"Haven't you bothered me enough, you big banana head?"
What is the charm of older films? Often it's the in the depth of character, or the honest naivetÃ© of people not yet educated by a lifetime of over-the-top plotlines and special effects. Sure they didn't all live up to such quaintness - this impression has a lot to do with the better films being more popular, and more likely to have survived, but compare most any good modern film against these good old ones, and there is a difference.
Aside from certain modern sophistications, one big difference was the operation of the Hays Code, which started being enforced in Hollywood in 1934. The code banned all sorts of "immoral" depictions in film. There was to be no sympathy or reward for anyone doing something either a crime or a sin. So, generally crime films were told from the point of view of police or private detectives.
The Asphalt Jungle is different. It's told through the eyes of the criminals. We do feel sympathy for at least some of them, but that's a more difficult proposition to judge in absolute terms. It may be that the Code was beginning to crack this early before it's eventual abandonment in the sixties. Where the film decidedly sticks with the code is in the fact that none of them gets to enjoy the fruits of the crime (at least the one at the center of the film).
The characters are wonderful - the fastidious German mastermind, who sets upon the scheme the day he is released from prison. The bookie who acts as a go-between. The money man who is desperately out of money. And the closest thing to a protagonist we have, the good-hearted hooligan who has too strong a taste for the horses.
The plot unfolds with deliberate noir simplicity. There are complications. There are collusions. Everyone eventually gets the sort of treatment that they deserve, according to the movie's standards.
To me, this is the choice that makes the film work. In a modern film, this would rarely be seen. Can I properly "blame" the Hays code for this? I don't claim to understand the period well enough to say, but it didn't hurt. Instead of opting for simple sex and violence for ticket sales, the Code forced Hollywood to work harder to make good films that people wanted to see. I am not fond of measures like this which stifle creativity, but there's this seeming ironic result to raise the quality of such films. It's an overgeneralization to say this is the case. The pressure of censorship comes down on those who most need to make money - the studios. In the realm of (truly) independent film, it is a very real threat.
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