Our list is jam-packed with so-called “heist movies”—films that focus on a gang of criminals plotting the perfect caper. Rififi, Reservoir Dogs, The Killing and The Usual Suspects are classics of the genre.
Before all of those, there was John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. This tale of a jewel theft gone wrong is credited with resetting the ground rules for gangster films. More than any previous effort, it focuses on the inner lives and aspirations of its criminals. The film lays out, in gritty detail, the financing, planning and execution of a robbery—as well as the inevitable fallout. To steal a sports term, this is a real Xs-and-Os look at the business.
If it all seems familiar, that’s because its template has been copied dozens of times. But The Asphalt Jungle didn’t just come first. All these decades later, it continues to hold up as both a character study and as a spellbinder.
Not that everyone agreed upon its release. Back in 1950, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer panned his studio’s own film as “full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty, ugly things.”
“I wouldn’t walk across the room to see something like that,” he said.
Gee, boss. Thanks for the support. We’ll be sure to put that on the promo posters.
The movie is based on a novel by W. R. Burnett (a.k.a. the Poet Laureate of American Crime Writing), who also authored Little Caesar, Scarface and High Sierra. It’s directed by the great John Huston. Included in the DVD is a brief statement in which Huston addresses the audience and says, “You may not admire the characters in this movie, but I think they will fascinate you.”
Indeed they will. The center of the story is aging criminal mastermind Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a scrawny German emigrant just out of prison after a seven-year stint. He apparently spent all that time hatching a foolproof plot to commit the largest jewel heist in the history of the Midwest, from which he expects to net $500,000.
Doc’s got the specifics all laid out. He recruits a crew that includes a safecracker (Anthony Caruso), a driver (young James Whitmore), a so-called “hooligan” for muscle (Sterling Hayden) and a well-connected financier (Louis Calhern) to provide seed money and later fence the jewels.
We get to see each man’s inner life and motivation for taking part in the heist. The hooligan, named Dix Handley, is tired of getting rousted by big-city cops and wants to return to Kentucky to live on a horse farm, as he had in his youth. The financier, a corrupt lawyer named Alonzo Emmerich, is supporting both a wife and a stunning young mistress played by an actress we guarantee you’ll recognize.
And Doc? Well, Doc’s got this creepy thing for teenaged girls. He tells everyone that his plan after pulling the heist is to retire to Mexico so he can ogle the young ladies.
“We all work for our vices,” Doc explains. In his case, that proves to be his undoing.
This Dream Team of criminals is able to pull off the robbery, but not without slipups. Because The Asphalt Jungle was made in 1950 when Hollywood still operated under the Motion Picture Production Code, there was no way the robbers could be allowed to get away with it as they could years later in, say, Ocean’s Eleven. (Huston did win one fight with the censorship board, having one of the characters commit suicide rather than face the wrath of the law.)
So the back half of the movie focuses on the pursuit and eventual capture of the gang. Greed, of course, leads to double-crosses and murder. And surrounding these criminals is a society as crooked as they are. You meet dirty cops, shady lawyers and posturing public officials. Gee, who would have thought?
The strength of The Asphalt Jungle is in the interaction of its characters, particularly Jaffe’s criminal genius and Hayden’s simple tough guy. Some of the best scenes carry little dialogue, but are masterful at delineating the gang members with all their faults and attributes.
And despite Huston’s warning that “you might not admire the characters,” in the end you might instead be surprised how much you end up rooting for them to survive.
HIT: In a solid cast, Hayden stands out as the career thug who has got a sense of honor and longs for a return to the peaceful life of his youth. Watch for the tender scene where he reminisces to his sometimes girlfriend (Jean Hagen) about riding his first horse.
The sulking, hulking Hayden was a solid performer with one career problem: he hated acting. “I couldn’t stand the work,” he said, “because in the final analysis, an actor is only a pawn.” He described his films as, “Bastards conceived in contempt of life and spewn out onto screens across the world with noxious ballyhoo; saying nothing, contemptuous of the truth, sullen and lecherous.”
Sheesh, and we thought Louis B. Mayer was a tad critical.
MISS: The DVD commentary by film historian Drew Casper (a Woody Allen sound-alike) is a snoozefest. Listen to it only if you’re nostalgic for your old 90-minute college lectures.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Has the authority of a blow in your solar plexus. It leaves you physically tired with sheer tension, participation and belief. It is the crime picture of the decade, and it may be the best one ever made. This picture drives home the corollary thought that criminals are also human beings.”—Archer Winsten, New York Post
PIVOTAL SCENE: That sequence showing the jewel robbery is one of the best-staged capers in movie history.
We watch the crew hammer through a brick wall into the store and deactivate the alarm. Three of them then slide under the electric-eye alarm, pick a lock to gain access to the vault and drill through the safe’s door.
The yegg carefully opens a bottle of nitroglycerin (called “the soup”) and sets off a charge. The explosion opens the safe, but also trips alarms at a nearby business. That alerts police. Their sirens whine in the background as Doc pours the gems into a sack. The thieves escape, but not before another mishap (which we don’t want to reveal).
John Huston devotes 11 minutes to this claustrophobic scene, trusting his audience’s patience in a way that no director would today. There are few words and no soundtrack music. The silence helps build the tension to near-boil.
REALITY CHECK: Even by 1950 standards, the store security is lame. A fortune of jewels sitting behind a brick wall in a safe that takes all of five minutes to bust open? We don’t think so.
GOOF: During the big heist, the gang is careful not to step in the line of the electric-eye alarm—at least for a while. When they debate whether to abandon the plan as the police sirens go off, Dix is clearly standing right in front of the electric eye.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Watch all the noir films on our list, then check this one out a second time.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: Marilyn Monroe, before she was a star, in a small role as the paramour of corrupt power broker Emmerich. Actually, why are we saying this? There’s absolutely no chance you’ll fail to notice the 23-year-old beauty. By the way, in the DVD commentary, actor James Whitmore says other cast members regarded Monroe as shy and insecure.
CASTING CALL: Georgia Holt auditioned for the sex bomb role won by Monroe. If you don’t recognize Holt’s name from any other films, that’s because she didn’t make any. She did, however, make her mark as the mother of Cher.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Low. There’s one scene where a dirty cop slaps around a bookie, but other than that, not much.
BEST LINE: “Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman,” says Doc. “Just when you think one’s alright, he turns legit.”
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: This is one of three John Huston-directed movies on our list (including Key Largo and Prizzi’s Honor). All of his classics are worth seeing, especially The African Queen, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Fans of Nick at Nite might recognize the night clerk Dix robs early in the movie as a younger version of general store operator Sam Drucker in Green Acres. Frank Cady is the master thespian behind both roles.
BODY COUNT: Three on-screen, one more offscreen.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]