By Philip Schweier
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) is the simple story of a crime, but because criminals are by nature untrustworthy, the crime begins to unravel virtually from the get-go. But this is also the story of motivation. Not greed, mind you, but what drives people to do certain things. According to Doc Erwin Riedenschneider, the criminal mastermind of the film, “One way or another, we all work for our vice.”
Doc (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison, and his first order of business is to arrange for funding for his latest criminal enterprise. He’s had several years to think and plan, and all he needs is to iron out a few details that may have changed during his time “behind the walls,” as he puts it.
Doc visits Cobby (Marc Lawrence, who made a career out of playing criminals), a low-level bookie with high-level connections. Cobby is a stooge of Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a criminal lawyer who isn’t above lending a hand to members of the underworld when they need it. He states, “Crime is only… a left-handed form of human endeavor.”
Doc needs $50,000 to finance his next score, mostly to acquire the services of three key participants. First, he needs a cool-headed driver (Gus, played by James Whitmore). Then he needs an expert safe-cracker (Louis Ciavelli, played by Anthony Caruso, another celluloid career criminal). Finally, a hooligan, someone to serve as muscle, with less of an emphasis on brain. Enter Sterling Hayden as Dix Handley. Handley is a small-time stick-up man with a passion for the ponies. It seems as a boy in Kentucky his family had a horse farm, but it all went to pot one year. He and his brothers vowed to someday buy back the farm. Hence the gambling addiction.
But after an evening with a young lady (Doc’s vice of choice), Riedenschneider has begun to suspect there is a grain of truth to the rumors of Emmerich’s general lack of funds. This is confirmed when Emmerich begins plotting to double-cross his conspirators and keep the swag for himself. It seems his lavish lifestyle, including keeping a young Angela (Marylin Monroe in an early roll) in a lakeside cottage, has drained Emmerich’s funds to the point where he is unable to bankroll Doc’s plan.
Emmerich convinces Cobby to put up his own cash and fills in the blanks with empty promises. But during the commission of the heist, Ciavelli finds himself the unlucky recipient of a bullet to the chest. Later, when Doc and Dix meet up with Emmerich to hand over their ill-gotten booty, they’re less than overjoyed to hear he’s come up a bit short on their expected payment. Emmerich’s cohort finds himself outgunned by Dix, and he meets the same fate as Ciavelli.
Meanwhile, cops have attempted to button up the town, so they can corral the perpetrators of the biggest heist they’ve ever come across. Unfortunately, they’re hampered by the effort of Lt. Ditrich (Barry Kelley), a crooked cop who’s in Cobby’s pocket. But Ditrich is beginning to feel the heat himself, and is forced to straighten up and fly right, if only long enough to keep his job and avoid the undivided attention of the crusading commissioner (John McIntire).
Safe to say in such times as when this movie was made, it would never to do to allow even fictional criminals any degree of success. There are no heroes here, only victims. Victims of their own vices, each one done in by their own weakness for drink, or women or greed.
But as director John Huston states in the opening introduction (edited from an on-screen interview at the time of the movie’s release), none of the characters are especially likable, but he promises them to be interesting.
As a piece of film noir, the movie fills the bill nicely, as each character’s blind ambition is laced with doom. Even that of Marilyn Monroe, whose only mistake seems to be hooking up with a scumbag lawyer like Emmerich.