John Huston, 1950
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore
Doc, a criminal recently released from prison, immediately begins setting up a plan to steal more than a million dollars in jewelry. He soon assembles a team made up of Emmerich, a lawyer and their financial backer, Ciavelli, the safecracker, Gus Minissi, the getaway driver, and Dix Handley, the muscle. Emmerich agrees to front them some money and says he will take responsibility for selling off the jewelry. Though they each approach the job professionally, a nearby store’s alarm alerts the police and Ciavelli accidentally gets shot in stomach during their escape. Things go from bad to worse, as a man hunts begins for them, Emmerich fails to come up with their money, and he plans to betray them.
The Asphalt Jungle is not only an important film noir, but one of the most influential early caper films. The 11-minute, excellently staged heist scene is not only the centerpiece of the film, but went on to influence numerous crime films, including Rififi, Bob le Flambeur and other Jean-Pierre Melville films, The Killing, Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, and many more. Adapted from a novel by W. R. Burnett, Burnett is not as popular as his contemporaries like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but wrote a number of successful, influential novels and scripts. He also penned Little Caesar, as well as director John Huston’s earlier crime film, Bogart-vehicle High Sierra (1941).
I have to admit that The Asphalt Jungle is neither my favorite noir nor my favorite of Huston’s films. It doesn’t do anything new in terms of the noir canon, but does add something to the ever developing genre of crime films. The crooks here are treated as individual characters, as complex beings that exist on a gray scale, not just a continuum of black and white, moral and immoral, good and evil. There is the sense that these characters are all doomed, not because of the fatalistic universe they live in (as with much other film noir), but because of their flawed personalities and the poor choices they have made.
Aside from the impressive heist sequence, much of The Asphalt Jungle is also very talky and not a whole lot happens for the first half of the film. This period of inactivity is rescued by a number of fine performances. Sam Jaffe (The Day the Earth Stood Still) stars as Doc, with Anthony Caruso (Watch on the Rhine) as the safecracker, and James Whitmore (Planet of the Apes, Them!) as the hunchback driver Minissi. Sterling Hayden (Johnny Guitar) appears in one of his first leading roles as the tough-talking, but inherently sensitive dreamer, Dix. His dream is to use his share to buy his father’s farmland and he falls in love with Doll (Jean Hagen of Singin’ in the Rain and Adams Rib) even though he pretends not to care about her.
Though these characters are all relatively well-developed and more complex than your average movie criminal (at least in ‘40s and ‘50s cinema), they are overshadowed by the smooth, sly, and sophisticated Louis Calhern (Duck Soup, Notorious) as Emmerich, the corrupt lawyer. There is something appealing and maybe sympathetic about Emmerich, a high-class lawyer attracted to a life of crime, who has abandoned his wife in favor of a much, much younger mistress. His flighty mistress is unforgettably played by Marilyn Monroe in her first role. Though her acting certainly isn’t top notch, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her. Her role might be minor – she’s in the film for maybe five minutes total – it’s easy to understand why she went on to have such a huge career.
The Asphalt Jungle is available on DVD and comes recommended, though it doesn’t really rank on my list of top films noir, crime caper movies, or John Huston works. Its influence is undeniable though, and it’s worth watching to see how it went on to shape an entire genre of movies framed around lengthy heist scenes, following by injured men, man hunts, hideouts, and double-crossers.