erik lundegaard

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The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

It seems like every great crime movie has sprung from this one.

Written by:
Ben Maddow
John Huston

Directed by:
John Huston

Starring:
Sterling Hayden
Louis Calhern
Jean Hagen
James Whitmore
Sam Jaffe
Marilyn Monroe

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Director
Best Screenplay
Best Supporting Actor (Jaffe)
Best Cinematography

Quote:
“What's inside you? What's keeping you alive?”

There's a nobility to the best of the criminal relationships: How, with a gesture, or a non-gesture, we understand the depth of trust between Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) and Gus Minissi (James Whitmore). The crooks are cool, too, continuing their business dispassionately even as sirens wail or accomplices get shot. They're existential — in the way those outside the law should be. Dix confronts a cowardly crook by demanding, "What's inside you, what's keeping you alive?" When a woman calls Gus a cripple and a hunchback, he declares, "What I carry on my back I was born with. I didn't grow it myself." The movie prefigures The Godfather by bringing family into a typically non-family atmosphere — as Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), the safecracker, shows pictures of his kid to Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the criminal mastermind. Later, Doc asks about the kid. How's his temperature? How's he doing? It's little details like this that help make the movie great. How the drill breaks while cracking a safe. How two thugs size each other up. How Gus chases a would-be tough guy (and cat-killer) from his diner. As police sirens wail, Louis' wife says to no one in particular, "Sounds like a soul in hell," a line which could have been lost in melodrama but which is said with perfect pitch.

Above all, The Asphalt Jungle is about fronts, bravado, and the doubt that emerges in our eyes despite the best efforts of our will. Weak links are those who can't put up a good front ("Cobby" Cobb), or those who are all front, like the lawyer, Alonzo Emmerich (Calhern). Emmerich pretends to be someone with the crooks, the cops, his wife, his lover (an absolutely gorgeous Marilyn Monroe). That's too many people to fool. The best of the crooks know who to trust. There's professionalism and an unspoken code of honor among them. The cops, meanwhile, are either on the take or are harsh moralists of the Kennesaw Mountain Landis sort. There's no one there to root for. We only have the best of the crooks to root for, but even they are undone by their weaknesses.

The Asphalt Jungle was made 50 years ago by John Huston, but it has aged beautifully.

—December 30, 1999

© 1999 Erik Lundegaard