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.
Everybody's 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 very 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 - easily his best noir music - rises to an almost cosmic emotional pitch at the end. 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 noir pictures is absent; Huston transcends the noir universe. This is an solid, modern picture that I can't help but over-praise.
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 where 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 the politics at MGM 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 track.
John Huston rubbed some critics the wrong way but he's got a remarkable group of films with 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: