Sunday, January 10, 2010

NOIR CITY #2: TREES OF CEMENT



The Asphalt Jungle by W.R. Burnett (1949)




One of my pet theories is that nothing beats a good movie for solidifying an author's reputation. Would Hammett be so revered if they'd only made The Maltese Falcon twice? Would Chandler be, well, Chandler without a string of memorable screen Marlowes? And where would Mario Puzo be without Francis Ford Coppola?

W.R. Brunett pretty much torpedoes this theory. One critic noted, "More good movies have been made from W.R. Burnett's novels than Fydor Dostoyevsky's." Burnett's first novel, Little Caesar, became the seminal gangster movie that made Edward G. Robinson a star. High Sierra was memorably filmed with Bogart. And The Asphalt Jungle was not only filmed by Huston, starred Sterling Hayden, and launched the career of certain big-titted blond, it was also the first modern caper movie.

Three big movies and pfft. All this cinematic credibility hasn't meant jack in publishing royalties for the Burnett estate; the last edition of The Asphalt Jungle was in 2002. Which is too bad. Burnett was the "Boswell of Noir City," the premier chronicler of the intersection between the underworld and ostensibly respectable society in urban America during the mid-20th century. His writing was terse, low key, and subtly minimalistic. There may not be a lot of shooting or psychodrama in his books, but I defy you to put one down.

The Asphalt Jungle is a bonafide noir classic. It is an early, if not the first modern caper novel, a seldom-surpassed depiction of a carefully assembled gang of criminals acting in unison to take down a large institution. At the center is "Professor" Erwin Riemenschneider, a master thief recently released from prison. He has a plan to take a local jewelry store for $500,000. But while his plan may be foolproof, it's no match for chance, venality and human fallibility.

His hand-picked team are more than up to the job: Bellini, the safe-cracker turned family man, and Dix, the job muscle who dreams of going back home. Unfortunately Emmerich, the hot-shot shady lawyer who's supposed to arrange to fence the jewels, has blown his wad and then some on some fancy red-head. He has no fence, just an utterly half-baked plan to run off with all the jewels.

The job goes off as planned, but the jewels are barely out of the safe before fate intervenes. A chance encounter with a night watchman and an accidentally discharged gun fatally injures Bellini. Emmerich's attempt to grab the jewels fails, but he does manage to wing Dix in the process. This little scuffle gets the cops on his tail. He later kills himself when his little redhead realizes that being his alibi could get her in trouble.

After lying low a few days, Dix and the Professor go their separate ways. The Professor manages to find a cabbie who will drive him to Cleveland and safety. Unfortunately, he is done in by a personal weakness that "...caught him in a trap as a cheese catches a mouse." At a meal break at a roadside diner, he is distracted by his personal passion: a young girl. As he dawdles around flirting with her, he is spotted by a few motor cops and immediately arrested.

Dix is the only one to make it...sorta. His pathetically devoted chippy girlfriend Doll manages to drive him back to the family homestead down south. But things are going pretty bad on the old homestead; in fact, his family's had to sell the family farm and move into some dump in town. But by then, Dix is so delirious for his wounds he can't quite grasp this, and he dies before fully understanding that you can't go home again.

I'm betting no one's going to be getting away with any jewels either when The Asphalt Jungle screens at the Castro on January 24th.


3 comments:

Jenny Longshot said...

ACK I AM SO HAPPY YOU HAVE A BLOG! I AM FREAKING OUT! I LOVED MCBF THE ZINE.

Aimee Marieee said...

Just rewatched Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove as Jack D. Ripper, so I really have to rewatch Asphalt Jungle! Thanks for another great post!!

Nancy Mattoon said...

Interesting story, but Martin Scorsese never had anything to do with Mario Puzo. I know they're both Italian diectors, but it was Francis Ford Coppola who directed "The Godfather" if that was the Puzo-Film connection you had in mind...