Directed and co-written by John Huston in 1950, The Asphalt Jungle introduces us to a brainy career criminal named Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) just as he's released from prison. Never one to shy away from some easy money, he talks to a bookmaker named Cobby (Marc Lawrence) about coming up with the cash he'll need to hire the best of the best. His plan? To use a small crew of talented criminals, each a specialist in their particular field, to pull off the heist of a life time and, hopefully, make a clean getaway with a massive stash of jewels. The location? A jeweler named Belletier's.
Cobby puts Doc in touch with a crooked lawyer named Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern). He offers to pony up the scratch and even to take some of the loot off of their hands once the heist has been finished. Emmerich isn't just in this for the loot, however. His wife is sick. At the same time, he also wants to wine and dine his mistress, a beautiful woman much younger than he named Angela (Marilyn Monroe). Now that he's got what he needs, Doc hires a safecracker named Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a getaway car driver named Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) and a deadeye named Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden)… just in case things go south. Along for the ride is Doc's right hand woman, Doll (Jean Hagen). Given that he had seven years behind bars to plan this, it all goes off without a hitch… at first. Soon enough, a series of unexpected incidents and equally surprising character quirks disrupt the master plan and things get tense and ugly. Crime doesn't pay.
A genuine masterpiece of suspense, this heist film sees John Huston in fine form, directing the tough guys that he was known for but simultaneously creating some fascinating characters along the way. The film would go on to become quite influential (Jean Pierre Melville in particular would call it a favorite and you can clearly see its influence on his own 1956 picture Bob le Flambeur) and for all the right reasons. This is one of this pictures that gets everything right. The movie takes its time and lets us get to know these characters, clearly important in any film, but here, it pays off in a big way. We know these guys are imperfect, no matter how good they might be in their particular skillset or how invaluable they might be to Doc's plan. It's no surprise that it goes south when it does, but how it does, that's where and why we get so sucked into the film. There's a great story here, full credit to Huston and co-writer Ben Maddow who based their script on W. R. Burnett's 1949 novel of the same name, and it unfolds at a perfect pace.
The cast also deliver excellent work. Sam Jaffe is great in the lead. He's likeable in his own sort of rascally way, so focused on exploiting his new found freedom and pulling off the big job that he can't see how much Doll cares for him. Jaffe plays Doc as obsessive, and it's hard to imagine anyone else pulling it off as well as he does. Jean Hagen as the aforementioned Doll is also great in her supporting role, though through no fault of her own she's going to forever be in the shadow of a young but impressive Marilyn Monroe, who really does a great job as the mistress. Louis Calhern makes his twitchy, sweaty, crooked lawyer an unforgettable character. The guy is shifty and sleazy but he can get Doc the money he needs and that's all that matters. Throw in Anthony Caruso, James Whitmore and an amazing turn from Sterling Hayden as the gun man? It's great stuff, these guys deliver fantastic work, Hayden in particular.
If that weren't enough reasons to love The Asphalt Jungle there's also the fact that the film is just flat out gorgeous to look at. The safe cracking scene and the scenes in the vaults are so well shot and so tightly edited that they'll keep you on the edge of your seat. There are lots of shadowy visuals here, plenty of seductive close-ups of the beautiful female cast members and their stern male counterparts. The framing is perfect, and it's all set to an instantly recognizable score courtesy of composer Miklós Rózsa.The Blu-ray
The Asphalt Jungle arrives on a 50GB Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection framed in its proper 1.33.1 aspect ratio in AVC encoded 1080p high definition touted as a new 2k restoration. The image quality here is definitely solid and it shows improvements over the standard definition DVD release that came out from Warner Brothers years back. This isn't going to floor you but texture and detail are decent and there's a fair amount of depth to the image. This feels true to source, it shows a nice, natural amount of film grain but very little in the way of actual print damage to note save for a few small scratches here and there. Contrast looks fine and there are no issues with compression artifacts, edge enhancement or obvious noise reduction.Sound:
The only audio option for the feature is an English language LPCM Mono track. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH only. The audio here is just fine. Dialogue is clean and properly balanced against the score and effects. There are no problems with any hiss or distortion and both the score has good range and presence to it.Extras:
Extras carry over the audio commentary from 2004 DVD release that is provided by film historian Drew Casper and which features a plethora of archival recordings of actor James Whitmore discussing his work on the picture and what it was like working with Huston on the film. Casper's contributions are also important, as he gives us plenty of background information on the cast and crew, the studio's involvement in the film, Huston's directorial style and loads more.
From there we move on to the featurettes, starting with a two hour documentary on Sterling Hayden entitled Pharos of Chaos from 1983. Directed by Manfred Blank and Wolf-Eckart Bühler this piece covers not just his work in The Asphalt Jungle but plenty of other projects he was involved with over the years including films with Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola. It's a massive, sprawling piece that does a fine job of exploring his career, his personality and what made him such an enigmatic presence in so many of his films. This is basically just two hours of the actor talking about his life and his work, it's not fancy, but it is fascinating.
Also on hand is anew twenty-four minute interview with the Czar Of Noir himself, film historian Eddie Muller. If you're familiar with Muller's other supplements on various film noir releases over the last few years you know what to expect: detailed analysis, a great sense of history and a very genuine appreciation for the source material. Cinematographer John Bailey talks on camera for twenty minutes about the film, specifically about how director of photography Harold Rosson really went all out in creating a very specific mood and a very specific look for this picture. Criterion has also included an episode of the television program City Lights from 1979 that features Huston and runs just over forty-eight minutes.
Outside of that we get a trailer for the feature, a one minute clip of archival footage showing the late, great John Huston at work directing the picture, six minutes of excerpts of some archival audio interviews conducted with Huston, menus and chapter selection. Inside the keepcase along with the disc is an insert booklet that contains credits for the feature and the Blu-ray release as well as an essay on the film written by Geoffrey O'Brien.Final Thoughts:
The Asphalt Jungle is an absolute classic, a remarkably tense heist film that stands as an excellent example of just how compelling film noir can be. This shows us a director at the height of his abilities, telling a great story with a wonderful cast and talented crew. Criterion's Blu-ray release offers up a nice upgrade over the DVD release in terms of audio and video quality and provides a wealth of supplemental material, all of which fans should enjoy pouring over. Highly recommended.