The thrill of the caper itself in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle is more exciting for its participants than whether or not they get away with it. Such is the fatalistic attitude of the professional crooks who actually get their hands dirty. The fact that another, less directly involved participant truly needs the money ends up being lethal to the scheme. Huston alternates between that character’s perspective and the perspective of the men who suspect he’ll double-cross them, like two trains barreling towards each other. In the darkly pragmatic world of the film, escape is a fool’s dream. Whatever fulfillment these crooks will achieve in this life is to be found simply in the planning and execution of the heist. That is the way the film is experienced, as well, beyond any priggish or licentious attitudes the viewer might have about the outcome.
Like the best seedy film noir, The Asphalt Jungle presents a hopelessly smeared moral universe. Despite an obligatory eleventh-hour monologue extolling the necessity of the police force in combating evil, the criminals are the source of all emotional investment in this film, with the police acting as a peripheral presence. Of the two credited characters in that profession, one is dirty (and the other is the source of the monologue). Meanwhile, the upstanding lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) dips into the underworld to get himself out of a financial hole. As alluded to above, this man of privilege and fine social standing is ultimately less trustworthy than his accomplices, trying to trick them into letting him get away with all the money. From the start, the question of how much money can be secured from the planned jewelry heist, and how that money should be distributed, is discussed in detail. The four men responsible for breaking into the building, cracking the safe, and making a getaway all know what they’re worth. While each has his faults, these are the characters the audience follows.
Recently released from prison is Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), who wastes no time setting in motion the heist he cooked up behind bars. He enlists a safecracker (Anthony Caruso), a driver (James Whitmore), and a “hooligan” (Sterling Hayden) to do any necessary violence. Among these four, we have men defined by continental smarts, quiet finesse, patience, and brutishness. It is to Hayden’s immense credit that his character, Dix Handley, rises to the top, despite being nothing on paper but a brainless henchman with a maudlin backstory. There’s a poignancy in his cold eyes as he struggles in a world stacked against him. His monotone voice stops evincing slowness at some point and starts feeling like consistency. The safecracker may get an even more tragic denouement, and Doc is allowed a wistful pause before meeting his fate, but the movie ends on the right character. Handley gets out of the unnamed city at last but is undeniably doomed, his tremendous strength and determination beaten down into a glassy-eyed search for a suitable place to die.
Lest we (or he) forget, he isn’t alone on this final journey. Seldom highlighted in discussions of this film are the female characters, with the exception of the skimpy screen time given to a pre-stardom Marilyn Monroe, playing Emmerich’s young mistress. Monroe, through no fault of her own, attracts more fascination than her functional role should warrant. At least three other characters leave a more lasting impression within the film itself. Two of them elicit pangs of pity that sharply stand out in such a hardscrabble masculine landscape. Jean Hagen plays Doll, the ostensible girlfriend of Handley whose attentions he brusquely swats away throughout the film. Dorothy Tree plays the bedridden wife of Emmerich. Like Doll, she just wants a little affection, even a glance her way, but these men are preoccupied and indifferent. The one happy marriage depicted in the film also ends in tragedy, with the safecracker’s wife (Teresa Celli) begging in vain for him to be taken to a hospital to treat a gunshot wound. It goes without saying, but none of these women are stereotypical femmes fatale. They are all victims who have only glancing effects on the plot. Huston doesn’t seem to think much of them, and he might have cast the sex kitten Monroe as a way of distracting from Emmerich’s creepiness. Still, these women all make their marks.
In keeping with the complicated and tense arrangement of characters, Huston’s staging often incorporates as many as three planes per composition. The deep-focus cinematography of Harold Rosson keeps the many players in balance. While there are some choice exterior shots — with much lurking in shadows — the bulk of the film takes place in rooms where characters can stake out specific territory. Even scenes with only two actors, whether they’re Hayden and Hagen or Calhern and Monroe, are often characterized by visual dynamism, two faces occupying different distances from the camera. The tension of these shots fits perfectly with the story’s emphasis on constant renegotiation and distrust.
The Asphalt Jungle created a template for many heist movies to follow. It particularly inspired the work of the French director Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw in it a detailed dissection of the many-faceted relationship between cops and criminals — everything from obsessive antagonism to “of course I didn’t see you; I was never here” collusion. The film holds up as an expertly plotted and performed caper, though perhaps just a bit more perfunctory than some of its followers. As an entry into the film noir canon, it’s suitably remorseless, if not freighted with the kind of trauma that some of the finest noirs possess. In any case, there’s an elemental power to the final urges of Dix and Doc, that most unlikely pair. One chooses death over imprisonment, and the other accepts prison as the price of a few minutes of true, albeit vicarious, living. In the world of the film, those are the only two choices.