Saturday, July 13, 2013

It’s an Asphalt Jungle Out There!

May Emmerich (Dorothy Tree) : “Oh, Lon, when I think of all those awful people you come in contact with—downright criminals—I get scared.”

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?
The first character we meet among The Asphalt Jungle’s characters is rugged Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden from Dr. Strangelove; Johnny Guitar; The Godfather), slipping in out of columns in the early dawn, walking stealthily yet with a sense of purpose.  Harold Rosson’s cinematography  lends the early dawn an Ansel Adams look.  At six-foot-five with a booming voice, Dix is easy to hear and see, so it’s no surprise that with the police cracking town on suspicious characters, Dix gets hauled in for questioning for a series of stick-ups.  Indeed, Dix barely has time to grab some chow at The Pilgrim House, where his friend Gus Minissi (James Whitmore of Battleground; THEM!; Give ’em Hell, Harry!) serves up good old “American Food—Home Cooking,” like it says right on the brick signage!  Chain restaurants?  We don’t need no stinkin’ chain restaurants!  Gus happens to be a hunchback, but that doesn’t stop him from being kind to folks who need food and money, including the ever-broke Dix.  Gus is also kind to stray cats and stronger than he looks—disaster to the jerk who threatens cats in Gus’ place!
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!
Still, dig the company Dix keeps in the lineup scene!  That first doleful-looking guy is Henry Corden, prolific character actor and voiceover artist, who took over the voiceover role of Fred Flintstone after the original Fred, actor Alan Reed, died in 1977; Corden continued in the role until his death in 2005.  While you’re at it, look at the way Dix glowers at the Night Clerk as he stands in the lineup, giving that poor nervous witness the Hairy Eyeball.  That clerk is played by Frank Cady from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and TV’s Petticoat Junction.  No wonder the Night Clerk can’t bring himself to I.D. Dix to the hardnosed Lt. Ditrich (Barry Kelley from The Manchurian Candidate; Elmer Gantry;The Love Bug).  Frank’s not in Hooterville anymore! 

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!
Now that Doc’s a free man again, maybe he’ll spend his new-found freedom hanging out with the neighborhood kids, teaching them from his experiences that crime doesn’t pay.  Yeah, and Christmas comes in July!  But Doc is interested in spending quality time with the girls—you see, Doc prefers pretty girls of a tender age, dirty old man that he is!  With no young babes to drool over, Doc gets down to business, bringing Doc and Cobby to the posh pad of the eminent, high-powered lawyer Alonso D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern from Duck Soup; Annie, Get Your Gun; Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious)
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!
All that Doc and his crew would need to put the plan in motion is $50,000, with way more to come if the robbery succeeds, of course.  That sure sounds more lucrative than the dollar and a dream the lottery commercials always ballyhoo!  Our thieves could have quite a haul—in a perfect world, anyway.  (If it were me, I’d be happy with just the fifty-grand!)  They’ve got to be careful, though; the “Happiness Boys” on the police force are giving folks like our thieves the push, leaving bookies, “dime-a-dance” dames, and other folks with livelihoods of questionable repute in jeopardy.  It’s hard out there for a crook lately, as well as the people who depend on them to make ends meet.  And you thought New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg was tough on crime with his soda wars!
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!
But can Emmerich be trusted?  After the conspirators leave, Emmerich admits to his right-hand man, private detective Bob Brannon (Brad Dexter of The Magnificent Seven; Violent Saturday; Von Ryan’s Express), that his extravagant lifestyle has left him broke, and he’s trying to keep it from his sickly, unsuspecting wife May (Dorothy Tree, veteran actress and speech coach, with films including The Men; Crime Doctor; Knute Rockne, All-American) and his gorgeous young mistress Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe in one of the early roles that put her on the map, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; All About Eve; and Niagara). Sheesh, what’s the world coming to when you can’t even trust a rich guy with a caper?  Emmerich agrees to cough up the dough, then suggests that he help the gang out by taking charge of safekeeping of the loot himself, instead of divvying it among several “fences” like most robbers do.  Aw, isn’t Emmerich thoughtful?  Hmm, what’s that smell—a king-size rat, perhaps?

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.

To slightly paraphrase a line from a later quote in Marilyn Monroe’s career, it looks like “Uncle Lon’s” luscious kept-tootsie Angela Phinlay (Marilyn in her big break!) will be getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop once the caper unravels.  Come to think of it, just about everyone in The Asphalt Jungle seems to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop eventually.  With the agita these thieves have to put up with, maybe working for a living wouldn’t be so bad after all.  Considering “Crime Doesn’t Pay” was still pretty much the norm in movies back in 1950, moviegoers might not be guaranteed a happy ending—but at least Dix finally gets a colt at last.  And let this be a warning to everyone eager for easy money:  Beware of dapper little men eager for quick money and very young ladies!  And remember what "Uncle Lon" always says above: "After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."  (No offense meant to the southpaws in the audience!)

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