“One way or another we all work for our vice.”
When criminal mastermind, the physically unprepossessing Doc (Sam Jaffe) is released from jail, he has a plan for a crime caper. Unfortunately Doc doesn’t have the necessary funds to fund the venture, so he approaches petty criminal and bookie Cobbie (Mark Lawrence) in his lair with the plan. Cobbie doesn’t have the capital either, so he suggests they approach lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) for the $50,000. Emmerich is eager to join in the deal. He has a number of problems of his own. He’s broke, has a bed-ridden bore of a wife, and a nubile young mistress (Marilyn Monroe).
The plan is to hire a hooligan, a driver and a box man for the robbery of a jeweler’s shop. So the plan is immediately two-tiered–one level is composed of the men who actually take the risks (and get the smaller share of the loot), and the second level is composed of the men with the money and the connections. The Asphalt Jungle represents the world as a rotten place with layers of criminality, with the weak preying on the weaker. A crooked policeman, Lt. Ditrich, regularly leans on Cobbie. In turn, Ditrich’s boss isn’t fussy about getting results and considers beating people up an acceptable means of behaviour. None of the characters represent any sort of moral core. They survive, and sometimes they help each other out, but The Asphalt Jungle is an ugly, cruel and corrupt place.
The Asphalt Jungle succeeds so well due to strong characterizations. Lawyer Emmerich is corrupt and ready to bail out into a new life in Mexico. His Achilles’ heel is the lovely and no doubt expensive Angela Phinlay (a very young Marilyn Monroe). Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) is hired as the hooligan–he’s a farm boy whose nasty little gambling habit is his weakness. Dix does have some sort of code of behaviour, but it’s been corrupted along the way, and he’s almost lost touch with that side of himself. He dreams of making the one big score that will allow him to go home again. Doc may be brilliant, but even he has his little weaknesses. The Asphalt Jungle is one of the best crime caper films ever made, and I recommend it highly to all film noir fans. If you like film noir to be gritty and hard-boiled, then you really don’t want to miss this one. DVD extras include the trailer, an introduction to the film from director John Huston, and comments from cast member, James Whitmore.