Saturday, August 22, 2009

When good crime goes wrong

One of the dicta of the Production Code was that "crime does not pay". Still, people kept trying to buck the system, coming up with the "perfect" crime that just couldn't go wrong. One of the great examples of such a movie is The Asphalt Jungle, airing tonight at 8:00 PM ET as part of TCM's Essentials.

Sterling Hayden stars as Dix, a down-on-his-luck gambler who needs money to pay off a debt. Fortunately for him, there's a good way to get a bunch of money quick: notorious mastermind "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has just gotten out of jail, and corrupt lawyer Alfonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) has an idea for a heist that can net everybody tens of thousands of dollars (well, this is 1950, so "tens of thousands" would be worth a lot more today). Dix's job is to find the right people to fill several of the roles needed in the conspiracy. Fast forward to the night of the heist. At first, everything seems to go according to plan, but then, an alarm goes off, and when the police get there, one of them gets shot. Worse, things unravel much more whtn they get to Emmerich's place to divvy up the loot: Emmerich and his lawyer have decided they're going to double cross everybody else and take all the loot for themselves. But, needless to say, the rest of the gang try to turn the tables on the two turncoats, and, like most conspiracies, the bad guys wind up in an every man for himself situation. (Perhaps they should have watched Double Indemnity first, and they would have known they were supposed to go to the end of the line together.)

In real life, none of the characters would be appealing; there's no way we'd want to have any of them as friends. But this is a Hollywood movie, and as such, the people that populate a movie like The Asphalt Jungle are all fascinating in their lives of failure: Dix, living in a rathole, but dreaming of the childhood he used to know, and hoping he can take his girlfriend (Jean Hagen) back to the farm he grew up on; Doc, who just wants to go anywhere to retire; and Emmerich, who lives in the mansion looking to all the world as though he's respectable. But, not only is he planning crimes; he's got a mistress on the side. It's Marilyn Monroe, in one of her earlier (and smaller) roles. Monroe's presence naturally leads to the marketing idea that this is "her" movie, as her name would sell better than any of the others in the cast to those who aren't huge movie buffs. In fact, she's a minor character, although she does do a more than creditable job here.

The Asphalt Jungle is one of the great underrated crime movies, and deserves more attention. Thankfully, it has been released to DVD.

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