A big man in an ill fitting suit lumbers down a decayed, litter strewn sidewalk. He looks over his shoulder. There are are telephone poles and wires. Nondescript, white washed buildings loom. It is broad daylight and shadows splay. All of this in glorious black and white.
A cop car passes and slows. The man ducks behind a viaduct post. He belongs to this place. His name is Dix. And though we don’t know him, we’ve seen him around enough to know who he is. He’s the muscle.
A short time later we see Doc (Sam Jaffe) whose on the scrawny side and likes everything just so. Doc rides in taxis, smokes expensive cigars and is comfortable in his own skin but he belongs here just like Dix. We recognize him too. He’s the brains.
Doc is also a jewel thief and he’s been thinking about this particular score for a long time. Normally he would put his own caper crew together, but he’s fresh out of prison and low on cash. That’s where the “Big Fix” comes in. And, sure enough, we know him too. His name is Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern).
Lon’s a crooked attorney and political insider– a smoothie with a Cartier watch and silk socks. (He holds his cigarette like he’s mimicking Carey Grant.) There’s just one problem though. Yeah, you guessed it. He’s flat out broke.
As fate would have it, all that Chateau Petrus and escargot–not to mention a much younger mistress living in the guest house (Marylin Monroe in her first significant role)–has depleted Lon’s fortune. Desperate for a windfall, Lon agrees to finance the job so he can double cross Doc and get his hands on the jewels.
That’s not going to be as easy as Lon thinks because Doc’s an old pro and he thinks he smells a rat. But Doc doesn’t let on because he still wants to pull the job. He needs what he calls a “hooligan” to watch his back. That’s where Dix comes in.
As Dix, Sterling Hayden, gives the performance of his career. Hayden has never been one of my favorite classic cinema leading men. To me, he always came across a little blah, but as Dix, this trait adds a convincing layer to a personality mired in depression.
A strong armed robber and monosyllabic slouch, Dix is not the most sympathetic guy in the room and, consequently, I didn’t like him–at first. But honest oblivion to his own good looks and a clumsy, hesitant vulnerability endured him to me. When Doll, a down and out ex stripper/girlfriend (a terrific Jean Hagen) shows up at his front door he doesn’t turn her away. More impressively he doesn’t hit her up for sex even though she’s susceptible and obviously attracted to him. He sleeps on the couch–at first.
Dix has a fondness for the ponies. He meets Doc at a neighborhood racketeer’s office where he’s paying off a gambling debt. The two hit it off and Dix helps Doc put together a B&E–that’s “breaking and entering”–crew for one last heist. Then Dix plans to hightail it out of the jungle and head for the blue grass of Kentucky where he’s from. And of course we’re rooting for him to take Doll along too.
The jewel heist goes off, but not without a few hitches. An alarm gets set off when the safe is blown. Doc can hear sirens nearing, but he keeps the crew in place until the last diamond is swiped. Then a crew member gets shot. And that’s just the beginning. If they get away they still have Lon and a crooked police detective to deal with–and a jungle to escape from.
The Asphalt Jungle is an iconic example of film noir, though director John Huston is relatively economical with the signature low key and extreme angle lighting identifiers associated with the genre. The result is a more gritty, less stylized film that enhances the underbelly of a generic metropolis as not only the setting but as a viable character.
Though sometimes described as a heist film, The Asphalt Jungle is a essentially a morality tale with greed and corruption serving as theme. And while the heist sequence is both enthralling and brilliant, it is just that–a sequence, whereas the film rests on a long shot’s broad and weary shoulders and our willingness to bet against the odds.