There were many heist films made before The Asphalt Jungle, but none explored the genre in quite so poised a fashion as Huston’s film, which was arguably the most impressive in his career to date, and one of the most striking within his body of work as a whole. Pairing the dreamlike atmosphere of Key Largo with the focus on collective action that drove We Were Strangers, the story unfolds in an unnamed Midwestern city, where a series of characters find themselves drawn into a heist on a bank vault. At the heart of the plan is “Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider, played by Sam Jaffe, a German immigrant who has just been released from prison, where he has spent his time coming up with a plan to finance his retirement in Mexico. Over the first act of the film, Doc enlists a number of people for the heist, but the most important two are Dix Handley, played by Sterling Hayden, a petty criminal who forms the brawn of the operation, and Alonzo D. Emmerich, played by Louis Calhern, a reputable businessman who decides to finance the heist. Unbeknownst to Doc and Dix, however, Emmerich is bankrupt after spending most of his fortune on his mistress Angela, played by Marilyn Monroe, and has come up with a scheme to keep all of the heist money for himself.
From the opening scenes, Huston presents the Midwest as a kind of intensified version of the noir cityscape, both more claustrophobic and more agoraphobic than the more typical New York and Los Angeles backdrops. This city, as we experience it, is little more than a series of gaps, spaces and vacancies, ranging from wide streets to silent intersections to drainage canals, all of which are entirely devoid of anyone except the main characters in the script. This emptiness and quietness means that even the smallest and narrowest streets seem to loom with something unknowable or imperceptible, making for the most poised of Huston’s films so far, so comfortable in the empty spaces and silences between characters and words that it stretches to almost two hours. While a crime wave is apparently taking place, it’s hard to tell from the city as we see it, which looks deserted rather than overrun by mobsters, too alienated and abstracted for any two characters or situations to make contact for any great length of time. The few exchanges that do occur are suffused with an existential hush, a preternatural calm, that surrounds and swallows up every word, as if all that the characters have to inhabit is the mere memory of an American city, set adrift in the wake of some barely-conceived event that has fragmented the urban texture beyond repair.
So wide and distended is this unnamed city that it quickly eclipses the Midwestern landscape beyond it, leaving nothing but itself as a point of reference, even as it seems increasingly capable of referring to itself, or offering itself as a site where its inhabitants can represent and understand themselves. That makes for an even more amoral vision than occurs in most noir, since even the most residual sense of morality is here displaced by the vast spaces between individuals and situation in Huston’s visual scheme. In fact, if this post-urban world has any moral code, it lies in upholding these spaces, and rendering radical individualism the only moral outlook available. For all of the characters, performing the heist is an attempt to leave this fragmented space – Doc is planning to head for Mexico, Emmerich is planning to abscond with the money to Cuba and Dix wants to head for his old family farm, in the Midwestern countryside, and “wash off the dirt of the city for good.” While Dix’s ambition might seem the most modest, it turns out to be the most unattainable, since while this Midwestern city might just be able to concede the possibility of other cities, or distant countries, it is incapable of conceiving any kind of broader Midwestern texture.
In part, that’s because of the way in which the heist promises to free the characters from the constrictions of the city. At one level, of course, this is due to the money that the heist will bring them. But it is also because the heist, as the film understands it, offers an opportunity for collective action that in and of itself provides a line of flight from the atomized and individualistic outlook that has fractured the Midwestern city where the film takes place. Escaping the city, and escaping the individualistic logic of the city, therefore become the same thing, meaning that it is easier to envisage escape as occurring somewhere outside the United States, where the individualistic logic that the characters are trying to elude is less enforced by American capitalism. In that gesture, The Asphalt Jungle lays the groundwork for a great deal of Midwestern noir, which was fascinated by the fact that Midwestern cities seemed easier to escape from – because they were smaller, more embedded in the rural landscape, less bogged down by corruption – but in fact spoke even more eloquently to the inescapable urban logic of American culture at this moment in time.
In The Asphalt Jungle, that fatal line of flight is presented as the logical conclusion of the heist, which proves quite difficult to articulate within the world that the film envisages. As with We Were Strangers, it feels as Huston has come up against the difficulty of conceptualising and visualising collective action – genuinely collective action – within the vocabulary and address of classical Hollywood. Whenever a genuinely collective impulse emerges in the plot, it’s immediately subsumed into an even stronger and more virulent individualism, as the collaborative ethos of the heist reiterates the inherently individualistic and competitive outlook of the society where it is taking place. The closer the characters come to one another, or the more they are forced to collaborate, the greater the gulf that opens up between them, while the closer they come to defying the spatial logic of the city, the more that spatial logic intercedes and opens up the void between them once again. In one of the most pregnant sequences during the heist itself, Huston cuts from the participants huddled in the bank to a shot of Dix staring out the window at the enormous streetscape below. Not only does this contrast immediately expand the space between each participant to the same amorphous urban sprawl, but it makes the prospect of capture seem almost redundant, so deeply is each characters ensconced in their own private space.
Beyond a point, the possibility of collective action thus segues into the possibility of this city as something that can be collectively mapped, bounded and, eventually, traversed. Suggesting that Hollywood can no more conceive of the city as a coherent entity than it can conceive of collective action as a coherent act, Huston transforms the heist from a discrete event to a dialectic relation with the city as a concept in itself, as the characters continually double-down on their individualistic identification with the city for the sake of steeling themselves to depart from it. As a result, the most emphatic moments of deep focus, and the moments when characters are crammed most expressively into the frame, tend to correspond with the most precarious and volatile narrative sequences. Even or especially when there are multiple people in the frame, Huston emphasises the spaces between them – the more people, the deeper the focus – evoking a city whose vast voids cushion and constrict the individual until the sheer proximity and presence of other people is alienating.
Unlike We Were Strangers, then, there is nothing inherently stabilising about collective action within the world of The Asphalt Jungle, which perpetually polices individualism at the expense of individuals. It is telling that the only two characters invested in the ethics of the heist are Doc, who transplants a more European urbanity onto this cityscape, and Dix, whose broad swagger and diction makes him a much more emphatically working-class character than most noir protagonists. Similarly, it is telling that the main person working against the heist, from within, is Emmerich, a wealthy businessman, along with his sidekick, a private investigator with connections to corrupt policemen. As the film proceeds, the conflict between the heist members and the police is displaced into a conflict between the “professional” members of the heist, and the “non-professional” (that is, immigrant and working-class) members of the heist. Interestingly, most of the police are presented as quite collective and collaborative, only for the interests of Emmerich, and big business, to intercede to prevent the collectivity of the heist and the collectivity of the police force from establishing a genuine dialogue. For the most part, this intercession is emotional, since Emmerich is easily the most emotionally manipulative character in the film, promulgating his individualism, and his ideology of individualism, through one “affecting” mise-en-scene after another, all of them consciously and conspicuously drawn from Hollywood convention.
In other words, the individualism of Hollywood has been absorbed by Emmerich and used to help him manage and maintain the individualistic fragmentation of the city he commands – a process that is diametrically opposed to the heist itself, but which also ensures that the heist is doomed to fail before it has even begun. Unlike so many subsequent heist films, the actual heist here thus plays a fairly minimal role, as Doc and Dix momentarily compartmentalise the city into so many discernible points of entry and exit – bank, vault, safe – only to be even more debilitated by the looming absence of the streets when they finally return outside. Once they’ve escaped, any encounter with the public, however incidental, feels tantamount to capture, and yet these encounters also feel necessary too, as if the heist were just the first stage in escaping the city through the city. In a kind of accelerationism, the aftermath of the heist forces Doc and Dix to adopt an even more paranoid individualism than Emmerich, or than the city itself, as they finally recognise it for the antagonist that it is, and shape all their encounters so that they are surrounded by the maximum amount of empty space possible. At times, this process feels like Huston revisiting the spatial scheme of The Maltese Falcon a decade later, and finding that the disconnected rooms, corridors and streets of his first film have been dissociated into an even more dreamlike distention, incapable of even remembering their original relation to each other.
It is only through this intensified identification with the city that various forms of escape start to emerge, although none of them end up being enduring. The first comes when Angela, Emmerich’s girlfriend, imagines them both going to Cuba, the location of We Were Strangers. Clearly, this is a fantasy, since at the very moment she articulates it, Emmerich is being escorted to jail. Yet even the way she imagines Cuba – as a capitalistic pleasure-cruise, replete with every commodity available – removes it as a horizon of escape, collapsing it back into the individualistic and competitive outlook of the city where she lives. The next line of flight comes with Doc, who takes a cab to the outskirts of the city, and then decides to pay the driver to take him onto Cleveland, after learning that he is also German. For a while, as they converse in their native tongue, it feels as if Doc may indeed return from American alienation to the urbane textures of his youth, especially once he and the driver pull into a diner and he pays a group of young adults to put some records on the jukebox and show him the latest dance moves. Yet as he watches them, a long shot shows him gradually, inexorably realising that escaping America is as impossible as returning to his youth – or that the two are the same thing – as Huston’s camera pans past the gyrating bodies of the next generation to a pair of police officers waiting to apprehend Doc outside. In this moment, the vision of noir, and of the expatriate German expressionists who helped formulate noir, feels utterly exhausted, just as Doc feels like a cipher for those expressionists, now finally subsumed into an American urban nightmare that not even his sharpened perception and European urbanity can navigate anymore.
The final trajectory belongs to Dix and his erstwhile girlfriend, Doll, played by Jean Hagen, who escapes with him by car from the city, and takes over the wheel after he is fatally shot on the road. The stage is now set for one of the main touchstones of late noir – an endless drive by night that seems to perpetually glimpse some kind of space beyond the city and its capital, only for the audience to realise that the city is still all around them, and that the oppressive urban logic of American is even stronger when explicit urban infrastructure is no longer discernible or visible. For if urban America has replaced everything else, all that exists outside the cities is void, blank space especially on the peripheries of those cities in the Midwest where the outside seems more present and possible than in the densely built East and West Coast megalopolises. If there is a key shift from the 40s to the 50s, and from noir to late noir, then it is in this awareness that the city has gone from a place to a inescapable structure of feeling – a feeling that films like The Naked City, Night and the City, While the City Sleeps and Where the Sidewalk Ends would try to anatomise, closing the gap between fiction and their documentary in their efforts to testify to this new and looming sombience.
In The Asphalt Jungle, that all ends with an image of stunning bucolic beauty – a rolling hill, with horses grazing peacefully, and a small farmhouse sitting in the distance. It’s Dix’s home, and he arrives just as his wound gets the better of him, collapsing as Doll runs to the farmhouse for help, and dying as the horses start to nuzzle around his body. If one part of the tableau were less perfectly appointed, then this would merely play out as a human tragedy, evoking a world that was theoretically available for Dix to enjoy, but that circumstances prevented him from reaching. Yet the grandeur and plasticity of this mise-en-scene – of the greatest in Huston’s career to date – is so pronounced that it is beyond Dix, and beyond the film, before we even arrive at it. Less a concrete place, and more a figurative horizon to late noir itself, this final tableau remains stunningly indifferent to Dix and Doll – she vanishes into the distance, the horses soon lose interest in him – and yet that doesn’t make the image feel any less real. Instead, it’s Dix and Doll who feel unreal, caught in a celluloid labyrinth of images that has engulfed any stable bedrock of reality, leaving them adrift in the same dreamlike distention that opens the film. In that sense, The Asphalt Jungle is perhaps also the first work of neo-noir, the first film to use the vocabulary of classic noir to evoke a world that has become unable to think of itself outside of cinematic images.