The Asphalt Jungle (MGM, 1950) directed by John Huston
The Asphalt Jungle is widely considered one of the greatest heist movies of all time, and I certainly will not dispute that claim, but the film offers much more than a thrilling caper. The Asphalt Jungle has also rightly been called a character study, yet the picture also contains elements you might find in a love story. Viewers can get so caught up in details of the heist, its preparation, execution, and consequences, that we lose sight of the characters and their yearning for things that are, for the most part, fundamentally good. Yet we can also forget the ancillary devastation forced on some of the players.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer head Louis B. Mayer despised the seedier aspects of The Asphalt Jungle and the lowlife characters that populate it, reportedly claiming “I wouldn’t walk across the room to see something like that.” I’m sure Dix Handley could’ve easily muscled Mayer into walking across the room or anywhere else, but that’s beside the point. According to MGM’s typical philosophy, everything works out well in the end for the clean-cut, upstanding characters in its pictures, with happy endings in abundance, and everyone leaving the theater uplifted, reveling in the goodness of humanity.
Not in John Huston’s world.
With The Asphalt Jungle, screenwriters Huston and Ben Maddow deliver a script (based on the 1949 W. R. Burnett novel) filled with characters Mayer would never have permitted even to set foot on the MGM lot. We’ve got the criminal genius Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), who has a weakness for young girls, Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a crooked attorney who has a weakness for one particular girl, petty criminal Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a corrupt cop (Barry Kelley), a hunchbacked getaway driver named Gus Ninissi (James Whitmore), and more. You’d never see any of these characters within a mile of MGM favorites like Father of the Bride, Lassie Come Home, or the Andy Hardy pictures.
Like most good stories, these characters all want something they don’t have, or don’t believe they have enough of. Many of the things they desire are worthy, even honorable. Most of these people are getting by. None of them are destitute, but nobody’s got it as good as Emmerich, a lawyer who has money (or does he?), a wife, a nice home, and a mistress named Angela (Marilyn Monroe). He’s in financial trouble but has no one to blame but himself.
Emmerich has also emotionally abandoned his invalid wife May (Dorothy Tree), never spending any time with her other than to explain that he’s off to another “business” meeting. May’s health woes likely stem from neglect and worry. She clearly loves Emmerich, but knows she’s fighting a losing battle for his attention, most of which is focused either on Angela or “the awful people you come in contact with, downright criminals…”
May is far from the demanding, hysterical invalid Leona Stevenson (Barbara Stanwyck) from Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) , and we’re likely more sympathetic toward Mrs. Emmerich. When May asks Emmerich to join her in a simple card game, “like we used to do,” she’s trying to bring him back to an earlier, happier moment from their marriage, probably a time before her husband got himself involved in illegal activities. Underneath May’s infirmity lies a woman whose love for her husband has not diminished. She makes few demands of him, but each rejection brings her more suffering. What else can she do other than bide her time?
Like most middle-aged men, Emmerich longs for youth and believes that spending an exorbitant amount of money on Angela will help get him there. While getting deeper in debt and making her promises he can’t financially back up, his world is becoming more like a prison, never realizing that the woman who’s really longing for him is right in the next room.
Doc has a brilliant mind, one that could’ve served him well in practically any endeavor (preferably not a “left-handed” one), yet we assume he has chosen a life of crime, rather than having it forced on him. Doc’s Achilles’ heel is his weakness for women, especially young women. All he really wants is enough money to retire in Mexico where he can enjoy ogling Mexican girls.
Doc’s skills and abilities are well known in the criminal world, and even when fellow lawbreakers don’t recognize his face, his legacy is enough to earn their respect. But Doc takes little joy in this. Forget the recognition. He’d rather have a plentiful supply of women. In some ways, Doc seems the least sympathetic character in the film, seeking only to gratify his lust. Yet you have to admire his wisdom and skill, not only in planning capers, but in evading the law. His final downfall comes from his inability to control his baser desires, not knowing when enough is enough. But if Doc has a saving grace, it could be in establishing a bond with Dix Handley.
Dix is different. Just looking at Sterling Hayden’s nearly constant sneer, it becomes obvious he hates everything about the city and its lowlife characters. Dix’s world revolves around his love for horses. If he can’t have one or at least be near them, he’ll bet on them, over and over. That’s where his trouble lies. He cannot stay away from the race track. Dix longs for the Kentucky horse farm where he grew up during a cleaner and simpler time, and if he could just go there, wash the city dirt off and breathe in the country air, he’d be content.
Despite having lived in the city for some time, he’s not used to it. Dix may be somewhat comfortable in getting by, navigating the city, but he hates the people. Dix despises the bookie named Cobby (Marc Lawrence), not only from being in debt to him, but because Cobby disrespects Dix in front of strangers. Dix has some regard, however, for Gus (James Whitmore), a fellow outcast due to his hunchback. And then there’s Doll (Jean Hagen), who’s hopelessly in love with Dix and may be the best thing in his life if only he could see it.
Doc is both smart and a thinker, and because Dix is street smart, Riedenschneider sees something in the Kentuckian he likes. Even after one short encounter with Dix, Doc knows he wants him for the heist job. Dix also holds Doc in high regard, perhaps from his legendary exploits, or because Dix recognizes that Doc’s a guy who knows what he wants and how to get it.
Yet while none of this is love (excepting Doll’s feelings for Dix), we know where everyone’s interests lie. Even the minor characters convey what they really want out of life. Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley) and Gus appear to have no family, so if their illegal actions have consequences (and they do), it seems they will suffer them alone.
But safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) loves his wife Maria (Teresa Celli) and his family, wanting to provide for them in the best way possible, which often leads to dangerous work. Louis’s accidental death during the heist seems to convey the idea that we live in a random world, that it doesn’t matter what you do, fate is going to get you, leaving the Ciavelli family broken.
Let’s get back to Doll, a woman who genuinely loves Dix. She knows he’s a criminal, but she can’t live without him, refusing to allow him to make the drive to Kentucky alone. Dix is desperate to get home, but Doll’s determination is just as intense: to be with Dix no matter what. Before things literally go south, we sense that maybe Dix and Doll could’ve made it as a couple if circumstances had been different. Doll is determined to do anything for him, even get a doctor’s help while they’re on the run, knowing that most doctors are required to report gunshot wounds to the police. Before that, Doll stands her ground, demanding to be a part of whatever Dix has planned. She refuses to abandon him.
This brings us to a topic that the movie doesn’t dwell upon, but it’s there: the devastation of the women who survive the film.
We aren’t told what’s going to happen to May Emmerich. Before taking his own life, we don’t know if Emmerich even provided for her. He is, after all, broke, but we hope he’s at least taken out a life insurance policy. Otherwise, how is she going to make it? Who’s going to care for her? Certainly not Angela. Like Doll, May has stuck with her man. She could’ve divorced Emmerich years ago when he still had money, but she didn’t. Now he’s gone. She’ll probably have to sell the house (if she can) and start over, and that’s not easy for a middle-aged woman in poor health. In many cases, film noir has little regard for its supporting characters.
But maybe noir isn’t totally heartless. After the death of her husband, Maria Ciavelli is left to raise her children alone. Yet from the attendees at the funeral, Maria seems to at least have some support system in place to help her.
Not so with Doll. At the end of the film, she’s all alone at the farm owned by Dix’s parents. What will Mr. and Mrs. Handley think when they walk down to discover their son lying dead from a gunshot wound with a strange woman they’ve never seen? How would Doll explain herself? What could she possibly say that would help them understand, much less ease their pain? I wish someone would write the story starting from the end of The Asphalt Jungle moving forward. What would Doll do with the rest of her life?
So many characters in film noir are average people who find themselves in desperate situations, but others clearly put themselves in the path of danger by their choices. The Asphalt Jungle contains both, as well as people, thorough no fault of their own, whose lives are dramatically affected by the actions of others. Obviously these feelings of dissatisfaction and dejection are huge components of film noir that we see constantly. I hope to explore more of the motivations behind characters in other noir films and how they affect others. I hope you’ll join me on this journey. Thanks for reading.