Sunday, October 10, 2010

What sleeps in "The Asphalt Jungle?" A concrete lion?

John Huston is one of those towering names in show-biz. Everyone knows he's a well-respected director, an influential figure with great skill. I had never seen his well-liked film noir. "The Asphalt Jungle," and I had been watching too much drama and foreign film. It seemed like a good choice for a rental. I generally liked it, but I really prefer Huston's other works.

In case you don't really know who this man is, here's a handful of the director's film contributions: The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951), and The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Also, if you've ever seen "Chinatown," you definitely know Huston's face, because he's Noah Cross, Faye Dunaway's over-bearing father. I'm leaving out a lot, but it's an impressive CV, right?

"The Asphalt Jungle," simply put, is a heist flick. A group of men plan out a great robbery, hoping to avoid double-crosses and the police. This picture has its feet firmly planted in the film noir style, which I usually avoid mentioning because it's often shorthand for "the girl did it." Not to worry, the cliches here are largely left for some characters. Although this movie is very much like pictures you've seen before (it probably inspired a lot of them), there are many little differences that you will appreciate. I just can't say that you'll like the work as a whole.

In this picture, "noir" is seen mostly in the corruption that dwells in the characters; also, everyone gets solid dialogue that gives life to the parts - even while they're providing exposition. When folks get nostalgic for "the classics," I wonder if they just miss days when most actors got juicy lines; I've seen many modern movies where the leads have sloppy dialogue, much less the supporting or minor roles…

I try to vary the style of my reviews, so I'm not going to jump into praise and criticism. This time around, I want to lay out the beginnings of the plot.

It Began with a Thug in the Dark

The picture opens on a crook slinking through the shadows of an unnamed Midwestern city. The setting doesn't really matter, as the criminals and police act exactly like their counterparts in New York or L.A. Our first character does everything he can to avoid attention, and a police car passes him without stopping. This is all for the best, since the cops are actually looking for him.

Our thug goes to Gus' diner, but he doesn't just pop in for a coffee - the hunchbacked owner is his friend. In the short introduction we get, we learn that the crook is Dix, a "hired muscle" type from Kentucky. Although good at his job, he's not very bright and doesn't plan ahead... He blows most of his money on horse-racing - enough that he has to borrow at times. Still, Dix is loyal and has a strongly-developed sense of honor (but it may just be excessive pride). Gus wants his Southern pal to find better work, yet offers to hide Dix' gun for him. After the conversation, our rugged criminal heads off to see his bookmaker, Cobby.

Enter the old German genius

Our next personality has just been released from prison. "Doc" Riedenschneider (laugh now) is an elderly criminal mastermind. The past seven years in the clink have given him the opportunity to plan a huge heist - one that will set him up for the rest of his life. All he needs to do is get some financial backing, hire a crew, and execute the crime.

I was going to write something, but I'm completely distracted now.

When Mr. R shows up at Cobby's office, he's looking to either get his financing, or be introduced to someone who can front his overhead. Simply telling Cobby "the Doctor is here" is enough to get him an enthusiastic and respectful welcome. But the bookie isn't feeling rich enough to bankroll $50,000 for a $500,000 robbery; still, he does know Emmerich - a rich, corrupt attorney who will definitely be interested.

The Doctor talks on about his retirement plans - a Spanish-speaking country with plenty of young women. And it's in Cobby's office that he finds his first recruit, Dix. Cobby is a small, cheap, talkative man - his efforts to appear appropriately tough with Dix backfire. Instead of chastising Dix to pay off his gambling debt, the bookie merely angers the tough guy. Doc is impressed by the principals of this hoodlum, and makes a note to hire him later.

All the Pieces Start to Fall Into Place

The rest of the criminal group starts to come together. Gus will be the getaway driver. The Doctor will update his information and help the gang break into the jewel vault. Louie is a family man and professional safe-cracker. Dix feels that the big payday will allow him to buy back his family's horse farm. And Cobby will be the go-between for the financier and the crooks.

There's something about these folks I just don't trust.
Emmerich is introduced, and he's a slimy phony of a man. His bearing manages to project "educated big shot" to everyone around him, but he's rotten. He plays his cards close to the vest, whether he's talking to the police or his convalescent wife. He only lets his guard down around Angela, a 24 year-old Marilyn Monroe in the part that launched her film career.

Unfortunately, our nasty lawyer is too smitten with his doll, and plays the sugar-daddy so well that he's near bankruptcy. It's not as if the man doesn't ooze "double-crosser," it's just that impending poverty is his reason.

As with many caper flicks, the police are featured throughout the pic. One crooked cop shows up at Cobby's, nearly running into the crooks before they even get started. Dix is called in for a lineup identification - the old-fashioned, unwise kind where you can stare straight at your potential accuser. And there's an APB on Doc, since his release is seen as a guarantee that someone will get ripped off.

I won't say more about where this picture goes. Other characters - wives, friends, and would-be lovers pop in and out as the movie proceeds. All the players are circling each other as they get to their appointed places. The crime goes off with a bang - literally, since they need nitroglycerin to bust the safe…

Tasting and Judgment (borrowed from "Iron Chef")

There are simple reasons why I didn't like this film much. The broad cast helps the picture build its noir world nicely, yet there's so many characters that you don't get too deeply into any of them. Worse still, there's really no one to root for.

The cops are heavy-handed and unlikeable. Usually, what you'll like in their scenes is everything surrounding them. The crooked officer who's close to Cobby just acts weirdly - not in a fun "David Lynch" way, either... Louis Calhern's "Emmerich" probably gets the deepest characterization - but he's a despicable hedonist, which doesn't allow for much. The Doctor (Sam Jaffe) is really the only fun part, yet he's not supposed to be the lead of this movie; with more screen time, he could've made me get invested in the roles. Marilyn Monroe's scenes are brief; she looks pretty and unknowingly torments the older man who maintains her gilded cage. James Whitmore as "Gus" is the most sympathetic person in the picture. He's funny, caring, and surprisingly up-right. He too would've needed more time to get me emotionally involved in what I was watching...

These problems I'm outlining are really magnified in Dix (Sterling Hayden). It's true that the hired muscle isn't the sort of part that calls for nuance. But he's the first player that's introduced, and the movie spends so much time with him that I think of Dix as the lead. If he were more likable, it might have conflicted with the hard-boiled, back-white-and-grey nature of film noir. Yet the moments when he does open up are frustrating for someone who wants to get into the character.

Dix's weaknesses aren't limited to an obsession with his family's fallen status and gambling, nor a contempt for city life. Aside from his scenes with Gus and Doc R, Dix is utterly self-centered. It's thrust in the audience's face when Doll, a sweet showgirl played by Jean Hagen, asks him to put her up for a few days. It's one thing to notice Dix can't see that she has a crush on him. It's different, though, when he breaks up most chances at real conversation with her. At one point, he interrupts her so he can have a monologue about his family's horses, his desire to jump in a "crick" to wash off the filthy city air. He doesn't even look at her while he rambles...

It's not that the character's pettiness and self-involvement is unrealistic. The problem is that you see Dix really connect with his fellow hoods, at times seeming to open up to them in a non-rant fashion. So it's awkward when he blindly turns his back on the woman so he can have a petty soliloquy. As a member of the audience, it feels right and wrong at the same time. And it doesn't help us like him any more. Or maybe I just hate seeing women in need get roundly ignored.

Ultimately, there's just not enough in these roles to generate involvement and interest. This is disappointing, since film noir is a great background for character study. It's very different from "The Maltese Falcon," where every part, fair or foul, is vibrant and has a real effect on the viewer. Or "2001," where the different players are not supposed to be sympathetic - Stanley Kubrick pulls his audience in by placing those dull men in horrible, unnatural, danger.

In "The Asphalt Jungle," the quality of the direction and cinematography is unquestionable. Lovely shots abound. The dialogue is solid enough, and of a type that I tend to really enjoy. The ending, for all the characters, plays out very nicely - especially for Doctor Riedenschneider. Despite its strengths, I saw this movie on a day when I really needed to feel something for my cinematic characters - and I got too little of that for me to really have a good time.

Stunning, even in the era of awful lingerie.

Take my criticisms with a grain of salt - you might not agree, or might be in a different mood when you watch this. But do me a favor and ask yourself if this film would have been much better with a few parts expanded, a few parts cut down, and a handful of lines slightly re-written. I can't say "tAJ" isn't a classic, but I can say that I expected to enjoy it more than I did.

PS - if you've seen the original version of "Solaris," compare the final scene there with Dix's last on-screen moments. There's such a similarity, I had to ask myself if Tarkovsky ever saw Huston's work. Noticing this made me read that moment as interesting and hilarious all at once.

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