The Asphalt Jungle: “A Left-Handed Form of Human Endeavor”

Jean-Pierre Melville once declared that, by his reckoning, there were precisely nineteen possible dramatic variants on the relations between cops and crooks, and that all nineteen were to be found in “that masterpiece of John Huston” The Asphalt Jungle (1950). From Bob le flambeur (1956) on, Melville’s own work often pays direct homage to the film he so admired, and he was certainly not alone in his emulation. The cinematic descendants of The Asphalt Jungle are by now almost beyond counting, including three direct remakes: Delmer Daves’s The Badlanders (1958), Wolf Rilla’s Cairo (1963), and Barry Pollack’s Cool Breeze (1972). The celebrated eleven-minute jewelry store robbery, with its blueprinted maneuvers, deft evasions of electronic surveillance, and carefully controlled explosions, created a model that Rififi, The Killing, Seven Thieves, and a thousand others would ever more elaborately follow.

Every heist movie, every tale of downbeat criminals coming together in a foredoomed conspiracy under the guidance of a professorial mastermind, carries echoes of Huston’s film, whose originality is perhaps now harder to discern because its elements have been so widely appropriated. It firmed up the template for one of cinema’s most familiar dramatic arcs: the assembling of the team, the high-precision execution of the caper, the chaotic and generally bloody aftermath. Yet even if The Asphalt Jungle was seen in its own day as a model of nail-biting suspense, it comes across now as a most Chekhovian film noir, steeped in a mood of regret even before the action begins and proceeding almost gently on its inevitable downward course.

Everybody is more or less washed up from the start: the nervous bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence), with his admission that “money makes me sweat, that’s the way I am”; the Kentucky-born hooligan Dix (Sterling Hayden), nursing memories of his family’s lost days of horse-breeding glory, and shrugging off the helplessly adoring Doll (Jean Hagen); the cat-loving, hunchbacked diner owner Gus (James Whitmore); the corrupt, philandering lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), whose bedridden wife (Dorothy Tree) is lost in probably delusory memories while his young girlfriend, Angela (Marilyn Monroe), dreams of a beach holiday in Cuba and his henchman (Brad Dexter) stores up grudges for eventual payback. The emergence from prison of the brilliant Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) with a master plan for a high-yield robbery brings these people together, but there is never any doubt about the outcome. Every fatal character trait, every incipient double cross is laid out so plainly that even the participants seem quite aware of the odds against them.

The film is remarkably faithful to its source, W. R. Burnett’s 1949 novel. Huston was generally conscientious in his literary adaptations, and he admired Burnett’s book greatly. The script retains long stretches of dialogue from the novel, and some of the movie’s most indelible grace notes are pure Burnett, like Gus’s violent rage at the trucker who mouths off about deliberately running over cats, or Mrs. Emmerich’s pitiful plea for a game of casino with her distracted husband. All the main points of plot and motivation are set out explicitly and at length in the novel. Yet the film has a spare beauty that Burnett’s book only partly suggests. Mostly this has to do with what Huston and screenwriter Ben Maddow leave out.

For one thing, they give little time to the police. In the novel, the police chief is a central figure, but in the film, the character (played by John McIntire) seems almost perfunctory. The whole apparatus of the law becomes something like an arbitrary external constraint that the characters, in their various degrees and varieties of criminality, must work around in order to go about their business. (As Doc dispassionately observes: “Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one’s all right, he turns legit.”) The casualness with which this parallel universe of thieves and operators is established, the absence of both melodramatic portentousness and sociological explanation, sets the film apart from most of its genre predecessors. Brilliantly distilling a wordier passage in Burnett’s novel, the screenplay achieves its most memorable line as the doomed Emmerich remarks with philosophical resignation: “After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

The elliptical matter-of-factness with which the movie brings us into situations is achieved in part by skipping over much of Burnett’s parsing of his characters’ moods and motives. The novelist ventures at length inside their minds, as in this passage (quoted here only in part) in which Emmerich begins to plot his betrayal: “God! He’d have to compose himself. He mustn’t let these men realize how desperate he was—how willing to clutch at straws. And come to think of it, what the hell had been in his mind when he’d suggested that he act as fence?” An expressive close-up of Louis Calhern’s face—a portrait of evasion and tortured self-knowledge—obviates the need for such leaden explanatory soliloquies.

In place of verbiage, Huston gives us moments of being, conveyed above all through those close-ups of faces: the tearful Doll awkwardly removing a false eyelash while her love object, Dix, looks on with an impassivity beyond indifference; Doc, just released from a seven-year stretch, flipping with weary compulsion through the pinups of a wall calendar; or Emmerich gazing down at his sleeping girlfriend, a picture of middle-aged lust gone terminally sour. Huston orchestrates an exciting and intricate narrative while sustaining at every moment a meditative sense of personalities in isolation. The plot moves forward like a machine lurching out of control, but we are more aware of the undertow of each character caught up in his or her particular trap.

Huston’s is always an art of characterization. Plot for him is never more than the anecdotal circumstance that allows individuals to become fully visible. This applies as much to his first movie, 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, as to his last, 1987’s The Dead. Whatever their literary origins, movies as different as The Night of the Iguana, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Kremlin Letter, Fat City, and Wise Blood are driven not by the suspense of their stories but by the palpable presence of the people caught up, often stumblingly, in those stories. Huston said once that his notion of what directing was about came from observing his father, the actor Walter Huston, developing a role in rehearsals. The visual power of his films comes in general not from effects of architecture or landscape—master though he was of such effects—but from the way he watches humans making their way, or failing to make their way, through those surroundings. People are never silhouettes. We are aware of how much space they occupy—whether it is the somewhat diminutive Sam Jaffe and Marc Lawrence or the loomingly tall Sterling Hayden—and how they occupy it, how they make their presence known, how they maneuver their way among their allies and adversaries.

In an interview with the writer Patrick McGilligan, Maddow suggested that much of The Asphalt Jungle’s power is “due to the fact that these were New York actors who all knew one another and were trying to outdo one another—and who were stimulants to one another.” (Maddow also felt that “most of Huston’s talent came in the choice of casting.”) Nowhere is the tension between actors more acutely perceptible than in the scene in which Sam Jaffe’s Doc has his first meeting with Louis Calhern’s Emmerich. The false pleasantries and penetrating glances and visible calculations of self-interest as they size each other up are as savage in their implications as any of the actual violence that ensues. Doc, the master crook in need of financing, stares with polite skepticism at the moneyman offering a deal seemingly too good to be true, while Emmerich returns the stare with an unyielding mask of sophisticated geniality, as if daring the other man to call his bluff. Later, when Emmerich’s double cross falls clumsily and bloodily apart, Doc addresses him with not rage or resentment but rather baffled incredulity: “What ever possessed you to pull such a stunt?” Jaffe delivers the line like a somewhat irascible professor responding to a graduate student’s unaccountable error.

The Asphalt Jungle’s setting is urban, but its scenes are mostly interiors, airless rooms accessed by way of airless corridors and stairways. The little we see of the unnamed Midwestern city where the film takes place was filmed in Cincinnati, but after the opening sequence, where we follow Dix as he evades a prowl car in the early-morning hours, the sense of the city here has little to do with public vistas. The nocturnal comings and goings and midnight telephone calls serve to connect a series of overcrowded spaces—Cobby’s bookie headquarters, Dix’s and Doll’s cramped, featureless walk-up apartments, Gus’s hamburger joint, the smoky police precinct where Dix is hauled in for a lineup—spaces alike in their sense of temporariness and discomfort. In contrast, Emmerich’s homes—the official residence where he keeps up the facade of his illusory prosperity, and the hideaway reserved for Angela—offer a comforting suggestion of luxury straight out of a glossy magazine, a suggestion that evaporates as Emmerich’s way of life falls apart as we watch, if we had not already seen it falling apart in the immeasurable tiredness in his eyes.

None of these people is settled anywhere; each is in transit to a place almost by definition unreachable, whether the Mexican haven where Doc dreams of indulging his passion for underage girls, or the beach where Angela hopes to dazzle men with her new bathing suit, or the Kentucky horse country where the wounded Dix drives in search of the lost paradise of his childhood. For Emmerich, the place is simply death itself, as he wistfully asks the men he has betrayed: “Why don’t you kill me?” Aside from some incidental brutes—the corrupt cop Ditrich (Barry Kelley) and Emmerich’s ill-fated henchman—all the characters are afforded a measure of compassion, even the weaseling Cobby and the fraudulent Emmerich.

For Doc and Dix, the film devises a marvelous pair of parallel endings, each tracking a nearly achieved escape from the coils of the city. Doc makes it to the edge of town, but at a roadside diner where he has stopped for only a moment, he catches sight of a teenage girl (the uncredited Helene Stanley) dancing to the jukebox. He gives her a pile of nickels so she can keep playing the music, and for a few moments the screen is given over to a vision of her dancing alone and obliviously, lost in her own pleasure, a vision of such compelling delight that he can’t take his eyes off her: earthly paradise, as long as the nickels don’t run out. He stays a minute too long and gets nabbed outside the diner. As for the wounded Dix, he manages to make his way with Doll back to the horse farm his family was dispossessed of, just in time to collapse dead in the field, an object of apparent indifference to the horses browsing around him. Another earthly paradise, this one with no need for people at all.

By way of historical footnote, it should be stated that The Asphalt Jungle’s aura of loss and regret merges unavoidably with the shadow of the blacklist that in retrospect looms over the picture. In short order, Sam Jaffe would be smeared by zealots of the right and kept from screen work for a decade; Dorothy Tree would likewise be blacklisted; Sterling Hayden and Marc Lawrence would both reluctantly name names, with Hayden nursing a lifelong sense of guilt and Lawrence forced to find film work abroad; and Ben Maddow would work without credit on a remarkable succession of screenplays, including Johnny Guitar, Men in War, and Murder by Contract, until he too finally gave in to the pressure to name names and was able to reemerge under his own byline in 1960, with another Huston collaboration, The Unforgiven. As for Huston, who in the first days of the Hollywood anti-Communist hearings had been one of the founders of the oppositional Committee for the First Amendment, he found it expedient in 1952 to move to Ireland, where he established citizenship.

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