We open on a lone man walking through the empty streets of grimy, unnamed Midwest city. It appears to be dawn. He has just pulled a stick-up and stashes his weapon with a pal who operates a diner. He’s still pulled in by the cops, but in the lineup gives the witness such a malicious stare than the witness won’t identify him. A small smile crosses the man’s face. (No wonder they changed to one-way glass for lineups).
He’s Dix Handley, played by Sterling Hayden, in the 1950 classic The Asphalt Jungle. I love heist films, and this is perhaps the best (some may argue that it is Rififi, but this one came first). It’s about a bunch of lowlifes that attempt to rob a jewelry store, but of course a perfect plan is never perfect. In an introduction by the director John Huston, he says “You may not like these people, but I think you’ll be fascinated by them.” He’s right.
The plot in set in motion when “Doc” Reidenschneider is released from prison. Played beautifully by Sam Jaffe, he’s a master criminal, and already has another score dreamed up. He contacts a local bookmaker (Marc Lawrence), who is his conduit to a crooked lawyer (Louis Calhern). Calhern is intrigued by the notion of a half-million dollar payday, but he doesn’t have the money to front Jaffe. So he lies and says he does and decides to double-cross them.
The crew includes Anthony Caruso as the “box man” (safe cracker), and he has just had a baby so you know he’s a marked man. The guy in the diner, James Whitmore, is recruited as the driver, and Hayden is taken on as the “hooligan,” which in those days meant the muscle, the guy who wasn’t afraid to use his “heater.”
The plan works and in a nine-minute sequence the men crack the safe and have the jewels. But using nitro (“the soup”) sets off alarms in nearby stores. A security guard comes by, and though Hayden takes him out he drops his gun, which happens to go off and hits Caruso. So much for perfect plans.
When Hayden and Jaffe find out about the double-cross, they try to get Calhern to fix things. But he’s in enough trouble, as Lawrence, a weak-willed drunkard, is forced to confess by a tough corrupt cop (Barry Kelley). Now the crooks are on the lam.
I’ve seen The Asphalt Jungle three or four times and it’s just magnificent every time. It is a wallow in human immorality, as there is no one with any integrity except the crusty old police commissioner (John McIntyre). Each character has a particular vice, and as Jaffe says, “One way or another, we all work for our vice.” His happens to be young women, and it will cost him his freedom in a brilliantly done scene in a diner that involves a pretty girl dancing to tunes on a jukebox.
Hayden has a thing for the ponies, but his dream is to go back to his family’s horse farm in Kentucky. He has woman who loves him (Jean Hagen), and it’s pathetic the way she hangs on to him. His ending is particularly poignant, and closes the picture, but I won’t give it away here. Suffice it to say a doctor says, “He hasn’t got enough blood in him to keep a chicken alive.”
Calhern also plays a great character. He’s a dignified lawyer but finds it easy to play both sides of the law. “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.” He has a bed-ridden wife, but keeps a mistress, who happens to be played by Marilyn Monroe in her first major role (she gets no billing on the original poster, but in subsequent releases is prominently featured in the marketing). She creepily calls Calhern “Uncle Lon,” and in two scenes shows why she became a star. In the first she oozes sex, and in the second she shows her vulnerability. She can’t lie for Calhern. She apologizes, and he says, “You did very well, given the circumstances.”
This is noir at its finest, with morally ambiguous characters and almost all scenes shot at night (the ending is the glaring exception). The cinematography, by Harold Rosson, shows the filth of the city. Caruso says his wife wants to expose their baby to fresh air. “I tell her, if she wants fresh air, she should get out of this city!”
The Asphalt Jungle is crackerjack entertainment, taut and suspenseful and without a wasted moment. As good as it is, though, it’s probably only Huston’s third-best film (after The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). The guy had a remarkable career.