The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
January 4, 2022 3:02 PM - Subscribe

A major heist goes off as planned, but then double crosses, bad luck and solid police work cause everything to unravel.

Recently released from prison, Doc Erwin (Sam Jaffe) concocts a plan to steal $1 million in jewels. Doc gathers a team of small-time crooks, including Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a safecracker (Anthony Caruso) and a lawyer (Louis Calhern), and the heist is a success until a stray bullet kills one of the men. As they scramble to pick up the pieces after the theft, the men let their greed get the best of them while entangling themselves in webs of deceit, treachery and murder.

Emanuel Levy: One of the first films to depict crime from the point of view of the criminals, rather than the police, or law enforcers, “Asphalt Jungle” had a huge influence on the genre, manifest in the early work of Stanley Kubrick, and decades later on Tarantino’s feature debut, “Reservoir Dogs.”

Surrounding the criminals is a society that is almost as corrupt as they are. Society’s hypocrisy, illustrated by the crooked dealings of bad cops and the irresponsible judgments given by uninvolved onlookers, is a bitter comment on the realities of the noir world.

In contrast to Huston’s other noir films (“The Maltese Falcon,” “Key Largo,” both starring Humphrey Bogart), in this picture, the claustrophobic quality is less pronounced. The few grotesque characters in “Asphalt Jungle” exist only on the periphery of the action, rather than at the core.

Peter Heath Becker: The mastermind of the caper is no mystical, evil genius, but a small, properly dressed German whose criminal technique verges upon surgical. Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) treats the crime as a business proposition, and Huston shows us that a theft, like a merger, requires backing. The members of the gang are specialists, each an expert in his field. The “boxman” or safecracker, Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), the driver, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), and Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), the “hooligan,” must be paid off “like house painters,” Doc Riedenschneider insists. “Sometimes,” he adds, “men get greedy.”

The Asphalt Jungle is a study in patience; the criminals never scramble or rush, and, even while alarms sound all around the jewelry store, Riedenschneider sits and smokes a cigar. Not a single car-chase or cops-and-robbers shoot-out appears in the film. Instead, the calm confidence of the criminals like Cobby (Mac Lawrence), wracks the nerves of any law-abiding viewer.

For the criminals, patience derives from a confidence in their skills and technique. Huston’s direction profits from a similar patience. Through his experience as a painter, he learned to frame an image, and throughout the film, he uses one shot where other directors might have needed three. He dispenses with editing flour ishes and over-dramatic lighting and opts instead for sustained, well-composed shots. By balancing elements in the foreground and background of his images, Huston frames events and responses at once, without cutting between them. The camera seems to dally on faces in the foreground while important business transpires elsewhere in the frame, or even offscreen. But The Asphalt Jungle is not merely a film about a crime, it’s a film about people involved in a crime.

Huston’s characterizations are sensitive and detailed. Although Commissioner Hardy describes Dix Handley as “a hooligan, a man without human feeling or human mercy,” Huston rejects an oversimplified vision of the hardened criminal. Instead, he offers characters with their emotional faculties intact, characters whose longings and losses are as important to the film as their criminal skills. Dix, for instance, has a dream about a black colt on his family’s lost farm in Kentucky, a dream which resonates throughout the entire film and culminates in his lyrical death surrounded by horses who watch him “with infinite patience.” Doc Riedenschneider’s tragic passion for a dancing nymphet is portrayed with sincere understanding well before Lolita.

Paul Arendt: The story is a familiar one, perhaps because it has been copied so many times since. On his release from prison, criminal mastermind Doc Reidenschneider (the Oscar-nominated Jaffe) immediately begins recruiting hoods for his plot to rip off a jewellery store. His team includes Hayden's snarling stick-up artist, who dreams of returning to the Kentucky farm life of his youth. The heist itself is quickly dealt with; the meat of the film concerns the relentless double-crossing that follows.

As usual with Huston, greed and a yearning for the unattainable brings each character to his downfall. Doc wants to retire to Mexico and ogle the girls. His fence and bankroller (a brilliantly self loathing performance from Louis Calhern) wants to run away with his mistress (Monroe). The key to all their aspirations is a bag of gems which, much like the eponymous statue in Huston's The Maltese Falcon, prove to be unusable. Shot with an eye for the grimy beauty of the underworld and utterly merciless to its characters, The Asphalt Jungle is a biting, bitter espresso of a movie.

posted by Carillon (4 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Overall I thought this was really solid! The hayes code stuff with the police catching everyone and crime not paying wasn't great, not sure if that's also in the original novel or not, but rang false, along too with the corrupt cop actually getting prosecuted and the scene of the inspector turning up and down the radios. The heist was really solid and the getting together of the crew was great.

Fun fact: In the diner with Doc's downfall due to his 'love of ladies', the actress who's dancing was Helene Stanley, best known for being the live model for Cinderella, Aurora, and Anita Radcliffe.
posted by Carillon at 3:10 PM on January 4, 2022

You know, I've never seen this (though of course I've heard of it), and this discussion makes me think I'll give it a whirl.
posted by praemunire at 10:25 PM on January 4, 2022

I literally didn't realize Marilyn Monroe was in this until after I read about it later, because she is playing so differently from the breathy sex-kitten type that became her trademark later. Throughout her entire scene I was thinking "wow, that actress looks an awful lot like Marilyn Monroe, I wonder who she is?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:16 AM on January 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

Sterling Hayden was also in The Killing, which would be a fab double feature.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:03 PM on January 5, 2022

« Older Podcast: Maintenance Phase: Fa...   |  Podcast: Sawbones: A Marital T... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments