Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern): “Oh, there's nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only... a left-handed form of human endeavor. “
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is a dynamic, suspenseful combination of character study and tense thriller. W.R. Burnett’s hard-boiled 1949 novel was snapped up for the movies by producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. of Witness for the Prosecution. Oscar-winning writer/director John Huston had always been a fan of Burnett’s work, which included the novels Little Caesar and High Sierra, also adapted into classic suspense films. Huston joined forces with screenwriter Ben Maddow (The Secret of Santa Vittoria; The Chairman), and the result was one of the best caper thrillers ever made. The intense score by the great Miklos Rosza (Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound; The Lost Weekend; The Power) accompanies the film with a sense of urgency that keeps you riveted. The title theme always makes me think of bullfighting somehow, as if Huston himself is daring the film’s characters to get away with their meticulously-planned jewel heist. In any case, you know you’re in good hands when you have the writer/director of the classic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon on your team!
|Watch your back in this town, Dix, or the "Happiness Boys" |
will have you zigging when you oughta be zagging!
|Gus sure knows how to keep his customers safe!|
|Fred Flintstone in a lineup?! |
How will he ever explain this to Wilma?
Dix is always trying to earn money, either from borrowing money from Cobby (Marc Lawrence from Key Largo; Marathon Man; Foul Play), an alcoholic bookie who sweats like a human waterfall, or getting it at gunpoint. But his gambling and stick-ups just aren’t doing the trick. As a result, Dix always seems to be borrowing money from Gus:
Dix: “I just can’t be in Cobby’s debt and keep my self-respect.”
Gus: “I guess it’s all right to owe me, huh?”
Dix (as sheepish as a lug like Dix can ever be): “I guess.”
Gus: “Yeah. It’s just my luck.”
|Sam Drucker's gonna need a shady rest |
after the cops sweat him!
The setting in The Asphalt Jungle is identified only as an unnamed Midwestern city. With all that crime, maybe that burg is ashamed to identify itself! Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire from Psycho; Winchester ’73; Scene of the Crime) is fed up with lazy, shifty incompetents like Ditrich who whine that they don’t know what to do. Hardy reads Ditrich the riot act: “Lock up the witness! Scare him worse! It’s your job, knowing what to do!” Hardy’s even more fed up with the gambling rackets, as Ditrich whines, “I close them down, but they only open up again.” Hardy is unsympathetic: “You don’t close them hard enough! Rip out the phones, smash up the furniture!” On top of that, the notorious jewel thief Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe from Gunga Din; Ben-Hur; TV’s Ben Casey) has just been released from prison, looking all spiffy and dignified in his Sunday best as he ditches Doc’s tail with the greatest of ease. Ditrich is behind the eight-ball, so Hardy gives him three options: “I can reduce you to the rank of Patrolman and send you down to Five Corners; I can bring you up for departmental trial on charges of incompetence; or I can give you one more chance to make good on your responsibilities. I think that’ll be the greatest punishment of all.”
|Would YOU dare to say "No!" to a guy like Dix Handley?|
|Doc loves, he loves, he loves his calendar girls!|
Doc’s caper involves a jewel heist that, if it succeeds, would net our perpetrators more than enough money to live on for the rest of their lives! Their target: Belletier’s, one of the Midwest’s biggest, most fabulous jewelry stores. Doc makes the pitch in his calm, assured way: “Everything is here, from the observed routine of the personnel to the alarm system, the types of locks on the doors, the aging condition of the main safe, and so forth. Take my word for it, Mr. Emmerich, this is a ripe plum ready to fall.” But can they be sure this ripe plum won’t slip through their fingers, leaving a mess behind? Our thieves do their best to protect themselves from potential peril, with the following personnel:
*Gus as the getaway driver. His take would be $10,000.
*Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso from Across the Pacific; My Favorite Brunette; His Kind of Woman). Louis is a professional safecracker, or “boxman,” so he’ll be earning the most money: $25,000. He needs it, too, for his family’s sick baby; the poor little tyke sounds like he has whooping cough!
*And last but not least, the gang decides on their “hooligan” for the tough stuff: our man Dix Handley, getting the gig for $15,000! That would be more than enough for Dix to get back to his family farm in Kentucky and start fresh, if he stays focused and all goes well….
|Doll Conovan comes to Dix in fake eyelashes and real tears!|
|Oh, that Emmerich—what a heel!|
|"Uncle Lon"s kept-tootsie Angela |
is "some sweet kid"!
|Uh-oh! Is it curtains for Doc, Dix, and Louis?|
|And then he kissed meeee! It's about time Doll got a smooch in this movie!|
|Fellas, please tell me that's just the Mister Softee truck I'm hearing, not alarms!|
|Diamonds are a guy's best friend! Wish Angela were here to sing a few bars!|
|They're in the money—or are they? Watch the whole movie for the suspenseful conclusion!|
|Good morning, and welcome to Breakfast with Doll and Dix! |
Today, Doll whips up her special Corncracker pancakes, and Dix recommends his favorite colts!
Doll has been working at this clip joint, The Club Regal. Wouldn’t you know Hardy has closed it down, and on pay night, to boot? Poor Doll; she tries to be brave when she comes to Dix’s door, with nowhere else to turn, but she dissolves in tears, her pretty face smudged with make-up and wet false eyelashes when she admits her dilemma. She’s in love with Dix, even if having horses on the brain 24/7 has Dix virtually blinded. Dix isn’t so great at winning money, but he loves horses, and he’s OK with letting Doll stay around for a while, even as Dix gruffly adds, “But don’t get no ideas, Doll.” That said, I was touched that Dix let Doll stay in her time of need, and how she made breakfast for him. In Dix’s tunnel-visioned way, he even seemed to appreciate it, even asking for her forwarding address. When Dix waxes rhapsodic about the colt he loved back in Kentucky, it just seems to make Doll love Dix even more, and it made me wish those crazy kids could’ve somehow carved out a future together. Despite his unfortunate habit of getting money by sticking people up, Dix isn’t really a bad guy; he’s just really, really focused on his dream of getting his Kentucky horse farm back. The heist could solve his problems, and maybe Doll’s problems, too.
The great cast of character actors is unforgettable, and the robbery itself is 11 minutes of nail-biting suspense. The Asphalt Jungle isn’t some slick, stylish entertainment that melts out of your brain like cotton candy by the end (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Suspenseful though it is, it also made me feel for these characters long after I watched it, especially poor hard-luck Doll Conovan, played so movingly by Jean Hagen of Adam’s Rib; Sunrise at Campobello; and Singin’ in the Rain, for which Hagen was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar of 1952 for her hilarious performance as obnoxious, tone-deaf silent film star Lina Lamont. Wow, did Hagen have range, or what?
Dr. Drew Casper, who holds the Alfred and Alma Hitchcock Chair at the USC School of Film & Television in Los Angeles, points out on The Asphalt Jungle’s DVD/Blu-Ray commentary track how unusual it was to have Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producing this stark crime thriller: “What’s a movie like this doing at MGM, or what’s MGM doing with a movie like this?” Indeed, where were the glamorous musicals and their splashy production numbers, and the wholesome entertainment of the Andy Hardy movies and such? Well, the post-war days of MGM in 1950 had just begun, and Toto, we sure weren’t in Kansas anymore! Broadway producer/playwright Dore Schary brought his biopic play Sunrise at Campobello to both stage and screen, including Oscar nominations. Schary inevitably climbed the ladder at MGM, becoming its Chief of Production in 1948.
As post-war America rapidly became a very different animal, Schary and Louis B. Mayer were in synch—or so they thought. It turned out Mayer was looking toward mirroring the past, while Schary was looking toward how people lived now, in this brave new world where things weren’t always pretty, happy and peppy. During Schary’s MGM reign, social consciousness was encouraged in both the “A” film and the so-called “B” film units, so a novel based on the likes of W.R. Burnett seemed to be just what Hollywood needed to shake up the 1950s.
On the DVD/BluRay commentary track, Whitmore actually quotes Emmerich’s famous line: “Crime is just a left-handed form of human endeavor.” Whitmore adds, “I always liked that, and that’s exactly what John got on the screen, that they were just people. Hayden and ‘Jeannie’ Hagen , and Sam Jaffe and I became lifelong friends after The Asphalt Jungle wrapped.” The Asphalt Jungle’s movie ads boasted: “80 minutes of continuous excitement’,” according to Bennett Cerf of the Saturday Review of Literature. But The Asphalt Jungle’s running time is 112 minutes! Maybe they didn’t factor in the Coming Attractions?
I feel for these characters, especially Louis and his wife and their sick baby; Gus, with his kindness to cats; and especially poor sweet hard-luck Doll , who breaks my heart and who’s stuck on Dix, even if he’s slow to pick up on her feelings for him. I love the way Dix gets so much more talkative when he starts talking with Doll about horses, and how Doll tries to understand him. You know how in Some Like It Hot, hard-luck Marilyn Monroe says, “Why do I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop?” Well, in The Asphalt Jungle, Marilyn Monroe’s character Angela is the one who’s got it made—for now, at least—while poor Doll is the one who’s getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop, and worse! Still, Dix is kind to Doll in his blinkered way; he gives her money when she’s broke, and near the end of the film, it seems Dix is slowly but surely getting it through his horse-happy head that Doll loves Dix, and the feeling seems to be mutual—but is it already too late for these poor poignant losers?
The one thing John Huston always thought was most important in staying alive (and it must have worked, since he had a great life) was his interest in life, and how to enjoy it and appreciate it. No doubt that’s why John Huston and Sterling Hayden worked so well together. Hayden’s one lifelong regret was that he’d cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for what he considered “ratting.” Ironically, rugged tough-guy Hayden began his movie career as a Paramount heartthrob! My dear late mom was a big Hayden fan, and she’d filled me in on Hayden’s career, including his four-year marriage to the beautiful and talented Madeleine Carroll (The Prisoner of Zenda and My Favorite Blonde, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps and Secret Agent), and his love of sailing and writing (he’d written two best-selling books, his 1963 autobiography Wanderer, and his 1976 novel, Voyage). Indeed, Hayden was up for the role of Quint in the 1975 film version of the terror classic Jaws; alas, he couldn’t take the part due to tax problems. (Would that have been cool, or what?) The Asphalt Jungle had legs, spawning three remakes: The Badlanders (1958), Cairo (1963); and Cool Breeze (1972), with an all-African American cast. There was even an Asphalt Jungle TV series starring William Smith and Jack Warden, with theme music by Duke Ellington, though the show only lasted one season.
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There must be something in the air. I was just thinking about introducing my daughter to "The Asphalt Jungle". I thought I knew the movie inside out, but you gave me new things to think about. I am especially ashamed to say that I have never recognized Henry Corden in the line-up. Must have too busy patting myself on the back for recognizing Strother Martin. Geesh, don't tell anybody.ReplyDelete
Another amazing post.
Caftan Woman, I'm delighted to hear you were thinking of introducing your daughter to THE ASPHALT JUNGLE; I applaud your timing, my friend! But as for not recognizing Henry Corden, you have nothing to be ashamed of, because I didn't recognize Strother Martin in the line-up at all! I guess I'm just not used to seeing him so young. I won't spill the beans if you don't! :-D I'm glad we've both learned more about this great movie, doubling the pleasure of this film noir classic! Thanks so much for your swell comments, C.W.!Delete
Sterling Hayden named names? That's a bit disappointing. He's probably my favorite film noir actor, and I like him in other films too, like Dr. Strangrlove. Knowing this doesn't change any of that, but at least he thought twice about it later in life.ReplyDelete
This is indeed an awesome movie. Saw it on TCM recently and I was totally caught up in it.
Rich, I'm glad you enjoyed THE ASPHALT JUNGLE as much as I did! By all accounts, Sterling Hayden had bitterly regretted having named names for the rest of his life. As you say, at least he thought twice about it later. To quote the ever-sweating Cobby (Marc Lawrence) in the film, "Don't you ever make mistakes?" Glad to have you join the conversation, as always!Delete
This is one of my favorite films and one of the great noirs. Brillantly conceived by John Huston. The script is loaded with wonderfully interesting characters and Monroe, needless to say, stands out. Jean Hagen is another of those actors who was so good in both comedy and drama. Hayden did some exceptional films (The Killing, Dr. Strangelove, Johnny Guitar, Suddenly and a little film called Crimewave). As always, great stuff!
John, thanks a million for your kind praise of my ASPHALT JUNGLE post, as well as your excellent taste in film noir capers overall! :-) I cannot tell a lie (though apparently Alonzo D. Emmerich can ) :-): as far as I'm concerned, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE is my favorite film noir! I'm pleased you brought up CRIMEWAVE, as I've been reading and enjoying the article about it in THE DARK PAGES, and I look forward to seeing the movie, too! Glad you joined the conversation, John, as always!Delete
Asphalt Jungle, besides being one title that to my shame, I ALWAYS mis-spell, is also one of the very first noirs, along with the Killing, that I discovered, so (like Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, my first Hitchcocks) I have very strong memories of and associations with it, and never tire of rewatching, either to return to my original sense of wonder about the coolness of old movies, or to discover something new, which I inevitably do. And what a way to start in noir. Sterling Hayden is so great here, but then so is everyone-- what a cast! enough to throw lots of shade even on young Marilyn. and you are so right calling it a "so-called" B picture, with the look and the cast it seems anything but. Loved Jean Hagen. Sam Jaffe was so great in anything, as in one of my alltime faves Gunga Din, which you mention, but might have the most memorable moment here-- who can ever forget what delays him in the end. And I love that you pointed out something about John Huston that I always tell people, about his key to a good life being "interest!" which is one the greatest philosophies I've ever heard. Thank you for the linkage and for the Dark Pages plug, the place for noir-love like this great post here.ReplyDelete
Kristina, many thanks AND an enthusiastic "You're welcome!" for your rave review of my ASPHALT JUNGLE post, and for including me among all the awesome bloggers and writers who did such a great job on the original DARK PAGES Robert Ryan/Sterling Hayden edition of this fabulous mag! Truly, you're the cat's tuxedo! Thanks for letting me play in your garden and for including me in DP's wonderful company - and watch out for classy looking gents who can't resist a pretty young girl with change!Delete
I could rave about this film all day. It has a perfect cast, a perfect script and perfect direction. Your post has certainly done it justice.ReplyDelete
As for the robbery scene, I agree that it is eleven minutes of pure tension. There are not many scenes that equal it.
I think my fave character is "Mr Emmerich". That performance always makes me gasp. In my opinion, it is a study in superb acting.
Ruth, beaucoup thanks indeed for your enthusiastic praise for my ASPHALT JUNGLE post! It's tops on my film noir caper list, especially the nerve-wracking heist scene. I always look forward to your SILVER SCREENINGS posts in any event, so I truly appreciate your feedback!Delete
The whole terrific cast of ASPHALT JUNGLE stays in my memory, but I agree with you that Louis Calhern especially stands out in his performance as Emmerich, a once-rich and powerful man whose opulent lifestyle and pillar-of-the-community front is crumbling, but nobody knows it, the poor dope! Thanks again Ruth; you're truly a sugar bowl with two handles! :-D
Dorian, your description of the THE ASPHALT JUNGLE as a "dynamic, suspenseful combination of character study and tense thriller" is right on the mark. I'm not a big Sterling Hayden fan, but he's quite good as Dix. Still, I think the best performances come courtesy of Louis Calhern and the always reliable Sam Jaffe.ReplyDelete
Rick, thanks so much for your kind praise of my ASPHALT JUNGLE post, especially since it was those unforgettable characters that drew me to this film, and got me interested in film noir to begin with!Delete
Even if you're not quite as into Sterling Hayden as Team B. is, we're glad you liked his performance as Dix. Heck, the whole darn cast is awesome overall, with Calhern and Oscar-nominee Sam Jaffe being especially memorable. So glad you dropped by to talk ASPHALT JUNGLE with us!
Sterling Hayden's best performance was in "Prince Valiant." Just kidding.ReplyDelete
I remember reading a quote by him, saying someone should build burn all his films in the biggest bonfire ever. Hope he didn't want to include "The Asphalt Jungle."
Kevin, I laughed out loud at the words "Prince Valiant"! It's true, Sterling Hayden was typically tough on himself and his performances. I agree with you that THE ASPHALT JUNGLE was absolutely a film he could be proud of! So glad you came to comment!Delete
As always, a massively awesome review, Dorian. It is a really fine and suspenseful film and you've done it justice.ReplyDelete
Marsha, I'm delighted that you enjoyed my ASPHALT JUNGLE post, especially since it's it's my favorite film noir! Thanks a million for your swell comments!Delete
Wonderful, wonderful, Dorian. Another brilliant review. I LOVED reading about a film I KNOW I must have seen but can't remember even slightly. Old Lady Memory strikes again! I did know it was one of Monroe's first breaks and I do love Louis Calhern (most especially in a little known musical, ATHENA (starring Jane Powell) in which he played the body building grand-papa of a very eccentric clan).ReplyDelete
And may I say that I too was a huge fan of Sterling Hayden. What a hunk. He would have been great in JAWS.
If Netflix has this film in its vaults I'm going to add it to my queue. Maybe youtube might have have it free and easy. You never know with them.
PS, Dorian I found the sweetest vintage photo of Mary Astor online - one I'd never seen before. Been meaning to post it apropos of our Mary Astor Blogathon a while back. :)
Yvette, I'm so glad to hear from you after your time off! I hope you and yours are happy and well! Thank you for your glowing review of my ASPHALT JUNGLE post! It's my favorite film noir, so I especially appreciate your kudos. Don't worry about your so-called "Old Lady Memory," as I myself an getting a bit "discombooberated," as my dear late mom used to say! :-)Delete
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE usually turns up from time to time on TCM, so that's a good place to start. I wouldn't be surprised if it was also available on either Netflix or DVD/Blu-Ray. But speaking of Lous Calhern, I actually stumbled across ATHENA on TCM recently. I didn't have a chance to see the whole thing, but what I saw of it looked rather endearing. :-)
Once again you prove your superb taste in movie actors, this time with Team B. fave Sterling Hayden! No doubt my Mom is hobnobbing in Heaven with Hayden and perhaps even his ex, Madeleine Carroll, partying in Heaven as we speak, along with other heavenly swells! :-D
I'd love to see that vintage Mary Astor picture if you can find it easily! Aren't these mutual admiration societies fun? :-) I'm so glad to catch up with you, my friend!