Thursday, September 11, 2008

Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950)

Noir, of the caper-gone-wrong variety. Even the double-crosses fail, people with less nerve than required die, and so do people with nerve. Dix (Sterling Hayden) is a gambler and hooligan, waiting for one big win that will allow him to go back to Kentucky to be with the horses. He has friends, the hunchback Gus (James Whitmore) and the dancer Doll (Jean Hagen) loves him. Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe), fresh from seven years “behind the walls,” has a good plan for a heist, and brings in bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence), and then lawyer Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern) as investors. Emmerich—who has a bedridden wife and a cute girlfriend (Marilyn Monroe)—tries and fails to cheat the crew. During the heist things go wrong, the safecracker, a family man, gets shot by a richochet bullet from a dropped pistol, the nitro sets off burglar alarms next door, and Dix gets shot a little later by Emmerich’s sidekick who’d attempted another cross. Cobby talks, Gus is arrested, Doc is arrested while taking a break in a cab ride to Cleveland as he watches a pretty teenaged girl dance, and Dix and Doll manage to get away and they drive to Kentucky—but he’s lost too much blood, and dies under the cloudy sky in a pasture, surrounded by horses. Most of the film is shot in classic noir style, largely at night, and it’s populated by grotesques and character studies. The writers inject a speech by the police commissioner to reporters, to the effect that without police on the job, even though some may be corrupt, the world would be nothing more than a jungle. Dix—played by Hayden mostly with a straight-up, calm power, a direct gaze, and one or two flickers of feeling—is really damaged, carrying the long hurt of losing his father, his home, and his world, and though he is tough and unafraid, he’s not mean, not brutal. He does what is needful and no more. But even that is too much.

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