‘The Asphalt Jungle’: Morals, Money and Marilyn

During the COVID-19 crisis, film fans have turned to streaming, with some of Marilyn’s movies gaining renewed attention – including Some Like It Hot, All About Eve, and perhaps more surprisingly, The Asphalt Jungle. John Huston’s classic heist drama, which turns 70 this year, is explored by Tiffany Brannan in a post for The Epoch Times, in relation to morality and censorship of the time. This got me thinking about Marilyn’s character Angela Phinlay, the sweet but shallow girlfriend of Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a corrupt businessman. Arguably her final scene, in which Emmerich urges her to ‘tell the truth’ about their affair, offers a partial redemption for them both. The Asphalt Jungle packs a moral punch, but the nuanced portrayal of its characters prevents it from becoming preachy.

“‘Film noir,’ the classic genre of crime and mystery films, isn’t usually considered uplifting. However, these films can be very entertaining and sometimes, surprisingly, inspiring. One such film is The Asphalt Jungle (1950). German criminal mastermind Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) arrives in a Midwestern city after his release from jail. He immediately visits bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) with a plan for a major heist. Fifty-thousand dollars will finance a jewelry store robbery yielding over $1 million in profit … Emmerich is a successful lawyer who, unknown to anyone, has gone bankrupt. He has an adoring invalid wife (Dorothy Tree) but maintains a mistress (Marilyn Monroe).

The plan becomes complicated when Emmerich agrees to finance it, although he is broke. He tells private detective Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) his double-crossing scheme. He will convince Cobby to supply the initial $50,000. Then, promising to ‘fence’ the jewelry, Emmerich will persuade the crooks to give him the jewels, go abroad, and sell them to start a new life. Brannom agrees to help for half of the profit.

If any movies are film noir, The Asphalt Jungle certainly is. It is frequently cited as an example of the genre’s criminal focus, for which people call noir notorious Code-violators. However, the Production Code did not forbid crime in films. It only forbade its glamorization, depictions likely to inspire imitation, and scenarios that created sympathy against the law … This film properly handles its characters’ crimes and sins. They never look right or justified. The climactic jewel theft is too complex to be imitated, and the criminals who execute it are unsympathetic … Emmerich’s infidelity is despicable, and he is so corrupt that he plans to betray his criminal cohorts and leave both his wife and mistress.

As the film ends with three criminals imprisoned and four dead, crime clearly doesn’t pay.”