The Asphalt Jungle, the 1950 noir caper directed by John Huston and co-written by W.R. Burnett is a canonical film. It was a classic upon release. In 1950, Huston was already at the top of his mainstream success, having directed films like The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. And the film builds on some of the themes that this director and screenwriter pair had previously explored in High Sierra. It’s filmed on location. The dialogue is hardboiled. And the criminals are the film’s protagonists. The Asphalt Jungle is one of the first caper films, and it’s close to perfect in many ways.
The Heights Theater
February 4, 2016
Director: John Huston
Producers: Arthur Hornblow Jr., John Huston
Writer: Ben Maddow, John Houston, W.R. Burnett (novel)
Cinematographer: Harold Rosson
Editor: George Boemler
Music: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Marilyn Monroe
Genre: Crime/Drama/Film Noir
US Theatrical Release: May 23, 1950
US Distributor: MGM
The plot establishes the canonical three-act structure for capers: act one, the plan is revealed, and the team is assembled; act two, they pull the heist; act three, they deal with the fall-out of the robbery. The Asphalt Jungle has a terrific ensemble cast. Sterling Hayden stars as the doomed Dix Handley, a good old boy from Kentucky turned street tough striving to make enough money to buy back his family’s horse ranch. Louis Calhern plays Alonzo Emmerich, the richest man in town, whose high society connections will connect the gang with cover. Sam Jaffe is the Doctor, the mastermind behind the plot. Jean Hagen, who was “a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament” as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, does a terrific job grounding the film as a down-on-her luck chorus girl, who loves Sterling Hayden with endless frustration and hope. And Marilyn Monroe steals scenes as Emmerich’s mistress, scandalizing the audience with a very May-December relationship.
The heist itself, as in so many of the early capers, is enormously low-tech, involving liquid nitrogen and a manhole cover. But this only adds to the film’s charm. The action hits a pitch after the heist, when things start going very wrong. It’s been about a decade since I last saw The Asphalt Jungle, and it holds up as strong as ever as an enduring classic. Here are a few more noir themes that come out strong in the picture:
Released in the same year as Joseph H. Lewis’s proto-Bonnie and Clyde, Gun Crazy, The Asphalt Jungle mirrors some of that film’s anxieties around power. Gun Crazy delights in a reductive gun-equals-phallus calculus. The Asphalt Jungle elaborates on this theme with a menstrual metaphor. The working class thugs of the caper are emasculated, bleeding out of gun shot wounds for half of the film. These characters lash out in “howlback,” a term Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove describe in their feminist classic, The Wise Wound. During menstruation, “howlback” coincides with antagonism, a lashing out, and can bring about a “change in dominance” within domestic relations. The wise wound allows a path towards transgression. In noir, a wounded working class tough is more likely to challenge power dynamics.
Pillar of Salt
Drawing on the story of Lot’s wife, or Orpheus leaving the underworld, there is a classic noir trope that involves characters given a shot at making a clean break. Occasionally, within the tumult of a film’s third act, a character sees a chance to make it away. SPOILER ALERT: No one ever makes it out alive. A great contemporary example of this is the scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, when Robert De Niro is rich for the last score, and he has the opportunity to escape with his new girlfriend to some tropical paradise. But in a tantalizing and inevitable movement, De Niro decides to clean up some “unfinished business,” ultimately ending in his capture. In The Asphalt Jungle, the mastermind Doctor, watches a pair of teenagers dance in front of a jukebox for “one more song,” giving the police the time they need to find him. This is something like the idea of eternal return, and the way repetition of self-destructive tendencies is compulsive.
In my home, “Red Shoes” was a term derived from a scene in Howard Hawks’ Red River: cowboys sit around a bonfire talking about the ways they’ll spend their earnings, one cowboy talks about buying red shoes for his sweetheart back home, in the next scene he dies in a cattle stampede. This is one of the laws of classic cinema: men with back-stories are doomed. In one of the great corollaries to this, Humphrey Bogart characters often deny having homes, back stories, or even lives outside of their current surrounding, one of the great examples being the North Africa tank movie Sahara. Bogart says the smart men are those that can forget all of that.
When Sterling Hayden starts reminiscing about his favorite little black colt, or the blue grass of his home, you can practically hear the funeral bells.
The sense that all lives end in death pervades noir. And Huston is particularly good at lampooning the frustrated schemes and ambitions of desperate people. This sense of doom is pretty constant throughout The Asphalt Jungle and comes to define many of the great noirs of the era. More noir than the stories of Private Eyes or Mysteries, are the stories of degraded people, unable to improve their lives or change their circumstances. This sense of doom is one of the things that make the film such an enduring classic.