Tuesday, June 4, 2019
Noir/ Heist Watch: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Format: Noir Alley on TCM on DVR
Viewing: 7th? Unknown
I know I throw a lot of soft recommendations around, saying "oh, you might like this" or "it's worth catching", but The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was one of those hit-me-like-lightning movies the first time I watched it, and, in a lot of ways, I've been chasing that same high ever since. That viewing was way back in college from a rented tape on a 20" TV, and I've seen and owned various copies of the film ever since. Frankly, when I just looked up the movie on this blog, I assumed I'd written it up 3 or 4 times, but, instead, I'm just finding mentions of it tucked into other posts. So, it's been a while.
In some ways, in 2019 there's little new in The Asphalt Jungle - the film is one of those that reset the path for heist movies and created the template from which heist movies would flow from then til now. But for a movie popping up just a few years after World War II, and because of the influence, it feels shockingly modern (especially for modern TV more than movies, which are largely toothless in comparison these days). It's 3/5ths getting to and getting through the heist, and 2/5ths things going wrong and the fallout as our ensemble tries to sort out the mess they're in.
Most of the posters for the film push Marilyn Monroe, who doesn't make her debut here, but this was her first featured role, and her existence as an idea (already!) is more key to the plot than anything she does other than appear like a lens flare on the screen.
Sam Jaffe plays the brains behind a number of heists, but a guy who just walked out of prison and who has a score all ready to go - at least on paper. He just needs money to finance the caper, guys for a few key roles, and a fence to dump the goods once he's got them in hand. He's a gentleman with an admitted taste for girls far too young for him (this is the kind of movie where folks' vices are as evident as their haircuts), smart enough to not carry a gun lest he use it.
The heart of the film is Sterling Hayden, a local hoodlum who knocks over liquor stores and other small time crimes in order to play the ponies, always trying to win enough to go buy back the farm his family lost in Kentucky before the war. Losing the farm (and his father, their horses and his plans for the future) hollowed him out, and both his size of lack of engagement in much (plus his foolhardy plan to win back his farm at the racetrack) have earned him a reputation as being a bit thick-skulled. And maybe, in some ways, he is. But he knows his business. He just can't see Jean Hagen throwing herself at him.
Monroe gets the poster, and it's a crime. Hagen plays Doll, a girl who never-had-nuthin' who loses her gig in a clip-joint (ie: she's a stripper, possibly a sex worker) when the cops decide they need some refreshed law and order, and who set her sights on Dix a long time ago, pointless though that pursuit might be. Look, Monroe is what she is, and I'm not going to deny her any of that, but Hagen is gorgeous and a deeply underrated performer (for god's sake, this is the same woman who played Lina Lamont) who brings a whole extra depth to this movie about men and their follies, while having plenty of her own.
Honestly, the Doll/Dix tangle is one of my favorite bits in the film (and this is one of my favorite films, so there you go). It's not love, it's not quite infatuation on Doll's part and we never really get answers from Dix as to what is rattling around in his head when Doll is using her own bad fortune to try and play house and prove her value to Dix. And he's not abusive or cold - he's just... elsewhere. Or unable to do much about it - maybe until he gets that farm back.
A few more colorful players round out the team, and I'd spend all day talking about them - and probably should when it comes to Louis Calhern and Marc Lawrence (in a remake - I'd hire Sam Rockwell for the part).
It's a ragtag bunch, certainly. But there's a necessary honor among thieves, and the movie understands how and why without getting flashy.
All of the characters have well-painted, separate motivations as vital and real as those described for Dix, and everyone has an arc, some of them genuine surprises, some of them seemingly cast by the fates.
The place of law and order, as elevated as you'd expect at the height of the Hayes Office, is never in question, but the film also acknowledges that the characters live in a shadow world where law and order is just another force in this world stomping them into place and shaking them down. The value of a police force even gets a small speech that's oddly effective, but it doesn't change much for losers for whom playing ball with the law doesn't put money in their wallet. Or, those who think they're smarter and three steps ahead of the law.
The heist itself has been topped on film, especially in films that owe a debt to Asphalt Jungle - I'm thinking of Rififi in particular. But as a heist, it's a pleasure to see a well-imagined, well-executed operation that earns the audience's attention and puts us in that place where we chuck our good sense about law and order and want to see the burglars succeed.
Of course, things go sideways. They always do. And those aforementioned fates begin to dole out closing chapters for our gang of crooks. Greed, untruths and bad-dealing gets in the way as the cops roll in, their own tactics not entirely by the book as they race to figure it all out.
Directed by no less than John Huston, who shares a screenplay credit with Ben Maddow and from a book by WR Burnett (Burnett would write High Sierra and The Great Escape as well, and there's plenty of similarities), the film's performances are some of my favorite in any crime caper of any era. Iconic, genre-defining characters. All shot in fascinating style that brings the streets alive while still giving the shadows the darkness you expect at the height of noir, courtesy Harold Rossen (Singin' In the Rain, Wizard of Oz).
If there's a there-there beyond the plot, I'd point to the roles each character plays, from the wealthy man seemingly untouchable and above the law, to the family man, to the low-rent racketeer with delusions of grandeur. The complete stories for each character tell us something. And that final shot of Dix and Doll tells us everything else we need to know about what the noir movement was bringing to the table, what it suggested about those working outside the law, sure, but also why they were there and what they're fighting for, too.