The streets of Huston's Midwest city (perhaps Cincinnati) where "The Asphalt Jungle" is set are remarkably empty. While most of the picture takes place inside its buildings, the exteriors give the appearance of confinement and decay, a war zone of sorts, not unlike Italy's post-war neo-realist films. (1) The opening shots show men diminished and alienated by their surroundings. The building next to the diner Dix Handley enters is aptly named Pilgrim House (2).
Film noir is often populated by characters driven by forces the viewer is not privy to. We expect that thieves rob banks and knock over jewelry stores because of greed. But this is usually not the motivation in the noir films. In "Gun Crazy" for example, Annie and Bart are hard working and indefatigable, in many ways like the ideal American couple if you forget that their chosen profession is robbing banks. It's what they do. They may never achieve the American dream, but it's a job of work.
John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle," made the same year as "Gun Crazy," shows much the same ethic at work: a group of men who knows no other profession plans and executes a jewelry heist. They are professionals. It's clear early on that they are not money grubbers out to get rich. They will do what it takes to get enough to feed their habits. Their bad habits. Their leader Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) wants nothing more than to get to Mexico and do nothing but ogle young girls. Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is a safe cracker; he needs the money to take care of his wife and a sickly child. The driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) runs a low-class diner, he likes cats, and he won't squeal on anyone. We're never quite sure what makes him tick, only that he hates the cops and is loyal to ex-cons. Then there's Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a hooligan, the "muscle," an enforcer with a weakness for the horses. What these men have in common is a deep distrust of authority, the establishment if you will, since society has done nothing for them. They become what Godard would later call a band of outsiders. Huston's lighting of the scene where they plan the robbery encapsulates them to the exclusion of all others (3).
These men inhabit the city's lower depths under the asphalt pavement.
Yet these four criminals all have a moral creed of sorts: they will not double cross one another; they will accept their agreed-upon payment; they look out for one another; they do not regard money as a good in and of itself.
This last tenet--their attitude toward money--is what separates these men from those who finance their caper, especially "Cobby" (Marc Lawrence), a small-time bookie with access to both the police and the moneyed people. "Money makes me sweat (4)." He arranges financial backing from Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a corrupt lawyer who agrees to finance Riedenschneider's jewelry heist. The only problem--Emmerich is broke. His plan is to double cross the Doc, take the jewels and start a new life by abandoning his invalid wife and go to some foreign country with his mistress Angela (Marilyn Monroe) (5).
"The Asphalt Jungle" is an ensemble piece with no one character monopolizing the screen, though the story begins and ends with Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden). We're unsure of Dix's motives. He comes from Kentucky where his family owned horses. Crop failure and his father's death resulted in the loss of the family farm. We can assume that like so many rural youth in the Depression he gravitated to the city. At one point he says he wants to make one killing and get back to his farm, take a bath in the creek and get the city dirt off him. His face lights up when he talks about his farm and the horses (6). He's became a petty criminal, and as the movie opens we see him dodging the police after a small-time robbery. Despite his size, he's a diminished figure, overpowered by the expanse of asphalt and steel (7). Huston and screenwriter Ben Maddow--who wrote the script from the novel by W.R. Burnett--have imbued him with a humanity that is crucial to the story. At the same time we're given the sense that society itself has let this happen, a fatalistic view shared by most noirs.
This fatalism is reinforced by the use of vertical and horizontal lines--stripes and bars, a recurrent noir motif, usually showing entrapment or helplessness. Several characters in "The Asphalt Jungle" wear striped clothing or are surrounded by vertical blinds or elongated shadows. Huston, however, uses this device not only to show a kind of imprisonment but also to contrast individuals.
For example, we first see Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) in his striped pajamas, his wife in bed behind her own bars (8). At first he turns down the chance to be Doc's safe cracker, until he hears his sickly son's cry in the next room. The money will get the boy proper medical care. His predicament is in sharp contrast to that of the lawyer Emmerich who is broke and in desperate need of money. He's often seen in natty pin strips encased by Venetian blinds (9).
It isn't long before we begin to sense that the four robbers are, if not sympathetic, at least human with many of the problems shared by ordinary people who struggle to make a living.
This humanity--especially Dix's, but also that of the other three robbers--is in stark contrast to the other characters in the story. This includes not only Emmerich and "Cobby" but also the police. We might say especially the police, from the sanctimonious Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) to the corrupt Detective Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley). Hardy's primary objective is good press, his method to paint the criminal as "the predatory beast." He singles out Dix Handley as "a hardened killer," "a man without human feeling or human mercy." The trouble with this assessment is that we've spent the entire movie watching Dix. We've seen his face soften when he's with "Doll" (Jean Hagen); when he refuses Doc's offer of the jewels, instead "loaning" him a thousand dollars so he can get out of the country.
Dix's Achilles heel is an obsession with horses: he bets heavily, and pays for his addiction by knocking over small businesses. As in so many noirs of the 40s and 50s, the past has a way of taking hold of a protagonist and dragging him inexorably to his doom. Dix's obsession with his Kentucky roots, his inability to realize that his past is lost, is his undoing. Like so many noir protagonists, he's looking for that one big job that will get him back to his roots, get him back to Kentucky horse country. Huston never asks us to approve of Dix or the others, only to observe them and draw our own conclusions.
There are four women in this story: Emmerich's house-bound wife, his mistress, Ciavelli's wife, and Doll, Dix's friend. How they are treated by the men is instructive: only Dix and Ciavelli are decent, the latter putting his wife and son above all else. We may think that Dix treats Doll rather badly, but she clearly loves him, and does not feel the need to gussy herself up for him, even to the point of removing her false eyelashes in front of him (10).
The last few minutes of "The Asphalt Jungle" are set far away from the city. Dix and Doll are on the run. He's bleeding, yet his obsession to get back to his farm overcomes any pain. In this final sequence Houston first shows us the ubiquitous white picket fences of Kentucky's horse country (11), Dix's Garden of Eden. We see Dix and Doll inside the car in a two shot (12), but only for a few seconds. As Dix's dementia takes over, they are pictured in separate shots (13), never sharing the frame. Dix has abandoned the present--he's back in his youth. Doll has lost him, and she knows it (14).
He gets to the farm, stumbles toward some horses grazing in the field, falls and dies. The horses approach and in the last close-up (15) Dix is finally among his beloved horses. Huston chooses his last shot with care: an idyllic scene except for the body among the horses (16) (17). This final shot contains a wrenching irony: Dix has achieved what he wished for. But we, the spectator, wish it also. We look at that breathtaking scenery and try to will that body away.
Some critics have written that the final scene involving Dix and Doll betrays a sentimentality that softens the edge a good film noir should possess. I disagree, primarily because Dix's inherent humanity is central to the story. Dix's weakness for the horses, his attempt at the end of the film to get back to his rural roots, effectively underlines many of the problems of displacement that affected so many in post-war America.
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