In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.
In this, the eighth in my limited series of film observations, I thought I would give a shout out to one of the more exciting noir themes: the caper. I have to admit that crime does appeal to me, ( I should be very specific here, crime in film), especially in black and white films, especially when great planning is a key ingredient, great planning and human foibles.
Both of my selections this time are excellent films. One, the 1950 thriller, The Asphalt Jungle, was helmed by John Huston, a seasoned pro at the top of his game. The other, the 1956 classic, The Killing, was guided by Stanley Kubrick, close to the beginning of his stellar career.
There of course have been a wealth of caper films but for my money, my hard-earned and never gained by committing a caper money (although, as a teen, I did speculate on crime but that was, thankfully, adolescent bravado), these two films head the list.
I may mention a few of the other interesting caper films along the way just to name drop. We will see.
Caper Noir: The Asphalt Jungle
The Asphalt Jungle has an outstanding opening montage. The look is of a desolate city. Cops are on the prowl. Crime is out of control. Our antihero is on the lam. The city, stark, drab, looking possibly bombed out, is actually Cincinnati. Our ambulatory fellow in flight enters a café with signage: American Food on one outer wall and Home Cooking on the front. The café is next to Pilgrim House (not to be confused with Provincetown’s Pilgrim House which I wasn’t but I had to google it.) We are in an empty heart of America.
Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) is suspected of pulling a ton of lone gunman heists. Moments in, we have no doubt that he is a stick-up artist. And that he has associates. James Whitmore as his food joint restauranteur/buddy, Gus Minissi, is a standout.
We soon learn that Dix is pretty much a hard case gunsel with not much going for him but his toughness.
The conspiracy comes together. There are a range of participants. Among them are the smooth money man, Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern), and the brains, the one who has the complex vision and skill, Doc Irwin Riedenschneider, played by Sam Jaffe. Jaffe inhabits the calm and focused skin of Doc Riedenschneider and was the only actor in the film to garner an academy award nomination (best supporting actor) losing to the excellent George Sanders in All About Eve. Coincidentally,Calhern, who plays the desperate crime financier in the Asphalt Jungle was nominated that same year for Best Actor in The Magnificent Yankee, a film about Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes.
To return briefly to Sam Jaffe, whilst in this film he portrays a brilliantly criminal mastermind with (spoiler alert) devastating carnal tendencies, I best remember him as the High Llama in the classic paradise found and misplaced film version of James Hilton’s novel, Lost Horizon.
Returning briefly to Doc Riedenschneider’s downfall, the actress who assisted his carnal demise was Helene Stanley who had a varied film and private life, modest in some regards but she was briefly married to Johnny Stompanato and also served as the model for Disney’s Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.
The Asphalt Jungle is singularly blessed with an early performance by Marilyn Monroe as a femme fatale. She is a thumb sucking fatale of course at this stage of her career but she enlivens the film, gives a sort of boudoir excellence that plays well against the dark, bleak urban setting.
A couple of small asides on two actors who ever so briefly appear in the film early on. The police have picked up Dix on a vagrancy charge and he and two others are in a lineup.
One of the other two felons, William Doldy, is played by an excellent character actor, Strother Martin. It was his second film, and uncredited. Martin would appear in some outstanding films later in life.
In 1969 he was in three of the great westerns, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, and True Grit. He had a notable role as fraudulent guru in 1966’s Harper, one of two films made from the works of superior mystery writer Ross MacDonald, both starring Paul Newman.
The following year he uttered one of the great cinematic lines as the prison warden in Cool Hand Luke : “What we have here is…. failure to communicate.”
Henry Corden plays Karl Smith, the other man in the lineup. I should note here that the three fellows in the line-up are all different heights. The cops have a witness to what we know is the stick-up Dix has done. The robber was tall. Corden was 6’1”. Martin was 5’ 5”. Hayden was 6’ 41/2” but seemed much taller standing next to Martin who was in the middle of the other two.
Corden was in the early stages of his career and spent much time in television. He gained immortality as he provided the voice of Fred Flintstone, was even doing the voice months before his death at age eighty-five in 2005.
The Asphalt Jungle was based on the W.R. Burnett novel. Burnett authored a host of books, and a number were made into quality films. Little Caesar and one of my favorite films, High Sierra were products of Burnett’s vast talent.
I should also note that there are at least three film adaptations of The Asphalt Jungle. A western, 1958’s The Badlanders, staring Alan Ladd, Cairo, made in 1963 and starring George Sanders, and a blaxpoitation film from 1972, Cool Breeze.
Caper Noir: The Killing
Stanley Kubrick’s, The Killing, is a magnificent piece of work. Also starring the great, gruff, take no prisoners actor, Sterling Hayden, it is another ensemble crime masterpiece that unfolds with alarming alacrity.
In this film, Hayden is the linchpin, the driving force, the organizational big cheese. He is the planner and brooks little disagreement. As you will see, assuming the film is new to you, while he has or forms close relationships with a few of the participants, they are all operating independently. Within that individualistic motif, there are many separate but moving parts. Like a criminal Rube Goldberg machine, Hayden’ s character, Johnny Clay manipulates/buys/shapes his brilliant game of theft.
The femme fatale here is one of the best, Marie Windsor. Her acting is sleasy great.
Most of all, the ensemble company is brilliant, equal in my view to the fine assemblage in The Asphalt Jungle. Two standout performances are rendered by character actors, Jay C. Flippen, and Elisha Cook Jr.
Cook had already made an indelible mark in holiday essaying two powerful role in two iconic films.
In The Maltese Falcon, he played a vicious yet somewhat inept foil for Bogart’s Sam Spade. In Shane, he played the doomed farmer an son of the Confederacy, Stonewall Torrey
Another great character actor was Jay C Flippen. Flippen had a long career in a range of entertainment sectors including being a song smith and sports announcer. In a host of classic post war noir and westerns (especially the films of Jimmy Stewart) he was a standout. He spent much of the last decade of his life in a wealth of television appearances.
As the film unfolds, its documentary quality draws you in. The voice over keeps you and the conspirators on track and on time.
Time is the key.
And so are the players. And they are a collection of misfits. Things quickly start going awry. Each has his own foible and as they unfold, the crime, their crime, falls into disarray. So, a quality about caper films is the rise and fall of the participants.
At one point in the film, we find our selves in a chess, checkers, and scrabble club. The scene was filmed in the iconic New York City location known as the Flea House. This slight but entertaining diversion showcases another of the conspirators: Maurice Oboukhoff, played by Kola Kwariani, also known as Nick the Wrestle who was a habitue of the Flea House
One final character actor to note here (and I am leaving out some other sparking ones) is Timothy Carey. He plays Nikki Arcane, a hired assassin. Carey was a fascinating character in his own right. Feel free to check him out.
Final Thoughts: Each of these excellent films depict a criminal subculture that engages, reveals, and ultimately exposes their (spoiler alert) downfall. Caper films are often exciting and worth a viewer’s time. A couple of other noirish classics I would like to leave you with are Richard Fleischer’s 1950 heist film, Armored Car Robbery, and the somewhat obscure 1958 film, The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery, with Steve McQueen in an early role. There are countless others to delve into but these two offer a nice contrast. Fleischer was a master filmmaker and packs some great plot twists and location shots into Armored Car Robbery.
Charles Guggenheim, the producer/co-director of TGSLBR, went on to an excellent career as a documentary filmmaker and was nominated for a dozen Academy Awards for his work winning in two. TGSLBR was based on an actual crime and even utilized some of the same police officers involved. Though an interesting footnote in the caper genre, ultimately it is a lesser albeit curious project.
About The Author
Bill Engleson is a retired social worker, Pickleball aficionado, energetic novelist, poet, humorist, essayist, flash fictionista, an engaged community volunteer, and pro-vaccine fellow and is resident on Denman Island in British Columbia. He has published one noirish social work novel, Like a Child to Home, which received an Honourable Mention at the inaugural 2016 Whistler Independent Book Awards. In 2016, Silver Bow Publishing released his second book, a collection of humorous literary essays entitled
During the pandemic, his poetry appeared in five poetry anthologies, including the recent release of Word Weaving’s syllabic verse, The Moons of Autumn. His entry in the 2021 Owl Canyon Hackathon was published in the anthology, From The Corner of My Eyes.
He has any number of writing projects in the hopper including In 200 Words or Less, a local monthly column in Denman Island’s The Flagstone, Drawn Towards the Sun, a prequel to his first novel, and a detective mystery set in the 1970’s, A Short Rope on a Nasty Night.