John Huston loved losers. While he worked in a range of genres and told all sorts of stories, he seems to have a had a special affection for the people who just couldn’t make it. Desperate prospectors looking to strike it rich. Cowboys trying to live in the past when the world was moving on. Fighters who kept climbing back in the ring after everyone else knew they were finished. Huston kept coming back to these people, following them as they lived their lives in the margins, fascinated by the way they kept hanging on after the world had given up on them.
Huston’s 1950 adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s novel The Asphalt Jungle is a terse and unsentimental look at a handful of thieves who plan a jewelry heist. But this isn’t a movie about criminals. It’s about people. These are guys who are trying to make ends meet, one way or the other. They may live on the wrong side of town, but they’re just trying to get by like anybody else. And as the story unfolds, we see that they’re not so different from the guys on the right side of town.
Huston doesn’t preach. (With one key exception, which I’ll get back to.) He just follows the characters as the heist unfolds, letting us get to know each of these men, allowing us to learn what makes them tick, what their frailties are. The director worked closely with screenwriter Ben Maddow on crafting the script. In his autobiography Huston says he had great respect for W. R. Burnett’s novel, and consulted with the author repeatedly while writing the screenplay.
The story centers on Dix, a tough guy from the rural South. He has fond memories of the farm he grew up on, but he’s filled with anger over the way that life was taken away from him. The jewel heist could be the big score that allows him to get it all back. The plan is set in motion by Doc, a courtly German immigrant who’s just gotten out of prison. Doc is the mastermind, the man with a foolproof scheme for the perfect job. On arriving in town, he immediately connects with an underground intermediary and sets about choosing his team and finding someone to front them the money they need to get started. The backer they find is Emmerich, a well-respected lawyer who’s having cash flow problems, which seem to be tied to his young mistress.
The Asphalt Jungle is filled with character actors you may have seen many times, but you’ve probably never seen them better than in this film. Cobby is your classic simpering gangster tool, but Marc Lawrence makes his weakness seem all too human. James Whitmore and Anthony Caruso are both in fine form playing ordinary guys who are just trying to make living. To them the jewel heist is just a job. Jean Hagen’s performance as Doll is impressive in its directness. She doesn’t hide behind mannerisms or theatrics. She seems totally vulnerable, completely exposed. It’s a moving performance. Veteran Louis Calhern plays Emmerich, the crooked lawyer, with a degree of polish that speaks of his many years of experience on stage and screen. To put it simply, he’s a total pro. But he also lets us see the cracks in the smooth veneer, the brief hesitations where we glimpse his fear, the deep sadness in his weary eyes. In contrast to this seasoned pro, Emmerich’s mistress is played by newcomer Marilyn Monroe in her first significant role. She’s fine, but she doesn’t make much of an impression here. You don’t get a sense of the personality that would make her a star just a few years later.
As Dix, Sterling Hayden is forceful and intimidating. In this film just his presence on the screen creates tension, in large part because of the anger burning inside him. It doesn’t take much to set him off. The threat of violence is always just below the surface. This makes for an interesting contrast with Doc. Sam Jaffe plays the older man as a thoughtful, businesslike planner, who (almost) never acts on impulse. The actors have an excellent rapport, and this makes their friendship believable. In spite of their profession, they’re both men of honor. They both have a code.
Huston respects these men, regardless of their faults. They may live by a different set of rules than you and I, but they do have a set of rules, and Huston doesn’t care which side of the law they’re on. Which is why the Commissioner’s stern speech to the press at the end of the film, where he lectures them on the importance of law enforcement, seems so completely out of place. The scene was so out of character for Huston that I wondered if he’d been pushed to insert it by the studio, possibly to counter the film’s portrayal of a crooked cop. But a look at the pages in the director’s autobiography that deal with The Asphalt Jungle don’t reveal any mention of studio interference. Whatever the reason for this scene, it’s a sharp departure from Huston’s usual perspective, and to my mind it’s the film’s only real flaw.
But in scanning Huston’s autobiography, I found out that he did run up against the censors on another scene. When everything comes unravelled and Emmerich is facing arrest, he decides to end it all. Huston initially had him going to his study, pulling out a gun, and blowing his brains out. But depicting a suicide onscreen was not allowed by Hollywood’s production code, unless the character was mentally ill. In order to appease the censors, Huston tweaked the scene to show Emmerich sitting down at his desk, starting to write a suicide note, tossing it away, starting another note, tossing it away, and then finally just pulling the trigger. This satisfied the censors by indicating that the character was unstable, and they gave it the go ahead. The way the scene plays out is a classic example of Huston’s laconic, hard-nosed approach, and he actually felt the changes made it stronger. We see a tight shot of the desktop as Emmerich makes his first, then his second attempt to leave a suicide note. Then his hand reaches into a drawer, removes a gun, and a second later we hear it go off. This one brief shot is an intimate glimpse of a desperate man’s last moments.
One of the ways Huston avoids sentimentality is by keeping the music to an absolute minimum. Miklós Rózsa’s score is limited to brief cues at the beginning and the end. The film has a spare, stark quality to it. Certainly most of it was shot on sets, but Harold Rosson’s visuals give the impression that the run down diners and cheap hotels are defined by whatever light happens to be in the room. And the people are defined by the rooms they occupy. The art direction, by Randall Duell and Cedric Gibbons, gives every space a distinct character, from the bare walls and wooden chairs of Cobby’s office to the lush comfort of Emmerich’s home.
Huston may be telling the story of a handful of criminals, but really he’s letting us take a look at ourselves. These men may be on the wrong side of the law, but they’re trying to find the same things we’re all looking for. They want to pay off their debts, buy a piece of land, escape to a place where life is easy and the sun is always shining. And they make terrible mistakes, because, like us, they’re blinded by pride, overconfidence, and greed. Huston would probably be the first to admit he was guilty of all three of these sins. Watching the films he made about frail, fallible, foolish people, we may end up thinking about our own lives. All our dashed hopes. All the mistakes we’ve made. All our plans gone wrong.