I love heist stories. True or fictional, filmed or written; it doesn’t matter. Any tale of a well-planned robbery is catnip to me.
But like any connoisseur, I’m picky. Reading about real-life heists has made me dislike overly complicated fictional heists, like the wackiness on display in the Ocean’s Eleven films. Real-life heists — at least the ones that work — usually involve the smallest possible number of people, and the simplest possible method to get in and get out.
Heist films (and novels) invariably follow the same plot structure. It’s a story in three parts; the planning stages, the heist itself, and the aftermath. The heist itself can take many forms, and it’s always exciting to see a heist that’s creative and fresh, but the overall story is usually as rigidly structured as a haiku.
I also love the heist film’s ability to implicitly or even explicitly comment on America’s capitalist economic system. A group of skilled professionals joining forces to expertly and efficiently make off with the biggest possible haul of cash or saleable goods has resonance in a society that values the almighty dollar over nearly anything else, and in which “legitimate” business endeavors often cross the line that separates the legal from the illegal.
This is addressed explicitly in The Asphalt Jungle. When May Emmerich (Dorothy Tree) says to her husband, Alonzo, “When I think of all those awful people you come in contact with — downright criminals — I get scared.” Emmerich calmly replies to his wife, “Oh, there’s nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”
Emmerich is the “money man” behind the scheme in The Asphalt Jungle. He’s a wealthy attorney who is outwardly legitimate, but is privately bankrolling a heist led and planned by the recently paroled Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe).
In addition to Jaffe and Calhern, the main players in The Asphalt Jungle are Sterling Hayden as the ruthless career criminal Dix Handley, who provides the muscle on the job; Jean Hagen as “Doll,” Dix’s friend and potential love interest; Anthony Caruso as the safe-cracker, Louis Ciavelli; James Whitmore as the driver, Gus; veteran character actor Marc Lawrence as “Cobby,” the bookie who helps coordinate the heist; and of course the luminous Marilyn Monroe, who was just beginning her career in Hollywood, as Emmerich’s young mistress, Angela Phinlay.
Every actor in The Asphalt Jungle plays their part perfectly, which is one of the many reasons this is a film I never get tired of watching.
John Huston is at the top of his game here, and not just in terms of directing his actors. Huston and his cinematographer, Harold Rosson, created something that is really beautiful to look at. Nearly every shot in the film is a masterpiece of framing and lighting. Also, the decision to only use Miklós Rózsa’s score at the beginning and end of the film was a really smart decision. Film scores are often the single element that dates the worst, and even though I love Rózsa’s high-tension scores for noir classics like The Killers (1946) and Brute Force (1947), the absence of a score for most of its running time gives The Asphalt Jungle a sense of documentary realism.
The script for The Asphalt Jungle by Huston and Ben Maddow (based on the novel by W.R. Burnett), is great. It’s full of rich, quotable dialogue. The plot is tightly constructed, but complicated enough that more than one viewing of the film is necessary to see everything that’s going on.
The majority of the film was shot in Los Angeles, mostly in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, but it takes place somewhere in the Middle West. The opening shots of The Asphalt Jungle were filmed in Cincinnati, although the city in which the film takes place is never identified. All we know is that it’s a small city in the middle of the country that’s driving distance from Kentucky and is probably not Chicago.
The Asphalt Jungle is a groundbreaking heist film. There were plenty of movies about crime and criminals made in the first half of the 20th century, going all the way back to the short film The Great Train Robbery (1903), but The Asphalt Jungle changed the game.
The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949), and Gun Crazy (1950) all detailed well-planned robberies, but we really didn’t see much of the robberies themselves. The Asphalt Jungle depicts its heist from start to finish in ways that pushed the envelope of the Hays Code’s rules about depictions of criminal enterprise.
I’m not sure if we’ll see a heist this meticulously detailed again for a few years, until Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) (which also stars Sterling Hayden and takes a lot of cues from The Asphalt Jungle).
But The Asphalt Jungle is an important heist film not just because of its detailed depiction of a well-planned robbery. It’s an important heist film because its intricate plotting, well-drawn characters, and believable depiction of a professional criminal underworld created a template that is still being followed decades later in films like Thief (1981), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Heat (1995), and Inception (2010)
The Asphalt Jungle will be shown on Turner Classic Movies Wednesday, May 6, 2015, at 9:45 PM ET.