Saturday, July 3, 2021

Movie Reviews: The Asphalt Jungle

The Asphalt Jungle
directed by John Huston

How many heist movies have you watched where there is a snitch, a doomed love story, people hunted separately by cops or other crooks, a brainy mastermind who misses one tiny critical detail, or a crime caper plagued by greedy backstabbers? 
Chances are that many of those films can be directly or otherwise traced back to The Asphalt Jungle. 
I also enjoyed watching this 1950 film because it featured some leading actors with whom I was only familiar with from much later films as character actors, most notably Sterling Hayden from The Godfather (1972), and James Whitmore from Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Tora Tora Tora (1970) and this Miracle-Gro commercial
The Asphalt Jungle was also notable for being one of Marilyn Monroe's early roles. She really did wiggle when she walked. This is a typical film noir in that the so-called bad guys have all of the positive and negative traits found across humans in every job category. Some are loyal and trustworthy; others can't be trusted any farther than you could throw them. Some cops protect the innocent. 
Other police are more interested in bullying crooks or bringing down men who offend their personal ideas of moral behavior. Still others are totally corrupt and use their status to shake down bad guys.
Dix Handley (Hayden) is a small time armed robber in an unnamed Midwestern city. It's probably Cincinnati. Dix likes to drink, rob, and bet on horse races. Dix is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Dix has a touchy sense of honor and is quick with his fists. 
Dix thinks he knows horses because he grew up on a Kentucky horse farm, as he will tell anyone who cares to listen. The only person who actually does care to listen is Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen) a woman who is likely a prostitute (the film is coy about this) and is in love with Dix (the film is unsubtle about this though Hagen's acting is sublime). 
Dix has a mixture of contempt for and indifference to Doll. Doll is looking for a decent man she can call her own. Dix's hope is that one day he will earn enough money through his robberies or his betting to buy back his family horse farm, which his father lost. Regaining the horse farm is a dream that keeps Dix going in the city that he hates. The horse farm is Dix's lost Eden. The city is hell for Dix.
But so far, Dix hasn't made any money. Dix's best and apparently sole friend is Gus Minissi (Whitmore), a disabled diner owner and skilled getaway driver. 
Gus has a bit of a temper but looks out for his buddies. Just don't mention his disability or talk about hurting animals. He won't like it. The nattily dressed loquacious pedantically precise criminal brain Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison.
An older man, Doc is not ready to retire just yet. 
Doc does high stakes robberies and burglaries. He has identified a job that could net at least $500,000. 
As Doc explains to the credulous bowtied bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence), he needs someone to bankroll the job and to fence the jewels.
Doc has planned the job components down to the second. The heist can't go wrong. Cobby brings in the bigshot criminal lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to put the money up for the job. 
Cobby has a sort of pathetic hero worship thing for Emmerich, who is living the life Cobby would like for himself, far away from the low level criminal hustle and bustle. Emmerich doesn't have to deal with threats from corrupt cops like the brutal Lt. Dittrich (Barry Kelley). Dittrich protects Cobby from arrest or investigation from self-interest, not friendship. 
Emmerich has a successful law practice, a devoted but sickly wife (Dorothy Tree) and an equally devoted if naive and expensive young mistress (Marilyn Monroe) who likes to call her older lover "Uncle Lon".  
If Emmerich is occasionally embarrassed by cheating on his wife with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter, the police commissioner Hardy (John McIntire), who already dislikes Emmerich for being a defense attorney, is absolutely enraged by Emmerich's preference for younger women. 

Emmerich likes Doc's plan but wants to fence the stolen items himself, promising to get a better price for everyone. Doc hires Dix and Gus for their muscle and driving skills. Doc and Dix get along. 
Doc also brings in Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), another Gus accomplice who is widely acknowledged as being among the best safecrackers in the business. Louie is a family man and new father who is constantly amazed and amused by the challenges of fatherhood. The even tempered Louie just wants to provide for his family. 
These people all come together for the caper. Many of them neglect to inform each other of their true motivations and intentions.
The dialogue and script were really good. Gritty, realistic, and poignant are all accurate descriptions for this story. 
You get a real feel for how distant all of the characters are from their happiness and how they believe that their cut of the heist will bring them bliss. In reality money won't buy you love or eliminate disabilities or roll back time or fix many other of the human problems that we all have. We know this but how many of us really believe it. These people don't. And even the ones who do can't help themselves from doing certain things.
The movie displays some incisive humor. When one police officer asks another for his impressions of the Marilyn Monroe character the lower ranking officer says something along the lines of "Hubba hubba!" and starts describing her with his hands. 
The first officer drily responds "That's not what I meant." 
Another police officer tries to blame his poor results on cops who work for him, saying "They should get an award for being dumb.". His boss isn't having it and rebukes him saying ,"Well you picked them so you should be first in line for that award!" Calhern as Emmerich does a lot of acting with face movements and body language. 
In some scenes we're aware that Emmerich knows something that other people don't. We see him move almost seamlessly back and forth between regret, frustration, fear, and resignation. 
Huston is sympathetic to his characters, especially the women, if not their crimes. The movie is primarily told from the criminal point of view. The police get a few positive references but most police with speaking roles are mean at best and brutal at worst. Watch this movie if you like classic drama.
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