Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Everybody Wants Something

With a title like The Asphalt Jungle, little is left to the imagination in terms of what this 1950 film noir is ultimately trying to convey. And if you had any doubts, they are quickly erased during this tour of America’s post-war urban landscape, in which the unnamed city is portrayed as a seedy and dangerous place, populated by a criminal element that operates well beyond established norms.

Within the city’s criminal community, social Darwinism functions in a kind of kill or be killed, rob or be robbed, fleece or be fleeced fashion. A person is allowed to keep as much or as little as they can hold onto. This sort of movie can very quickly devolve into cliché, so thankfully John Huston and Ben Maddow’s screenplay is clever enough to realize that crimes have motives and the criminals who commit illegal acts usually want something beyond the loot (IE – their behavior and crimes are a means to an end, not ends in and of themselves).
Each of the characters in this picture are presented as deeply complex people, all of whom are angling to get something. In some cases, the aims are nobler than others. Sterling Hayden is driven – almost single-mindedly – by the urge to secure enough money to repurchase his family’s lost horse farm back in Kentucky. He willingly joins in the film’s robbery plot, confident it will land him the cash he needs to turn his dream into reality. Sam Jaffe, the man who masterminds the caper, is much less idealistic: “One way or another, we all work for our vices,” he quips at one point.
In the case of Louis Calhern’s character, his vice saunters onto screen in the form of a certain Marilyn Monroe. Much is made of Monroe’s appearance here, but little of the unique combination of glamour, titillation and humor that would later translate into a white hot presence on screen is apparent in this outing. She is simply the “other woman” in a movie that devotes a great deal of time and energy to asking a pretty typical film noir question: Why do men make bad choices?
An early glimpse at a star
In the end, the answer boils down to the original metaphor. That is, like the creatures of the actual jungle, the civilized men living in The Asphalt Jungle’s metropolitan city often operate under the twin impulses of self-interest and self-preservation. To continue following this metaphor, the complicated web of allegiances and desires that forces the characters together and drives the plot are an emotional ecosystem that functions in similar fashion to the food chain in the wild. Bookies, crooked lawyers, policeman and blond bombshells – they all have a role to play in the concrete state of nature explored in this picture, and much of that role depends on how other people play their equally important parts.
In it together, for their own reasons
Faced with the rotten fruit of this reality, the city’s Police Commissioner offers this piece of lofty rhetoric to the audience:
People are being cheated, robbed, murdered, raped. And that goes on 24 hours a day, every day in the year. And that's not exceptional, that's usual. It's the same in every city in the modern world. But suppose we had no police force, good or bad. Suppose we had... just silence. Nobody to listen, nobody to answer. The battle's finished. The jungle wins. The predatory beasts take over.”
There is a sense of desperation in these words that feels right, but ultimately I believe the film’s central heist is a vehicle to explore how the state of nature described by the commissioner is ultimately amoral and random (like a society of animals in a real jungle). After all, the police do nothing to foil robbery or prevent its execution (the institution of the police itself is depicted as corrupt and self-interested). The cops merely stumble across the crime by accident – the random discharge of a gun alerts them – and then swoop in to try to clean up the mess after it has already been made. In this sense, they are little more than janitors who sweep away the proverbial mess that occurs when a lion encounters an antelope, and the difference between the jungle of vines and trees and the jungle made of concrete boils down to the fact that the latter cares about appearances – some would say the illusion of order – while the former unconsciously embraces the chaos and untidiness of existence.
Dead within sight of his dream
This is not Huston’s best film – not by a long shot. However, what we have here is classic – in the sense it inspired a host of other films and television programs – and compelling. The plight of the film’s intertwined fates is intricate and interesting, and the ultimate futility the picture’s final scene leaves audiences with is both profound and disturbing. The world is ugly and chaotic, the movie seems to say, and the ardent are damned along with the capricious. The metaphor of the jungle might be somewhat clumsily used in the picture, but it feels right nonetheless.


  1. I could watch this movie with the sound turned off and just marvel at the visuals. It's one of the most colorful black and white films that I've ever seen, if you know what I mean.

  2. A most compelling review of one of my favorite hard-boiled heist films! I've always found the characterizations to be as fascinating as the heist itself -- no wonder, with a superb cast including Oscar-nominee Sam Jaffe, Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Louis Calhern, young Marilyn Monroe, and so many more. Crime may not pay in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, but it sure is riveting to watch.