1950 / Best Director

Film #622: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

In my last post, I looked at how John Huston’s tight directional style help increase both the action scenes in The African Queen as well as the focus on the developing relationship between its central couple. There are many examples of this style in a film which was released a year earlier and earned him another of his five Best Director nominations. That movie was The Asphalt Jungle, a tense heist picture which is almost documentary-like in its narrative and combines a simplistic structure with characters that you want to root for. Although it played off the old Film Noir style, The Asphalt Jungle has fully-rounded characters and seemingly provided an influence for many other heist pictures.

The screenplay, adapted by Huston and Ben Maddow from the novel by W.R. Burnett, is split into three very deliberate acts all based around a jewellery heist. The first third introduces us to the majority of our characters; Sterling Hayden’s hooligan-with-a-heart Dix Handley, James Whitmore’s kindly hunchback bar owner Gus and Sam Jaffe’s criminal mastermind ‘Doc’ Reidenschneider. Furthermore, we’re also introduced to the unnamed town that these men inhabit which is full of crime and ruled over by ineffective police officers who are soon snapped into action by a determined commissioner. Just out of prison, Doc visits dodgy bookie Cobby who he explains his plan to steal a half-a-million dollars’ worth of jewellery saying that he needs both financial booking and a trio of men to help with the job. Finding the men is easy enough; Dix acts as the muscle of the gang, Gus as the getaway driver and their mutual acquaintance Louis is drafted in as the safe-cracker. Cobby suggests Louis Calhern’s well-respected lawyer Alonzo Emmerich could be the backer they need, not realising that he’s essentially broke and is planning to double-cross the other thieves and take the loot for himself. The middle section of the film is arguably its most famous as Huston spends eleven minutes documenting the execution of the robbery itself in painstaking detail. Nothing like this had been seen on film up to this point and we’re able to see both Doc’s plan executed as well as the problems that the group encounter as alarms start to go off around the area. With a store cop managing to wound Louis just as the gang are leaving the vault, the police begin a manhunt for the group with suspicion particularly surrounding notorious robber Doc and local hoodlum Dix. The aftermath of the robbery is where events start to spiral out of control especially when Dix is injured by Emmerich’s associate in an attempted double-cross. Eventually, the men are either apprehended by the cops or, in the case of Louis and Dix, pass away due to the wounds they receive during the robbery. Huston and Maddow’s message seems to be that crime never pays although I’d warmed to the crooks so much that I would’ve liked at least one of them to have had a happy ending.

I’ve talked a lot about the differences of watching these movies with modern eyes versus watching it at the time and how the two experiences vary. If I’d watched The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, I believe I’d be dazzled by its intricate detail and the tense mood that Huston and company set particularly during the extended heist scene. Certainly, at the time crime movies featured thinly-drawn gangster characters and femme fatales whilst The Asphalt Jungle focused on sympathetic crooks and their equally likeable love interests. However, in 2017, I’ve seen slicker heist movies that benefit from contemporary cinematic techniques and plot twists which make The Asphalt Jungle feel dated as a result. But, even with modern eyes, I can appreciate certain elements of the movie most notably the characterisation which develops these characters further than other films of the time would. For example, the character of Dix is given a backstory in which he wants to return to his family’s horse farm in Kentucky and gambles so he can buy back the horse his father sold during The Great Depression. Similarly, the female characters are presented as resourceful and are more than just love interests with Emmerich’s mistress, played by Marilyn Monroe in her first prominent role, is the one who ultimately seals his fate. Huston’s Best Director nomination was deserved for the painstaking heist sequence if nothing else whilst another nod for his work on the screenplay was equally understandable. Harold Rosson received a nomination for his intense black-and-white cinematography, losing that year to the man who shot the film in the next post.

The film’s final nomination was for Sam Jaffe’s supporting performance as the thoughtful, measured, criminal mastermind ‘Doc’; another character who would rarely feature in movies such as The Asphalt Jungle. Jaffe added depth to ‘Doc’; developing his seemingly cold character into somebody who could read a person and understood the motivations of the thuggish Dix. The scene in which ‘Doc’ is finally arrested allows Jaffe to flex his acting muscles and you get the impression that upon his release he’ll be plotting another similarly detailed robbery. The cast were universally excellent however I can see the academy having problems deciding who would feature in the lead actor category and who would go into the supporting slots. Aside from Jaffe, the best turns in The Asphalt Jungle came from Sterling Hayden as the layered Dix and Louis Calhern as the treacherous Emmerich; who in my opinion were both deserving of Oscar nominations. I’ll explore whether the film itself deserved a nomination in my next post but over the last two entries I’ve gained a further appreciation for the masterful direction of Huston. Both The Asphalt Jungle and The African Queen combined great action with brilliant character development and for that alone Huston should be celebrated as both a fantastic director as well as a fine screenwriter.

Next we explore another brilliantly-crafted crime movie that was nominated alongside The Asphalt Jungle at the 1950 Academy Awards.

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