Genre: Film Noir and Heist Running Time: 1 hr. 52 min.
Release Date: June 8th, 1950 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John Huston Actors: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Teresa Celli, Marilyn Monroe, Dorothy Tree, Marc Lawrence
he film opens on desolate streets, populated only by encircling shadows and a lone patrol car, creeping along as ominous notifications spill out from its radio. It’s an iconic, archetypal introduction, firmly grounding “The Asphalt Jungle” in the realm of film noir. And it proceeds to segue into a lineup, not far removed from the type of assembled lowlifes seen in “The Usual Suspects,” as well as an enraged commissioner chewing out his inept lieutenant (Barry Kelley), who botches (perhaps intentionally) an opportunity to nab a murderous thug.
After a late night stickup, where a scared witness fails to identify regular thief Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a mountain of a man, it’s evident that the hoods run circles around law enforcement. And when Doc (Sam Jaffe) – a mastermind of heists – finishes up a seven-year stretch, he heads straight to weaselly bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) with a new safe-cracking proposition. With a $50,000 investment to operate, funded by sleazy mob lawyer Emmerich (Louis Calhern), along with a three-man crew and the promise of the necessary fencers to dispose of the take, the plot is set for a million-dollar robbery – with just enough greedy participants to ensure that nothing goes according to plan.
Based on a novel by W.R. Burnett, “The Asphalt Jungle” rounds up an assortment of the most vile, corrupt, and brutish hooligans imaginable. And there are no good guys to balance them out – not even the cops. Supporting players are just as miserable or luckless, with Jean Hagen (as Doll Conovan) a prime example – a damaged woman who can barely hold a conversation without falling apart and shedding tears. Meanwhile, Marilyn Monroe stands out, turning in an early, brief performance as a striking moll, far too visually lustrous to fit amidst this gang of miscreants, even if her grotesque naïveté designates her as no better than the rest.
The film sets up all the players, defining each as standard psychopaths and killers in a film noir that both follows all the basic rules of the genre and masterfully reaffirms how the game should be played. Exploiters, users, and double-crossers populate the field, and not a soul is innocent or clean. This makes it difficult to wholeheartedly root for success; instead, it’s a decision of hoping that the lesser of the varying evils doesn’t end up dead. But surely that’s the path of nearly everyone in this 1950 thriller, governed by a production code even if it attempts to fool the censors at every turn. False-heartedness, cruelty, and deceitfulness are tools of the trade for the suspenseful heist sequence itself, edited with limited sound effects, minimum dialogue, and no score – before “Rififi” attempted the notion to far more fame.
Extreme coincidence, undependable accomplices, and zero sense of honor among thieves funnels the underhanded endeavors into a series of blunders that sees tough guys crumble and amateurs killed. “The Asphalt Jungle” is a deadly serious, pitch black film noir, never once stopping for comic relief, genuine romantic interludes, or police procedural routines. The picture is about the antagonists and the methods in which they dig holes for themselves so deep that there’s no possibility of surfacing intact; there’s no room for moral redemption or happy endings, even if the conclusion possesses a poetic tone to its dour finality. Here, crime most certainly doesn’t pay. “Why don’t you quit crying and get me some bourbon!”
– Mike Massie