THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950)

  • Director: John Huston
  • Writers: Ben Maddow and John Huston, based on the novel by W.R. Burnett
  • Starring: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Anthony Caruso, Marc Lawrence, Barry Kelley, Brad Dexter, and Marilyn Monroe
  • Accolades: Shown at the 1950 Venice International Film Festival, 4 Oscar nominations (Best Director – John Huston, Best Supporting Actor – Sam Jaffe, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography – Black & White)
  • Where to Watch: Stream (with cable subscription) on TCM App, stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The Asphalt Jungle is perhaps my favorite type of movie for this site, something I’ve never seen or really thought about seeing, but that turns out to be, if not a great work of art, pretty much a perfect version of what it sets out to do. Added to The Criterion Channel this month as part of a retrospective on the films of the great director John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle can claim in some ways to be the prototypical “heist film.” It’s hard to imagine today, but at the time Hollywood wasn’t really into making movies with criminals as the heroes, because it thought the public wouldn’t want them. Its studio, MGM, mostly did not make the Film Noirs favored by many other studios at the time, and its head, Louis B. Mayer, favored big, cheerful musicals. Mayer commented upon seeing the first cut of The Asphalt Jungle that he “wouldn’t cross the street to watch this movie.” But Huston had enough clout to get the thing made, and he proved to be prescient in this regard.

I have always thought of a series of French films from the mid-50s, influenced by Film Noir but not defined by it, as the earliest heist movies. These include Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and Bande Á Part. But The Asphalt Jungle predated all of these, and in fact is the earliest movie listed on the “List of Caper Films” Wikipedia page that I just figured out existed. While Huston’s The Maltese Falcon became sort of the prototype of the hyper-stylized noir mystery, The Asphalt Jungle feels startlingly modern. One of Huston’s strokes of genius is to take the determined realism of early Italian Neorealist films like Il Ladri Bicicletta and apply it to a Hollywood crime film. This is a story set not in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, but in a vaguely crumbling, unnamed, unglamorous Midwestern city (it was filmed mostly in Cincinnati and Lexington, Kentucky).

Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has a studious manner, glasses, and a German accent, gets out of prison with a plan to steal a million dollars’ worth of jewelry. He goes to a local lawyer and known fence (Louis Calhern) for funding. His team includes a safecracker (Anthony Caruso) and a heavy (Sterling Hayden), in case anyone needs to be beat up. Hayden’s character, Dix, is the closest thing the movie has to a hero. He is desperately sick of this run-down town and just wants to make enough money to buy back the family horse farm in Kentucky. He is mostly clueless as to the advances of the somewhat pathetic “Doll” (Jean Hagen, best known for playing the screech-voiced Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain), who is also looking for someone to save her from this pointless life, it seems.

The heist is actually only a fairly small part of the film, though it’s well done and not so dissimilar from many subsequent movie heists. A modern viewer may find it a bit strange that it comes at almost the precise mid-point of the movie. From there, things go very wrong, and therein lies sort of the point of the whole thing. None of our characters is a self-assured Danny Ocean. The heist goes wrong, someone drops a gun and it goes off, shooting the safecracker. It turns out that the fence doesn’t actually have their money (despite his apparently lavish lifestyle, he is secretly bankrupt), leading a somewhat haphazard attempted double cross. After that, the police close in. Doc pays a taxi driver to drive him to Cleveland, while Dix and Doll try to flee back to Kentucky. None of this works out, and everyone ends up either dead or arrested. In a weird way, the unheroic, non-Hollywood qualities of the ending make it even more heroic and affecting. The movie’s final image is of Dix, having finally made it back to the family farm, collapsing dead in a field as the horses continue to go about their business.

The movie is certainly helped by its universally great performances. Jaffe, a long-time character actor whose later roles included The Day the Earth Stood Still and Ben-Hur, gives a performance as Doc that is probably the showiest, and was the one that received an Oscar nomination at the time. It’s certainly pitch perfect. Hayden, who was sick of Hollywood at the time and just wanted to get out, very similar to his character, is great in the role of a deeply world-weary thug. The role to some extent revived his career. Louis Calhern, another veteran character actor, similarly brings many layers to his semi-respected member of the community, desperately clinging to the trappings of his life. Marilyn Monroe makes an early appearance as the younger, mid-life-crisis of a mistress to Calhern’s character (later releases would give her first billing, but her part is probably the eighth or ninth biggest in the movie). As with all of her roles, she brings an entirely different energy to the movie whenever she’s on screen.

That modern feel comes as much from Huston’s direction and the cinematography of Harold Rosson as it does from the performances or plot. Rosson is best-known today for his massive, well-lit technicolor work for MGM, including The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain. But here he and Huston create a very different-looking movie. Many scenes are played without cuts, in single shots, but not in a particularly showy way. Like Antonioni a decade later, Huston creates visual interest and movement through changing the relationships of the actors within the frame, instead of changing the frame itself. He often starts with our eyes drawn to an incident in one part of the screen, before revealing that what’s really important is an actor with their back to us closer to the camera, or in the background, without actually making a cut. The whole proceeding feels like an effortless masterpiece.

The Asphalt Jungle is so down-to-earth that it seems hard to imagine that a direct line can be drawn from here to Mission: Impossible or the Soderbergh Ocean’s Eleven films, but I think it can. I also think that it plays just as well today, if not better, than it would have at the time. There’s one scene, where everyone has guns pointed at each other and then all hell breaks loose all at once, that is not so much different in content than what I’ve seen in other movies than it is the very best version of this that I’ve seen in anything. And yes, Tarantino-heads, that includes in Reservoir Dogs. Unlike some other movies we cover on here, The Asphalt Jungle isn’t just “important” in film history, it remains wildly entertaining. Honestly, the idea that I didn’t find this one of our “Greatest Movies” lists as opposed to some of our other entries confounds me, but I guess everyone has their own taste, and I feel the same way about Alien, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, and a few dozen other movies.

One aspect of The Asphalt Jungle that feels anachronistic today is that, despite being a “gritty” take on life in the city, it contains no minorities whatsoever. It seems that few batted an eye at this sort of thing at the time, though today it seems bizarre. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the same novel by W.R. Burnett has been re-adapted at least three different times in other contexts, including 1972’s Cool Breeze, which has a mostly-Black cast. It was also made into a TV series, also called The Asphalt Jungle, which weirdly had almost no relation to the movie and had cops as the heroes.

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