Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison and he’s planning a big caper. It’s a fool-proof plan to knock over a jewellery story and steal a million dollars in jewels.
He needs someone to put up fifty grand for operating expenses. Using bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) as an intermediary he approaches crooked lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern).
Meanwhile small-time stick-up man Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) needs $2300 badly to pay a gambling debt. His pal Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) can advance him a grand and persuades Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) to find the rest of the money.
We have indications very early on that this heist is likely to run into trouble. There are warning signs, in fact we’re pretty sure that a major double-cross is going to go down.
That’s bad enough, but bad luck takes a hand as well. You can plan a robbery in intricate detail but you just can’t predict the trivial little things that are are likely to go wrong, and that’s how guys end up in the penitentiary.
Our sense that things are going to go badly wrong turns out to be correct. It’s then a question of whether there’s still a chance of getting clear before the cops close in.
Dix resembles Roy Earle from High Sierra, another W.R. Burnett story. Both have a yearning to return to the past, to their rural boyhoods, and the past is wildly romanticised in their minds. There’s a lot decency in Dix. He can’t bring himself to treat Doll badly. Doll is a hooker and she’s crazy about Dix. He thinks she’s a nuisance but cruelty is just not in his nature.
Louis Calhern as Emmerich, Sam Jaffe as Riedenschneider and James Whitmore as Gus are all very good. This is a movie that focuses more on the characters, and the interactions between the characters, than on plot (although the plot is actually very solid).
Don’t get too excited by the prominence given to Marilyn Monroe on the re-release posters. Hers is strictly a bit part, although it has to be said that she’s fun as Emmerich’s ditzy mistress Angela.
This is film noir but there’s no femme fatale. Doll is perhaps a sad character but she’s goodhearted and devoted Dix. Angela isn’t really a femme fatale. Her attraction to Emmerich is clearly based entirely on his money but she’s pretty open about it and she’s sweet and good-natured.
The Asphalt Jungle is top-notch entertainment.
I’ve also reviewed W.R. Burnett’s novel, on Vintage Pop Fictions.