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Film / The Asphalt Jungle

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"Crime is only...a left-handed form of human endeavor."

The Asphalt Jungle is a 1950 Caper crime drama directed by John Huston, based on the novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett. It was the first major example of this trope while simultaneously being a deconstruction of it. It's also considered a classic of the Film Noir genre with an ensemble cast including Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, Sam Jaffe, Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, and, in a minor but key role, Marilyn Monroe, an unknown at the time who was pictured but not mentioned on the posters.

After getting out of prison, Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider goes to Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a bookie, with an idea for a diamond heist. Cobby puts him in touch with Alonzo Emmerich, a crooked lawyer, who agrees to front Doc and his crew in the heist, who eventually include Dix, a "hooligan" who's been in and out of prison, his friend Gus, who runs a diner, and Louis, a safe-cracker. What none of them know is Emmerich, who has money troubles, is looking to double-cross the gang by taking the diamonds for himself.

A solid (though not spectacular) hit when it was first released, Huston's film is now considered one of the classics in its genre, and one of the most influential Film Noir ever made. Trope Maker for The Caper and the heist film genre, inspiring several more heist films throughout the decade, including Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur, and Jules Dassin's Rififi.

This film provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Doc is a gentleman gangster with good manners.
  • All for Nothing: The heist fails due to a plethora of errors, namely Doc leching over a girl when he should be on the job.
  • Anyone Can Die: And so they do.
  • Arson, Murder, and Lifesaving: Commissioner Hardy is dissatisfied with Ditrich's performance on duty and has three options for him: Reduce him to patrolman, bring him up for trial on charges of incompetence or ... give him one more chance to make good on his responsibilities.
  • Avengers Assemble: The crew members for the caper are carefully selected by Doc.
  • Back-Alley Doctor: Mentioned briefly, but ultimately averted:
    • We can assume Louis dies because the special doctor came too late or not at all.
    • Dix refuses to seek help from any kind of doctor which seals his fate as well.
  • Calling Card: The nitro left in the safe by Louis.
  • The Caper: A deconstruction in which The Caper ends badly for all participants. Also the Trope Maker.
  • Caper Crew:
    • The Mastermind: Doc:
    • The Backer: Emmerich, though he turns out not to be trusted.
    • The Burglar: Louis.
    • The Brute: Dix.
    • The Driver: Gus.
  • City with No Name: The city remains anonymous in the movie. Apparently, the exterior scenes were shot in Cincinnati. One version of the script even mentioned the city by name but it was taken out because ironically, Cincinnati was facing police corruption at the time.
  • Con Men Hate Guns: Doc.
    "I haven't carried a gun since my twenties. You carry a gun, you shoot a policeman. Bad rap, hard to beat."
  • The Determinator: Commissioner Hardy will stop at nothing to catch the crooks.
  • Dirty Cop: Lieutenant Dietrich.
  • Dirty Old Man: Doc, and he's Hoist by His Own Petard because he stayed at a diner to watch a teenage girl dance long enough for the cops to show up.
    • Emmerich who has a mistress played by Marilyn Monroe, who calls him "Uncle Lon".
  • Downer Ending: And how!
  • Face Death with Dignity: How the ending seems to be for Dix, who hasn't enough blood to keep a chicken alive. He dies in the field surrounded by horses on an empty land.
  • Fatal Flaw: Almost like in a classic Greek tragedy, the characters had a weak spot which brought on their demise:
    • If Riedenschneider had only left 5 minutes earlier rather than indulge his penchant for young girls, he'd have gone free.
      • Also, when the railyard security guard mentions that some guys bring young girls there to have their way with them, Doc becomes transfixed by the info and allows his face to be illuminated by the guard's flashlight, which causes him to identify and try to apprehend Doc and Dix.
    • Emmerich and his penchant for luxury.
    • Cobby and his craving for admiration.
    • Dix and his gambling nature.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: The bad guys aren't all bad: one is a family man, one is tough but has an intense loyalty, even Dix has his generous side, a poor kid who just had a lot of bad breaks. And the good guys are hardly all good. One detective is corrupt, others are a bit slow, and the Commissioner comes across as a morally superior fanatic who sees everything in black and white. Adding an extra punishment for Dix...that he will be remembered only as the Commissioner describes him to the newspapers, as "a man without human feeling or human mercy," with his human, brave, and honorable sides being forgotten.
  • Herr Doktor: Doctor Riedenschneider with his thick German accent.
  • Honor Among Thieves: Gus is picked because he'll take the rap and not squeal, and the actual thieves show loyalty, trust, and even generosity with each other — Gus goes out on a limb to advance money to Dix; and after things fall apart, Dix still advances a large sum to Doc.
  • Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique: Ditrich uses this technique successfully on Cobby, slapping him and threatening worse for information.
  • Just Got Out of Jail: Doc has just completed a seven year sentence. He has no plans on going straight.
  • Meal Ticket: Emmerich, for Gold Digger Angela.
  • The Mistress: Angela, for Emmerich.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Marilyn Monroe, naturally...but in this early role, it's pretty downplayed, comparatively.
  • No Honor Among Thieves: While the actual thieves, including Doc, are loyal and even generous with each other, their financial backers (Emerich, Brannom, and Cobby) are a different story.
  • One Last Job: Emmerich, Dix and Doc all plan to retire after the caper.
  • The Perfect Crime: Subverted. Riedenschneider points this out after he is struck by the foot patrolman later in the film, that no matter how well a thing is planned, some small detail will be the one to trip you up, like the alarm, the gun accidentally going off and wounding the "boxman" or getting stopped by a simple foot patrol checking the trainyards.
  • Plethora of Mistakes: The caper goes awry mostly due to emotional misjudgements and plain, simple bad luck.
  • Pursued Protagonist: In the first scene, Anti-Hero hood Dix briskly walks through the street, hiding when a police car appears, while heading somewhere he can hide his gun before he is inevitably caught and searched.
  • Reliably Unreliable Guns: During his fight with the police man, Dix' gun drops to the ground and goes off, fatally wounding Louis in the process.
  • Suicide Note: Emmerich starts to write one to his wife, but he has second thoughts and destroys it before blowing his brains out.
  • Villain Protagonist: The story is told from the criminals' point of view.