Friday, September 11, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Asphalt Jungle"

Was there ever a film noir as dour and cynical as "The Asphalt Jungle"? Was there ever an anti-hero as hard-boiled as Sterling Hayden's Dix Handley?

I think the answer to both questions is a resounding "no."

Director John Huston's 1950 masterpiece is a vision of grime and human depravity. The main character is a hooligan who kills quickly and without remorse, and seems indifferent to the girl who is clearly in love with him. And yet, he's the closest thing to a redeemable character in the picture.

What's most striking about the film is how criminals are portrayed as professionals with a job to do, not necessarily evil people who enjoy inflicting hurt. Made during a time when the Production Code decreed that criminals always had to be shown getting their comeuppance, Huston's depiction of cops and crooks caught in the same shadowy underworld ot temptation was practically an open rebellion.

No one in "Jungle" is shown as being purely evil. Sure, Dix is a Kentucky farmboy-turned street muscle, but his dream is to buy back the family horse farm they had to give up in the Depression. "Doc" Erwin Riedenschneider (Same Jaffe, in an Oscar-nominated performance) is the criminal mastermind who goes about his work with utter professionalism and respect for his peers. Doc is a jewel thief with the demeanor of a lab scientist.

His scheme for a big jewel heist is funded by a respectable lawyer, Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern). Except for one problem -- Emmerich is broke himself, the price of leading a double life with a high-cost girlfriend who must be kept in gin and furs. She's played by Marilyn Monroe in one of her first substantial screen roles, already displaying the legendary sex appeal that would propel her to fame, and limit her career.

Marc Lawrence has an effective turn as Cobby, the small-time bookie who'd like to break into the big time, and acts as go-between for Emmerich. The attorney's plan is to use Cobby's dough to finance the heist, then make off with the goods himself, with the help of a lowlife private investigator played by Brad Dexter.

Rounding out the cast are James Whitmore as Gus, Dix's hunchback friend and an occasional wheel man, when he's not running the local greasy spoon diner. And Jean Hagen plays the dame, whose name is literally Doll. (At first, I thought that was just what Dix was calling her, but no, that's her actual name.) Doll's had some hard luck herself, and is crashing at Dix's place when he gets the call to join Doc's crew.

As Dix, Hayden is a pastiche of icy glares and jawboned dialogue that tumbles out of his mouth like he has contempt for every word. Hayden was an interesting Hollywood iconoclast: He began his life as a sailor, and fell into acting because he thought it was easy, and paid well. He made little attempt to conceal his contempt for the acting craft, which cost him jobs later on in his career. I read somewhere that Hayden was supposed to play the role of Captain Quint in "Jaws," but Robert Shaw took over because of Hayden's tax trouble.

The robbery goes well at first, but an increasing number of complications keep cropping up. After Emmerich's double-cross fails, Doc and Dix are on the run with a bag full of jewels and no fence to pay them.

Doc's capture by the police is one of the all-time great scenes in crime movies. Doc has a weakness for girls, and had planned to use the money to retire to Mexico in luxury. He makes it out of the city -- the film is set in an unnamed Midwest metropolis, possibly Cincinnati, where it was partially shot -- and seems to have gotten away. While resting in a roadside diner, he spies a teen girl who's upset that the two boys she's with have run out of nickels for the jukebox. He offers her a couple dollars worth so he can sit awhile and watch her provocative dancing. Meanwhile, some cops spy him through the window and arrest him when he comes out.

Doc's questioning of one of the police men about how long they had been waiting for him is poignant, since it's clear that if he hadn't delayed to satisfy his lust, he could have gotten away.

Every man has a weakness, the message of the film seems to be, and the jungle of the modern city acts as a pressure cooker to bring out their worst instincts. Dix says he can't wait to get back to Kentucky so he can wash the dirt of the city off of him.

Huston wrote the script with Ben Maddow, based on the book by W.R. Burnett. There's a great line of dialogue where Emmerich is talking about how people treat criminals as a lower form of humanity than "respectable" people like himself. "They're not so different. After all, crime is merely a left-handed form of human endeavor."

The irony that the lowly professional criminals hold up their end of the bargain, and the eminent lawyer is the one who louses things up with his dirty scheming, is tasty indeed.

4 stars

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