THE CITY UNDER THE CITY
There’s a collection of short stories by Raymond Chandler called The Simple Art of Murder, which is also the title of his essay on noir fiction. Amongst the short stories is one called Trouble is My Business, in which appears this quote: “The streets were dark with something more than night.” That sentence captures just the right kind of city-born oppression that is a big part of film noir. There’s always a sense that the city setting in most noirs are not just a setting, but another character, perhaps the most important one. Indeed, a common recurrence in these stories is that is a living, breathing, corruptive influence on everyone else and that the people that walk its streets are as rotten as the city itself. In 1950, John Huston brought to life a fine example of the kind of city that corrupts everyone that live there.
Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is notorious crime brain. He’s just out of prison and has a plan for a million-dollar jewellery heist. To pull it off, he recruits Louis (Anthony Caruso), an expert safecracker; Gus (James Whitmore), a getaway driver; and Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a strong-arm man. However, the plan suffers a series of small accidents, compounded when the man financing the operation, corrupt lawyer Emmerich (Louis Calhern), plans a double-cross.
Like many noir films, The Asphalt Jungle was adapted from a hard-boiled crime novel, in this case by W.R. Burnett. Burnett enjoyed a great deal of success from the adaptations of his work, and was even able to make a successful run as a screenwriter. His stories were highly influential in developing some of the archetypes that helped define noir as a genre, dealing with widespread city corruption, the anti-hero, pessimism and a sense of fatalism in the world. The source novel for this film was published in 1949, which was picked up for adaptation almost immediately, thanks to his prior success and connections. The script was written by Ben Maddow and John Huston, with Huston set to direct. The script itself maintains the abject hopelessness of the source as it brings the different characters across, complete with the neuroses and flaws that become their downfall. Beyond the characters, it’s a wonderfully plotted piece, with a very simple plan becoming tainted and ruined by the various motivations at play. Riedenschneider merely wants to pull off the job and retire to Mexico, in the same way that Dix just wants to return to his Kentucky farm, but Emmerich wants to make off with all the jewels because he’s broke, now surviving on what esteem and fear he can. He strong-arms a bookie, Cobby, into fronting him the money for the job on his word, but the bookie is in dire straits himself, trying to hold off an imminent raid from a corrupt cop, who is himself trying to keep from being found out. And this is to say nothing of what happens when the job goes bad, with the necessity for alibis and calm heads becoming stronger. It is some very fine conflicts at play.
What’s also great is that this also marked one of the first films where the criminals were treated as sympathetic characters, which caused some level of controversy at the time. This had never really been considered before, with criminal action generally just being motivated by money or greed or just being bad. Here, influences are the same as those of regular people, like dreams of a simple life or the need to provide for a family. Amazingly, this hadn’t really been considered before in Hollywood films. This also rather marks the beginning of the heist movie sub-genre.
The dialogue itself is also very sharp, pointing out how corrupt the city is, and how well every character knows it. When Riedenchneider speaks to Cobby about his corrupt cop shadow, Cobby tries to assuage his fears, but Riedenschneider is having none of it, saying, “Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one’s all right, he turns legit.” In this city, legitimacy is just another turn of dishonesty, since it remains the single most dangerous act a dishonest person can commit. There’s also a semi-recurring notion of the old meaning of left-handed, it being seen as sinister or dishonest. An early discussion about baseball holds a remark about a left-handed pitcher being untrustworthy, with a similar, more chilling sentiment expressed by Emmerich when playing cards with his sick wife, May:
May: When I think of all those awful people you come in contact
with - downright criminals - I get scared.
Emmerich: Oh, there’s nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a… left-handed form of human endeavour.
Here, Emmerich shows that he holds little distinction between criminals and everyone else, with criminals simply using a way of getting things done that it doesn’t occur to others to use. That he no longer sees anything wrong with criminal enterprise shows just how far he’s fallen.
This film was the last of Huston’s noir films, and his direction is as strong here on anything here ever made. Many called The Asphalt Jungle a sort of docu-noir, and for good reason, given its focus on the individual details of planning the heist, the build up of different elements, the controlled tension of the heist itself, and the procedural manner with which it is investigated and broken down. Huston also maintains a far more naturalistic style over the film, rarely if ever resorting to the standard visuals tics of the genre. There is little in the way of expressionistic backdrops or tilted angles. Even the cinematography, provided by Harold Rosson, holds a less stylised sharpness typical of other noirs. It still retains the contrast of the light and dark, but does so in a much more naturalistic manner. There are other details scattered throughout that show the kind of quality visualisation in Huston’s direction. For example, there are only a few times when we actually see people out walking in the streets, and the place is always deserted of other people. I’ll be honest and say that I initially considered this to be somewhat off, since it removes from the sense of a living, working city, where you would expect people to be everywhere. The only people we ever see actually on the streets are cops and criminals… however, that’s exactly the point. This city is so dangerous (as attested by a chatty taxi driver) that regular folk don’t walk these streets. The only time we see these regular people is indoors, like Louis’ family or Dix’s lady friend, or in cars, like the taxi driver. These streets aren’t safe for normal people. And look how Huston establishes some sense of what drives these characters. Again, look at Louis, whose sole reason for doing what he does is to make money for his wife and child. Whenever he’s home, he always shares the frame with his wife, his baby or both. They’re never gone from his mind, so he’s never by himself in these shots. It’s a superb way underlining this.
A great move is also to have the film be almost completely free of musical underscore, which only exists at the beginning titles and the closing few minutes. The utter silence of the rest of the picture makes things very tense, and allows us to better hear the sirens as they approach the gang. The only other times music plays comes from either a radio or a jukebox, and lasts only so long.
Performances throughout are good, with Sterling Hayden suitably playing the former-farm boy who turned to crime in the big city, and now only wants to go home. The best work of the film comes from Sam Jaffe as Riedenschneider and Louis Calhern as Emmerich. Both Jaffe and Calhern capture the ‘seen it all’ cynicism of their roles, but project the faults of each brilliantly. There’s also some excellent work from Marc Lawrence as Cobby, Barry Kelley as Lt. Ditrich, and Brad Dexter as Bob Brannom. There’s also a notable shot from Marilyn Monroe in the minor role that really got her noticed properly.
What makes The Asphalt Jungle especially interesting is considering it within the period in which it was made. By 1950, the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was nearly in full in swing, hunting suspected Communistic influences wherever they could find them, including within the highly influential recesses of Hollywood. Anyone found to have suspicious allegiances were questioned, blacklisted, some imprisoned, and some deported. The personnel of The Asphalt Jungle were actually directly affected by these witch-hunts, too. Sam Jaffe was blacklisted after the publication of the governments Red Channels list; Sterling Hayden, a former-Communist himself, was brought before HUAC to testify and did give names of other people to be investigated, which he regretted for the rest of his life; and writer Ben Maddow was blacklisted only about a month after the release of The Asphalt Jungle. Hayden and Huston would then go on to join the Committee for the First Amendment, a group of Hollywood professionals out to fight the targeting of their industry, alongside Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Gene Kelly.
The whole HUAC period is one of my favourite topics concerning film industry history, because it’s so interesting to look at the films of the period and consider them as a reflection of the time. Look at The Asphalt Jungle, and its depiction of a broken and corrupted city, where everyone is paranoid that someone else will turn on them and there’s nothing that can be done about your inevitable fate. This is just one of many films that hold this up as an expression of the fear and paranoia felt in the country during the HUAC hearings. Should you happen to watch this film, keep in the back of your mind the fact that some of these people would have a very rough time of things shortly after the film was released. It really adds a whole new level to things.
The Asphalt Jungle is a classic of the crime genre, tense and sternly controlled, and its influence is still felt to this day. The script is wonderfully conceived, the direction is strong and very nicely detailed, and there are some really fine performances on show. It’s the beginnings of a lot of things, and a reaction to a great many things within Hollywood at the time. This makes it a very important and very rich film to watch. If you have any interest in film noir, or film in general, this is one you must watch.