Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Asphalt Jungle is a near-perfect movie, the Casablanca of film noir. What
many might have thought to be an imitation of The Naked City turns out to be a superior
character study centering on what the film's jaded, corrupt attorney calls "A left-handed form of
human endeavor." It's pure W.R. Burnett and pure John Huston at the same time, one of his
tragedies of desperate struggle that goes bad for most everyone involved. It's also got six or
seven of the most interesting crooks in movie history.
Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) blows into town with a caper that the local
hoods can't resist. Bookie Cobb (Marc Lawrence) sets up the deal with big-time crooked lawyer
Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern) and hires hunchbacked diner owner Gus Minissi (James Whitmore)
as the getaway driver. Riedenschneider personally chooses Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) as the
muscle for the job, intrigued by the man's sense of personal honor. Rounding out the gang is Louis
Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a family man who's also a top safecracker. Unfortunately for all,
Emmerich is hatching a doublecross with his debt collector Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) and plans
to take the loot and skip with his mistress Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe).
Everybody is in tip top form in The Asphalt Jungle. Sterling Hayden's hooligan has
intellectual limitations but he becomes fast friends with "screwy little kraut" Doc
Riedenschneider, one of Sam Jaffe's best roles. James Whitmore doesn't strive for affection
and the usually venal Marc Lawrence
(Cloak and Dagger) shows his
character flaws so clearly that we sympathize with him even when he rats out his partners. There
was always something unlikeable about Louis Calhern and Huston gives him the role of a lifetime,
a big wheel near the edge of disaster who can only look wistfully at luscious Marilyn Monroe.
"There will be other trips," he assures her. Jean Hagen makes a terrific impression
as the burlesque performer with loose eyelashes and low self-esteem; her relationship with
Sterling Hayden's uncomprehending tough guy is beautifully understated.
There's nothing vague or subtle about The Asphalt Jungle. The cinematography is expressive
and Miklos Rosza's nervous score - great noir music - rises to an
almost cosmic emotional pitch. John Huston gets to the core of his characters with
little fuss but knows how to turn his story on a dime with telling details, like
a dramatic move into a set of venetian blinds that reveal a pair of nosy state troopers. There
are a lot of closeups and yet the film never feels claustrophobic because we care intensely about
all these people. The too-clever plotting and trick psychology of many noirs is absent;
Huston transcends the noir universe. This is a solid, modern picture that I can't help but
W.R. Burnett's street jargon seems coarse without the benefit of four-letter words, although
Handley's protest that Cobb has "boned him" with an insult sure plays like profanity. The caper
is approached in high noir style, with the various helpers paid flat rates for their services.
Whitmore's Gus and Hayden's Dix are common crooks with a sense of honor that we're compelled to
admire, and Sam Jaffe's pragmatic fussiness makes an excellent contrast. He's cool as a cucumber
when confronted with trouble, but he has this little character weakness for underage girls, you see ...
Huston stages action with classic simplicity. The couple of gun skirmishes are over so quickly, we
hardly know what's happened. In the big showdown over the stolen jewels, we relish the sparks that
strike between Hayden and surly crook Brad Dexter.
The Asphalt Jungle has three supporting female characters. Emmerich's sick wife is desperate for
affection, Ciavelli's suffering mother is worried for her children, and the kept girl Marilyn Monroe
always seems ready for bed and says impetuous things like, "Yikes." Disaster is on hand for all of
them and most of our main cast as well. For an annihilating melodrama there are no throwaway
characters - we feel for each and every one.
The production code made John Huston add a scene in which John McIntire's retribution-minded Commissioner
speaks on behalf of the police forces that defend us against the violence of the underworld. This was
made necessary after Huston's script depiction of a corrupt cop (Barry Kelley) not as a rogue exception
to the rule but a common occurrence. Huston uses McIntire's tirade beautifully. Placed just when our
favorite characters are at their most desperate extremes, McIntire comes off as cruelly biased. He calls
Dix a dangerous, merciless animal when we know he's a delirious man racing down the road without, as a
doctor says, "Enough blood in him to keep a chicken alive."
The Asphalt Jungle is considered the first caper picture, a crime film centered on the
comission of a single make-or-break heist. If noir tales all seem like mannered fare with
detectives spouting absurd hardboiled dialogue, this classic will show you what it's all about.
Warner's DVD of The Asphalt Jungle is a good transfer of an element that shows light wear.
The B&W image is solid and mostly sharp as a tack. The only copy I've seen
that looked better was an MGM studio print back in the early 70s. We'd watch thrillers like this one
or White Heat at UCLA's Melnitz Hall and walk out with our knees wobbly, thinking that the
world was a heartless Detour into a Dark Corner where Nobody Lives Forever.
The disc comes with a trailer and an alternate French soundtrack. The film has been given an
'introduction' by utilizing the tattered remains of an old interview with director Huston. BTW,
if you haven't noticed yet, Warners has joined the rest of the civilized world by dumping the
snapper box for normal keep cases. Hallelujah.
Author Drew Casper provides an energetic commentary that stresses MGM politics at the time,
noting that films like this one were the bane of Louis B. Mayer and heightened the rivalry between
him and executive-threat Dore Schary. Some comments by James Whitmore have been interpolated into the
John Huston rubbed some critics the wrong way but he has a remarkable group of films bearing his
directorial credit. Savant recommends The Asphalt Jungle highly. I've been watching it
every so often for about twenty years now, and I still haven't found fault with it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Asphalt Jungle rates:
Supplements: Commentary, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 21, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson