“If you want fresh air, don’t look for it in this town,” Louis the “box man” Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) tells Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe),the mastermind of a million-dollar jewel heist, in John Huston’s 1950 noir, The Asphalt Jungle. Surprise: the robbery doesn’t go off as brilliantly planned. Doc, also known as “the professor” and “Herr Doktor,” will end up in prison along with Gus (James Whitmore), the hunchbacked counterman who is a top-notch getaway driver; Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a bookie; and Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley), a crooked cop . Louis will leave a widow and a small, sickly child after a watchman is punched and falls to the ground, misfiring his gun, and a slug finds its home in Louis’s belly. Oh, yes—“box man” means safecracker.
Based on the novel by W. R. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle is the ur-example for the whole caper subgenre. The booty could be the gems in a shop on Paris’s ritzy rue de Rivoli (Rififi), the proceeds at the track on the day of a big race (The Killing) or, in a comic register, the take of five Las Vegas casinos at midnight on New Year’s Eve (Ocean’s Eleven). Whatever the setting, the result is failure, not because of the ratiocinative powers of the police but because of the inevitability of betrayal, miscalculation, and violent death. Nearly all of noir is founded on this assumption made somehow romantic and even glamorous.
In the course of The Asphalt Jungle, we see ex-con Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a tall man, walking alone, dwarfed by arched columns beside train tracks; a long crooked alley that veers to the right at a 45-degree angle; a narrow, dark entryway to a bookie joint that makes you feel as if the walls are closing in on you; the innards of a building—exposed pipes, brick walls—and a security gate that resembles the bars in a prison cell. The visuals are noir signifiers, and so is Miklós Rózsa’s soundtrack. The city itself seems to wail. Says Maria, Louis’s wife: the police sirens sound “like a soul in hell.”
For a heist to succeed, you need to do more than remove the valuables from a safe or vault. If you’re lucky enough to get away without firing a gun or incurring an injury, you need to find a reliable fence, who will take half of your ill-gotten gains. But the fellow with the smooth front may be pulling a fast one, especially if, like the well-heeled, tuxedo-clad Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) in The Asphalt Jungle, he has an unhappy wife at home, a glamorous babe in his beach house, and neither the dough he promised nor the guts to pull off his facile plan to fleece the robbers.
The entire cast is superb, these five especially:
- Hayden as Dix, the “hooligan” and “big hick,” brawny and trustworthy, an honest crook. No genius, but his instincts serve him well. He hopes someday to buy back the farm where he grew up in Boone County, Kentucky. “We lost our corn crop,” he remembers, and Corn Cracker, the tall, black colt he loved, broke his leg and had to be shot. “That was a rotten year.” Once he makes “a real killing,” he is determined to return, and the first thing he will do is find a country creek where he can wash off “the city’s dirt.”
- Jaffe as the Doc, a little man in a homburg and dark overcoat, who smokes cigars, speaks with an immigrant’s thick German accent, and never carries a gun. In jail, he was popular among the police guards, who made him an assistant librarian, a job that enabled him to hone his trade. “That square-head … has got plenty of guts,” Dix says.
- Calhern as Emmerich, the very essence of suave, who, as Dix says, “even double-crossed himself.” When Doc and Dix bring the stolen jewels to Emmerich, he greets them not with cash but with Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter), a hired gun, who shoots Dix in the side but is paid back with a terminal “hole in his pump.”
- Jean Hagen as Doll, an out-of-work showgirl now that the Club Regal has been raided. Doll is sweet, sincere, and smitten with Dix. “I never had a proper home,” she laments. Hagen is an underrated and remarkably versatile actress. Compare her work here to that in Singin’ in the Rain.
- Scene-stealing Marilyn Monroe in a strapless black dress as Angela, Emmerich’s trophy girl, who calls him Uncle Lon and is willing to give him an alibi. “Yipe,” she exclaims about a bathing suit she has her eye on, and when a cop knocks on her door, she tells him off: “Haven’t you bothered me enough, you big banana-head?”
Spoiler alert: of the three men on this short list, one will shoot himself; one will die of his wounds but not before getting into a jalopy with his lady and driving to the horse farm of his youth; and one will be arrested, with a fortune of jewels on his person, because he gives a teenage girl a roll of nickels to feed a juke box, feasts his eyes, and is apprehended by cops he would have eluded if he hadn’t stayed to watch the girl and her friends dance the lindy.
On a recent viewing, I noted that “soup” was slang for “explosive,” and that, in the postwar era, to “bone” someone was to insult him or her in a humiliating way. (An angry Dix says to Cobby, the bookie: “You boned me in front of a stranger.”) As in so many noirs, the crooks wear neckties and suit jackets with peak lapels, the getaway car looks great, and the caper and its deadly aftermath illustrate two essential precepts. From Emmerich: “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.” And from Doc: “Put in hours and hours of planning. Figure everything down to the last detail. Then what? Burglar alarms start going off all over the place for no sensible reason. A gun fires of its own accord and a man is shot. And a broken down old cop, no good for anything but chasing kids, has to trip over us. Blind accident. What can you do against blind accidents?”
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