Friday Night Classic: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

I’m in the middle of reading John Huston: Courage and Art. It’s a great read, partially because it has made me envious of every actor/director/producer/average person who hung around Hollywood types during the classic era because everyone was screwing each other. And I mean, everyone. There are chapters dedicated to John Huston’s affairs. It’s wild and completely entertaining. It almost (almost) makes me wish I lived in 1940s.

Other than this, Courage and Art has made me realize that although I have seen many John Huston movies, I don’t remember them that well. I’m 99.9% convinced that I fell asleep through most of them. (How blasphemous!) So that’s what I did tonight – revisited The Asphalt Jungle.

The Asphalt Jungle is a film noir that depends on a variety contrasting binaries: men versus women, the honest versus the corrupt, the educated versus the naive, the city versus the country. The film itself has two distinctive halves, each defined the character’s different expectations.

In the first half, a group of criminals led by Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) plan to steal some jewels. Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), the central protagonist, joins the group in hopes of reclaiming his family’s horse farm in Kentucky. The criminals see their robbery as fool proof. The jewels are stolen in a brilliantly edited, nearly silent, 11-minute-sequence, setting off the film’s second half. After the robbery, the group is betrayed by lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) leaving the criminals to go to great lengths to escape the police, who are crooked themselves. Ultimately no one involved in the initial robbery gets what they wanted in the first place.

Notably Marilyn Monroe appears in her first major role in The Asphalt Jungle as Emmerich’s mistress Angela, a ditzy blonde with an inexplicable hold over him.  Their relationship is puzzling; at times Emmerich is paternalistic towards Angela, emphasizing her innocence and his need for any sort of affection. Still the sensuality of her character is a sharp contrast the domineering men in her life and in the film.

In typical noir fashion, The Asphalt Jungle is filled with gun fights, urbane grittiness, and male egos. Yet  the film ends on an oddly beautiful note. A driving force behind the character’s motives is that they all want to leave crime behind but can’t. When Handley is wounded in a shoot out, he becomes determined to return to his country roots in Kentucky. His girl Doll (Jean Hagen) helps him get there but barely.

The final scene at Dix’s family’s farm in Kentucky  is a stark contrast to the urban city we have grown accustomed to. The sky is clear, horses surround Handley, and he peacefully dies. It’s idyllic and the only time we feel any sense of calm throughout the entire movie.

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