Sterling Hayden - Dix Handley
Louis Calhern - Alonzo D. Emmerich
Jean Hagen - Doll Conovan
James Whitmore - Gus Minissi
Sam Jaffe - Doc Riedenschneider
John McIntire - Commissioner Hardy
John Huston - Director
Arthur Hornblow Jr. - Producer
John Huston - Screenwriter
Ben Maddow - Screenwriter
Harold Rosson - Cinematographer
Miklós Rózsa - Film Score
After seven years in stir Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has returned to Dark City. His legend as a criminal mastermind precedes him; Doc knows the law will be on him like white on rice. But the old gent's angling for one last sensational takedown: more than a million bucks worth of gems from a seemingly impregnable jewelry exchange. The little general, who hides his predilections beneath a genteel Old World veneer, sets to work assembling his crew: a stakehorse, a fence, a hooligan, a driver, and a boxman.
"What boxes have you opened?" he asks Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), reputed to be the most versatile of safecrackers. "Cannonball, double-door, even a few Firechest, all of them," Ciavelli ticks off. Confident but not arrogant--just the yegg the Doctor ordered. This commando unit, operating in the umbrae of The Asphalt Jungle (MGM, 1950), gave an injection of realism to the post-World War II crime picture. These crooks were humanized, not demonized. Instead of the snarling, power-mad miscreants seen in hundreds of gangster shoot-em-ups, The Asphalt Jungle offered an underworld of struggling laborers, alienated loners, even honorable family men--in addition to the garden-variety leeches and double-crossing shysters. These were neo-realist thieves, after bigger scores than bicycles.
Director John Huston had an affinity for veteran novelist W. R. Burnett's Hemingwayesque approach to the crime thriller. (He'd scripted Burnett's High Sierra, another rugged and romantic outlaw caper, in 1940. Burnett had also penned one of the seminal 1930s gangster stories, Little Caesar). Huston leapt at the chance to film Burnett's Asphalt Jungle when Quo Vadis, an Eternal City costume drama Huston was helming, was postponed. Huston was far more comfortable dealing with dynamics of small groups of men under pressure than he was with hordes of robe-draped extras.
The film was also an opportunity for Huston to exact creative revenge. Bad blood still simtnered from his involvement in The Killers (1946), the first great post-war caper film. Huston had adapted the Ernest Hemingway short story "The Killers" for Mark Hellinger, but when those big egos came a-cropper, Huston quit the project. Hellinger gave credit only to Huston's collaborator, Anthony Villier.
Huston's first bold move in adapting Asphalt Jungle was to 86 Burnett's narrative structure, which framed the story from the perspective of the police, who must cope with ". . . the nightly toll of crime coming in over the commissioner's radio, the voice of the asphalt jungle . . ." Huston preferred to stick with Doc and his cohorts throughout. Co-scribe Ben Maddow credited Huston with writing the scene that delineated the picture's theme: "When I think of all the awful people you come in contact with, downright criminals, I get scared," says May (Dorothy Tree), the wife of tainted mouthpiece Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), who is the conduit for the purloined jewels. To which Emmerich retorts: "There's nothing so different about them. Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."
Huston's fresh take on such sinister pursuits stressed the motivations of his felons. They're not hostile hoods looking for a way to wield power, they're disgruntled city dwellers driven to score some breathing room. Louie Ciavelli doesn't crave a penthouse or fancy cars; he wants enough dough to move his family from a cramped tenement into a decent middle-class home. Doc dreams of retiring to Mexico, where he can while away his twilight years ogling pretty girls on the beach. Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), the hooligan, is a bluegrass boy bushwhacked by the big city. He needs to pay off his gambling debts before he can ever hope to buy back the family horse ranch in Kentucky. "First thing I'm gonna do is take a bath in the creek and wash this city dirt off me," he tells his girl, Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen).
Doc's first visit is with Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a thriving bookmaker who runs a clearinghouse for clandestine activity. Cobby agrees to underwrite the venture, allowing Doc to hire his crew for flat upfront fees, rather than a percentage of the spoils. Emmerich, the slippery solicitor, comes into the deal as the fence who will move the stolen gems. But he's far from the solvent sophisticate he purports to be. He's blown his savings on his sexy "niece" Angela (Marilyn Monroe), who allows "Uncle Lon" to reclaim some of his faded youth. When Emmerich can't call in a single marker to pay for the jewels, he's forced to concoct a swindle. "It's my whole way of life," he admits sadly. "Every time I turn around, it costs thousands of dollars. I've got to get out. I've got to get out from under."
MGM boss Louis B. Mayer wished Huston had stuck with the hackneyed stereotypes. He hated the picture, calling it "full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty, ugly things. I won't walk across the room to see something like that." Huston took some flak for his sympathetic portrayal of criminals, but critics overall lauded his work, agreeing with W. R. Burnett that it was "without a doubt one of the best films of its genre." In addition, the film score for The Asphalt Jungle was written by the great film composer Miklós Rózsa. The Asphalt Jungle was remade in 1958 as Badlanders, in 1963 as Cairo, and 1972 as Cool Breeze.
--EDDIE MULLER, from Dark City
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