Friday, March 14, 2008

Target #201: The Asphalt Jungle (1950, John Huston)

TSPDT placing: #315
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: W.R. Burnett (novel), Ben Maddow (screenplay), John Huston (screenplay)
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Marc Lawrence, Barry Kelley, Anthony Caruso, Marilyn Monroe

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

It was only a few weeks ago that I described Du rififi chez les hommes (1955) as the film that pioneered the traditional crime caper, carving a narrative mould that would continue to be reused in films of its sort for decades to come. While Jules Dassin's picture is undoubtedly the finest in a sub-genre affectionately known as "the heist flick," I have now discovered that the concept stretches back at least another five years, to one of Hollywood's most revered adventure directors, John Huston. Revaling a seedy underbelly of society, overflowing with smarmy criminal figures and crooked authorities, the film is a potent film-noir thriller, employing dark, shadowy black-and-white cinematography, and a selection of suitably sordid characters, whose greed, obsession and violent temperaments ultimately lead to their own demise. The film's success would trigger a considerable boom in the popularity of heist thrillers, most notably in Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), Dassin's Rififi (1955), Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (1955) and Kubrick's breakthrough picture, The Killing (1956), which also starred Sterling Hayden.

Recently-released criminal mastermind, Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), has, for the last seven years of his incarceration, protected the plans for the most ambitious and profitable heist of his "distinguished" career. He arrives in a dreary, smoggy, crime-ridden city, where low-lifes patrol the darkened streets and law officers, some honest and some crooked, do their best to control the escalating crime-rates. The Doc hires a diverse assortment of essential criminals to ensure the success of his caper – a "boxman," or a safecracker (Anthony Caruso) with a young family, a "top-notch" getaway driver (James Whitmore) with a twisted back, and a small-time "hooligan" (Sterling Hayden) with a costly passion for horses. Also involved in the elaborate scheme is Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a sleazy, treacherous bookie, and Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a bankrupt professional businessman who agrees to finance the operation but houses plans for a disastrous double-crossing. The film's female protagonists come in the form of innocent Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen, prior to her career-defining performance in 'Singin' in the Rain (1952)') and an up-and-coming Marilyn Monroe as Emmerich's sexy, playful and naive young mistress.As was typical in film-noir films of the era, whose contents were dictated by the meddlesome Production/Hays Code, the ultimate moral of the story is that crime doesn't pay. Each of the thieves receive punishment for their involvement in the robbery, either through conviction or death, as does the fraudulent detective (Barry Kelley) whose corruption is described as a "one in a hundred" case. Nevertheless, Huston succeeds in creating a certain amount of empathy towards the criminals, sympathetically presenting the audience with each man's reasonable motivations towards breaking the law. By recruiting our support, Huston invariably places the audience in the shoes of a criminal, suggesting, as the perfect scheme begins to unravel, that our own fates lie in the balance. This evocation of realism is certainly complemented by Harold Rosson's gritty, documentary-like cinematography, and the heist sequence itself – while falling well short of Jules Dassin's breathless 30-minute counterpart – is tense, intriguing and authentic. As Huston himself explains in a pre-film introduction on the DVD release, each of his characters is immoral, largely unlikable and driven by a debilitating vice; however, despite this, or perhaps because of it, we can't take our eyes off them.

Currently my #4 film of 1950:
1) Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)
2) Harvey (Henry Koster)
3) In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray)
4) The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston)
5) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)

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