John Huston has a ton of entries on the List. Maybe not as many as Hitchcock, but it is close. Many of those are certainly deserving of praise and in some cases we are talking true masterpieces. Even on a poor day Huston was able to cook up a decent film. “The Asphalt Jungle” is in my opinion not one of the highlights in Huston’s filmography, but less will do and it is quite decent at what it sets out to do.
The movie is centered on a heist (or a caper, as it is called in the film though I am not familiar with that term) and we follow the involved characters in minute details, before, during and after the heist. In that sense it is an ensemble film where each character has a story arc and we are even hard pressed to tell who the actual lead is.
"Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is the mastermind. He is German with all the stereotype traits: elegant, correct, precise and determined. Just out of prison he has just arrived in town with the perfect plan for a heist. He seeks out Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a bookie who dabbles is all sort of shady affairs and is the man who know people. Cobby sets him up with Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a lawyer who can set up the arrangements with fences and supply the down payment on operating costs. Together they also hire the three remaining team members: Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), the hooligan, and Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), the box man who can open safes and doors, and Gus Minissi (Anthony Caruso), the driver.
Then we have the execution of the coup, which of course is almost pitch perfect. Everything is figured out by a criminal genius, so what can go wrong? Only Louis get shot in the stomach, but that was just an accident.
Finally we have the events after the otherwise successful heist where everything falls apart. Emmerich is a pathetic jackass who intends to double cross his partners, but is just ridiculously poor at it. Louis dies of his wounds. Cobby squeals when the corrupt cop Ditrich (Barry Kelley) figures he gets more out of bringing him in than taking his money and eventually also Gus, Dix and Doc are caught or meet their ends.
The problem with this movie is that we have seen this plot before. At least once a year there is a big heist movie that follows this very recipe. You might say that they are all clones and “The Asphalt Jungle” is the original, but I do not buy it. I have already seen a number of heist movies older than this one and that is just the tip of the iceberg. I think heist movies are quite entertaining and there is something fascinating with a perfectly planned and executed operation, but it is also terribly formulaic.
Now, this would not be a John Huston film if there was not that extra spice, that element that could elevate a trivial movie above the masses. In this case it is character development.
Huston seems more interested in the characters than the heist itself and spends a lot of time creating real, multidimensional people. They may be labelled mastermind, driver, hooligan, boxman and fence, but we get to know them as much more than that. Louis is a family man. We meet his wife and little child and they are a lot more to him than a front. He is gambling not just with his life but the well-being of people he genuinely care for. Dix is a lot more than a hooligan. In fact he is portrayed as a quite sympathetic guy with a bad temper and terrible history. His story with the girl Doll (Jean Hagen) is not just a subplot, but makes us understand this guy and certainly we do not recognize him from the police description of him.
But the most surprising portrait must be that of Emmerich. He has the appearance of a big shot. Money, style and respectability, clearly a man in control. Reality however is very different. He is dissolving right before our eyes. Emmerich is essentially broke. All his style is just a façade. He is cheating on his wife with a young blonde (Marilyn Monroe!) who calls him Uncle Lon (yicks!) and his plan take the merchandize and disappear is a desperate plan borne out of despair and not really thought through.
So what we have is a group of criminals consisting of real people with real and quite ordinary concerns, dreams and fears. They are not innocent, not by a long shot, but they are where they are because these were the hands they were dealt. We may not like them or even root for them, but we get to know them as people to an extent that their lives are not meaningless numbers any more.
The police on the other hand is quite anonymous and one-dimensional. They are a system and an institution. Their members are just numbers, ants in an operation. It is difficult for us to feel much for them and we have to object to the way they describe the thieves that we have come to know. We know they are right of course. The police Commissioner (John McIntire) says all the right things, but still it grates as if we are thinking: Why cannot they just give them a break? It is a mind trick and Huston pulls it off quite well.
This twist is what makes “The Asphalt Jungle” special rather than template. If you are looking for action this is probably the wrong movie, go see “The Italian Job” instead. This is all about characters.