John Huston’s film, The Asphalt Jungle, is a noir-heist story about great plans gone awry through chance and greed – what else would you expect? As the Encyclopedia of Film Noir remarks, the opening sequence establishes the supposed location of a mid-western city, while Dix moves through a De Chirico cityscape, avoiding the cops. (A later scene shows the Los Angeles city hall partly visible in the background.) This is the urban wilderness through which the predatory criminal beasts, large and small, prowl and seek their prey.
Doc, a German immigrant criminal mastermind, has just been released from serving jail time and he has a masterpiece of a plan to knock off a big jewelry emporium, but he needs operating funds. He finds a backer in the plush quarters of the jungle, in Emmerich, a thoroughly corrupt lawyer who is broke, despite his opulent lifestyle. He assembles a team from the available population of criminal inhabitants of their fair city.
The heist goes pretty well, but accident intervenes and one man is shot by a pistol that goes off in a tussle. Blowing the safe sets off alarms all down the block. Naturally, the lawyer has worked out his own angle on the take that will fix his cash-flow problems. The interest of the film is in the interplay of the characters: smooth, rotten Emmerich; quiet, philsophical Doc; tough, but inwardly vulnerable Dix; Doll, his devoted would-be moll; Gus, the hunchback driver who is intensely loyal to Dix; Cobby, the sweaty, smarmy, weak-kneed paymaster; and the ladies – Emmerich’s invalid wife and his gorgeous mistress, Angela, who calls him Uncle. (Marilyn Monroe, stunning, in one of her first roles.)
The three principal males have intense and troubled relationships with women. For two of them, it’s their undoing; for the third, it could have been salvation.
Alonzo Emmerich keeps Angela on the side, and she is a big part of what bankrupts him – just look at her! Surely, she loves diamonds! When the jig is up, she walks in, retracts her earlier statement of an alibi for Uncle, and then sits and spills her guts. Uncle is very understanding; the force of The Law looks on stoically.
Doc seems like a nice old guy who is too mature for girlie stuff, but a stray moment finds him cooly perusing a cheescake calendar in their meeting room – clearly he has a weakness for young flesh too. He tells Dix to come with him to Mexico after the caper; the young girls are very pretty!
During his getaway, he stops for a meal at a diner and sees some kids on a cheap night out. The girl is mad because her friends don’t have any more nickels for the jukebox, such no-class guys! Doc dumps a pile of coins on her table and asks her to enjoy herself. Salome and Herod take their places.
She dances for him, and Doc is very pleased. But he isn’t the only one watching.
City and country: Dix’s family lost their lovely farm in old Kentucky when times got hard, but he dreams about it at night, talks of it, and declines Doc’s invitation to Mexico saying he only wants to go home. Doc warns him – going home’s not worth it. “I’ve tried it.” For Dix, the farm is his escape from the asphalt jungle.
Emmerich is undone by a woman, Doc is undone by his fascination with young girls, but Dix thinks only of going home. Doll wants to be his girl, but only hangs on, hoping Dix will get some sense and let her love him. She can’t save him, so she witnesses his frenzied last dash down the home stretch while the police commissioner lectures the press corps, letting them listen in to the calls for help from the victims in the asphalt jungle. Only one criminal from the gang is left to catch, Dix, “a hooligan without a trace of human emotion.”
But Dix is human, all too human. A thug, but inside, an innocent, vulnerable boy. He has a bullet in his gut, but he has to make it back home!