The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Directed by John Huston ◆ Written by Ben Maddow and John Huston ◆ Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ◆ Distributed by Loew’s Inc.
My father took me to this adaptation of W. R. Burnett’s crime novel when it first came out. Perhaps he had been informed that Marilyn Monroe had her first speaking role in the film, playing a semi-demure innocent who was not above addressing her sugar daddy, played by Louis Calhern, as well, her daddy. But on reflection I don’t think so. As far as I know starlets did not impress my dad.
I don’t mean to disparage Ms. Monroe. Hotshot boyos of every stripe couldn’t leave her alone and that more than usually meant treating her badly. Maybe she collaborated in her misfortune, maybe not. The point is that real men would not have taken advantage of her. Real men, by whom I emphatically do not mean the fabulous Kennedy brothers, with whom she had dalliances.
When Louis B. Mayer, who like the Kennedy paterfamilias, dabbled unscrupulously in cinema for both pleasure and profit, saw what his studio had made of Burnett’s crime novel and didn’t hesitate to pronounce it “trash” and “full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty things.” “I wouldn’t cross the street to see a picture like that,” he said. Few people did cross the street to see it; it was a box-office flop, and yet a critical darling that won several Oscar nominations.
It’s not the story nor the acting that makes this film work. It’s the dark, relentless plot that follows a handful of determined gangsters who have crime on their minds. They are following a German academic named “Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider, played by the ever-reliable Sam Jaffe. These desperate people accept Doc’s criminal genius for no better reason than that while he was in prison he learned of a cache of jewels that were being targeted by another set of larcenous dopes.
Huston tells Burnett’s story as though it makes sense, and so it seems to, despite a good deal of criminal foolery that holds our attention by virtue of Huston’s wit and the actors skill. Jaffe is especially compelling as the criminal mastermind, who favors wearing a stylish homburg and beautifully crafted leather gloves to insure his comfort in the chilly Midwestern climate. He’s a man who recruits and then cultivates Dix, the one indisputable hooligan on the team convincingly played by the lumbering Sterling Hayden, who is at once a dope and an “honest” crook known for standing by his word.
Doc sees in Dix qualities that he thinks will be useful to his plans: he’s a man foolish enough to follow directions unquestioningly but also to do so with a sense of personal pride in his reliability. Others in the group fear Dix’s physical strength and reckless bravery, but they seem incapable recognizing the danger these qualities pose to themselves. All Doc sees is that if things go wrong, he’ll have a useful lummox on his side ensuring they will both escape with the value of the jewelry in their briefcases.
As Hayden plays Dix, it’s easy enough to overestimate a certain inherent decency in the man, a decency of which Hayden gave evidence in his personal life as a soldier serving British interests in World War II, when the Brits decided to cut a deal with Tito’s Communist partisans in order to stall Nazi operations in Eastern Europe. Hayden’s bravery so impressed Wild Bill Donovan, who was building the OSS into what would become the CIA, that he enlisted Hayden as one of his major operatives.
These experiences gave Hayden’s acting an authenticity that he would not have achieved otherwise. His admiration for Tito’s partisans also led to his joining the Communist Party.
We may question Hayden’s political and professional decisions as being short-sighted, even injudicious, but it’s difficult not to admire his commitment. On his side, is the truth that he remained a Communist Party member only briefly before withdrawing, calling it “the stupidest and most ignorant thing I have ever done in my life.” Furthermore, when hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee he displayed an honesty that few of his film actor colleagues possessed. He told the truth about Communist activities in Hollywood and detailed his own involvement, even though doing so meant he would risk putting his reputation and career in peril.
I mention all this to say that whatever Hayden was as an actor and soldier, he had the resolution to make his participation in his films and his career more than well-earned.