#219. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Apart from a few middling heist scenes in movies like Dr. Mabuse and Little Caesar and Odd Man Out and Gun Crazy, The Asphalt Jungle is I think the first heist film on the List, insofar as its entire runtime revolves around the planning, execution, and aftermath of our characters’ carefully-coordinated theft of so many jewels from a vault. I mentioned somewhere that Lynda’s favorite subgenre of movie is apparently (she only recently discovered this) heist pictures. So I wanna recommend this but I think I zapped my credentials by suggesting Odd Man Out on the same basis. Got an earful.

“Alex, this is not a heist movie. It is a movie with a heist in it, but it is not a heist movie.”

Anyway. Though I found it a bit overlong and messy while sitting through it at Tea & poets, the movie seems now, in retrospect, pretty brilliant, and what I’d initially bemoaned as the marginalization of the heist itself (which, as Wikipedia helpfully point out, unfolds over eleven minutes) is in fact a favoring of character, suspense, and theme over premise. The movie is tryna be a story, and a portrait of human beings, not just the execution of a scenario.

The story’s about a brilliant…heist…planner? An escape artist? Whatever. A kind of lowkey criminal mastermind named Doc Erwin (Sam Jaffe), one of my favorite characters of any movie on the List to date, who’s just been bounced from a long stretch int he can and who goes immediately to a lush crime boss (Louis Calhern), a man in his 60s who’s sleeping with Marilyn Monroe (her first notable role on the List) and smells of shoepolish and cream even through the screen.

They start planning a heist. It’s massive. Not totally fool proof, but close.

What they need, though, is a “hooligan,” some muscle, and so they hook the services of Dix Handley (ey!) — a convincing character whose abrasiveness seems like a byproduct of loneliness, disappointment, vulnerability, but whose evident umanity for some reason doesn’t make me like him any better. I think it’s the actor, Sterling Hayden. He’s got this brow-cocked, chin-tucked, preening doofus thing that I can’t stand. Looks like he bullied people as a kid. I get a vibe like he chews with his mouth open.

Also neat: it’s based on a novel by the same guy who wrote Little Caesar.

Anyway: these guys and their getaway driver and their safe-cracker all go in hard on the heist and what we start to see among these criminals isn’t courage, it’s not brawn or brains, or the cheeky badness of Ocean’s 11 crew; it’s desperation. We spend enough time getting to know these characters that, when we learn what motivates them, we reach the heist scene with a heavy idea of what they stand to lose and gain — and it isn’t just wealth. For the hooligan, it’s a life of contentment out on the ranch. For the bossman, it’s the preservation of a lifestyle, reputation, and identity that his impending bankruptcy threatens. For the mastermind, it’s…ahdunno, a life of comfort and leisurely intellectual pursuits.

Unfortunately for the characters, we’re still int hat conservative era where no antihero can go unpunished. The heist is a success, but police and betrayal and impulse and injury unravel our thieves. I’d normally say that it’s unfortuante for the audience, too, as in cases like Odd Man Out where we can easily imagine a more gratifying or believable ending in which the anti-hero reforms, or gets away. But Asphalt Jungle, in its allegiance to that theme of organized crime only looking sexy when, in reality, it’s the refuge of desperate men who can’t find a place for themselves in the realm of legitimate business and honest work, it’s a well-rounded, exciting, moving portrait of the underworld.


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