Welcome to the Jungle

Without John Huston, we wouldn't even be here. By directing The Maltese Falcon, John Huston launched a whole new genre, film noir. The Asphalt Jungle isn't as famous a film, but it's every bit as good. Huston builds on 9 years of stylistic innovations in film noir since his landmark film and pushes beyond them into The Asphalt Jungle.

If The Maltese Falcon introduced viewers to archetypes--the tough detective, the femme fatale, the perverse villains--here Huston creates a world of layered, complex characters. The Asphalt Jungle doesn't just take us on a journey into the underworld, it takes us into the emotional lives of its inhabitants beginning with its antihero Dix Handley. Sullen Sterling Hayden is perfect as Dix, a Southerner who's exiled himself to the city until he can buy back the horseracing farm his family once owned and lost. Dix is a lot like Sam Spade, the detective hero played by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. Both men aren't squeaky clean, yet they adhere to an honour code. They may be in the underworld, but they're just passing through.

Stylistically, Huston's come a long way since his first noir. He's gotten out of the studio sets where The Maltese Falcon took place and into the city, and the exterior shots convey an arid urban wasteland. Swaths of light and shadow heighten the noir atmosphere. Huston also uses tight close-ups of one character or object in the foreground to restrict the background space where the other characters are, giving them little literal and figurative room to move.

Between raising cash from petty robberies and losing it all at the races, Dix gets nowhere but in debt to bookmaker Cobby. But he catches the eye of master thief Riedenschneider, an efficient German who moves directly from his prison release to planning his next heist at a jewelry store. Cobby's crooked lawyer friend Emmerich agrees to fund the heist plan but he's secretly broke thanks to a lavish lifestyle and even more lavish blond mistress (Marilyn Monroe, who steals every scene she's in just by breathing). Emmerich plans a double cross but the methodical, girl-obsessed Riedenschneider finds a simpatico if surprising ally in the passionate, horse-obsessed Dix.

And Dix's friend Doll is crazy about him, though he prefers to keep her at arm's length. Jean Hagen would later play the shrill diva for laughs in the classic musical Singing in the Rain. Here her tragicomic performance is poignant. She makes funny faces as she pulls off her fake eyelashes, but there's nothing to laugh about as her character finds herself broke and homeless and gingerly helped by the man she loves. It's that careful detail to the characters' internal lives that makes The Asphalt Jungle a worthwhile trip led by a true master filmmaker.

(June 12, 2002)

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