby (Marc Lawrence) in an unnamed Midwest river city (almost certainly Cincinnati), who arranges a meeting with Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a high-profile lawyer. Emmerich listens with interest to Doc’s plan to steal jewelry worth a million dollars or more.
Doc needs $50,000 to hire three men—a “box man” (safecracker), a driver, and a “hooligan”—to help him pull off the caper, to “operate”, in the criminal jargon used in the film, and each man could be called an “operator”, although this term was not used in the film. Emmerich agrees to provide the money to “operate”, and then suggests that he, himself (not one or more fences) assume the responsibility for disposing of the loot.
Doc first hires Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a professional safecracker. Ciavelli only trusts Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), a hunchbacked diner owner, as thegetaway driver. The final member of the gang is Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a friend of Gus. Dix explains his ultimate goal to Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen), who is in love with him. His dream is to buy back the horse farm that his father lost during the Great Depression. Dix, however, just keeps losing his ill-gotten gains betting on the horses via Cobby. This job would pay him the amount he needs.
During the meticulously planned crime (an 11-minute sequence in the film), the criminals carry out their work in a calm, professional manner. Ciavelli hammers through a brick wall to get into the jewelry store, deactivates a door alarm to let in Doc and Dix, and then opens the main safe in minutes using home-brewed nitroglycerine (“the soup”). Unfortunately, the explosion somehow sets off the alarms of nearby businesses and brings the police to the scene more quickly than expected. On their way out, Dix has to slug an arriving security guard, who drops his revolver, which discharges and wounds Ciavelli in the belly. The men get away unseen, but a police manhunt quickly begins.
Ciavelli insists on being taken home by Gus. Dix and Doc take the loot to Emmerich, who confesses he needs some more time to raise the cash they had expected. In reality, he is broke. He had sent a private detective named Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) to collect sums owed to him, but Brannom returned only with excuses. Emmerich then plotted to double cross the others with Brannom’s help (for an equal share).
Emmerich suggests to Doc that he leave the jewelry with him, but Doc and Dix become suspicious. Brannom then pulls out his gun. Dix is able to kill Brannom, but not without being wounded himself. Dix wants to shoot Emmerich as well, but Doc persuades him not to. Doc tells the lawyer to contact the insurance companies and offer to return the valuables for 25% of their value.
Emmerich disposes of Brannom’s body in the river, but the police find the corpse, along with the list of people who owe Emmerich money, and question him. He lies about his whereabouts, and after they leave, hurriedly calls Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe in her first important role), his beautiful young mistress, to set up an alibi.
Under increasing pressure from Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire), a police lieutenant named Ditrich (Barry Kelley) (who had previously protected Cobby for money) beats the bookie into confessing everything in a vain attempt to save himself (he is later arrested for corruption).
With the confession, Hardy personally arrests Emmerich, managing to persuade Angela to tell the truth. Emmerich is permitted to leave the room for a minute and commits suicide. Gus is soon picked up, then attacks Cobby at the jail. When the police break down Ciavelli’s door, they find they have interrupted his funeral.
That leaves only Doc and Dix, who separate. Doc asks a taxi driver to drive him to Cleveland, but is spotted at a roadside cafe (where he has spent some time watching an attractive young woman dance) by two policemen. He offers no resistance. Doll gets Dix a car, then insists on going along. When he passes out from loss of blood, Doll takes him to a doctor, who phones the police to report the gunshot wound. Dix regains consciousness after a plasma transfusion and escapes before they arrive. With Doll, he makes it all the way back to his beloved Kentucky horse farm across the Ohio river from Cincinnati. He stumbles into the pasture and collapses and dies.
A Very Human Hooligan
It took over 40 years until Goodfellas was made to make a film interesting and realistic about criminals as The Asphalt Jungle. The power in the characters that John Huston brings to life is so vivid and you root for them, yet you never forget they are criminals.
Sam Jaffe, a cool and calculating planner, brings a scheme to big time lawyer Louis Calhern about a jewel robbery. Calhern is a criminal attorney who really does work both sides of the fence. But he’s also got some high living expenses and a young mistress in the shape of Marilyn Monroe in the first film that got her notice.
Jaffe needs three to help pull off the job, a safe cracker, a driver, and a strong arm guy, a ‘hooligan’ as he calls it. Calhern provides them in the persons of Anthony Caruso, James Whitmore, and Sterling Hayden.
You wouldn’t think it, but Jaffe and Hayden bond in this. The educated criminal mastermind and a man who might not have finished grade school. Jaffe sees in Hayden a reliable sort.
Sterling Hayden did not think too much of most of the action/adventure stuff he did, but he liked The Asphalt Jungle as well he should. He’s a country kid, his nickname is ‘Dix’ short for Dixie. His family owned a farm and bad luck hit them as it did so many in The Great Depression. Hayden turns to criminal enterprise because his skills for making an honest living are limited.
His biggest accomplishment is having a B girl from a clip joint fall hard for him in the person of Jean Hagen. Both of their characterizations ring well and true, dare I say it, sterling performances.
Of course after the job is done, fallible and corrupt human beings like bookmaker Marc Lawrence, corrupt police lieutenant Barry Kelley, strong arm man Brad Dexter, and Calhern himself bring the whole thing crashing down.
One of the reasons you root so hard for the criminals to succeed is the magnificent and unheralded performance of John McIntire as the police commissioner. Imagine if Charles Laughton as Inspector Javert, had not gotten so tangled up in searching for Jean Valjean and rose to become the head of the Surete in France. You’ve got McIntire. I don’t think any honest cop has been made so unpleasant on the screen before or since. At one point he’s telling the press that he’ll get Hayden and Hayden is a callous brute. The most callous person in the cast is McIntire and we go through 112 minutes of The Asphalt Jungle and know how very human Sterling Hayden is.
Sam Jaffe got an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to George Sanders in All About Eve. The film itself got three other nominations including for Huston as Best Director. It had the bad luck to run up against another classic film in All About Eve, in it’s own way as cynical a film as The Asphalt Jungle.
John Huston took a cast and got perfect performances out of the lot of them and The Asphalt Jungle holds up every bit over fifty years later. Should really be seen beside Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas to get a full appreciation for today’s generation.
Darkly absorbing Jungle Caper
I hadn’t seen The Asphalt Jungle for nearly 30 years until tonight, I think I must have (wrongly) considered it to be a “modern film”, ie post rock’n’roll and dismissed it as too earthy as a result. Well I was wrong, it’s certainly a Golden Age film made with high production values, with all the right actors, direction, music and story the Golden Age had produced. The music especially links it back to Double Indemnity and of course Huston to The Maltese Falcon, Jaffe to Lost Horizon etc. It was simply a signpost to the type of films to come , the ones I avoid.
It’s gritty, as realistic as a gritty fantasy could be in 1950, as realistic as I want. The multi character interplay sticks in the mind, everyone’s grafting and ready to dump on the next guy, apart from The Hooligan who dumb as he is really has a heart. It’s Sam Jaffe’s film though, his calculating but flawed dirty old man character was a classic perv-ormance, nowadays we would not have been spared the sleaze, but he walked a fine line successfully.
And again, the sleazy relationship between Uncle Louis Calhern and young Marilyn Monroe was perfectly handled.
All in all a marvellous film from the twilight years of the Golden Age.