Asphalt Jungle, The (1950)

“If you want fresh air, don’t look for it in this town!”

Asphalt Jungle Poster

Synopsis:
A criminal mastermind (Sam Jaffe) enlists the help of a bookie (Marc Lawrence) in pulling together a crew for a major heist, including a no-nonsense driver (James Whitmore); a safecracker (Louis Ciavelli) with a wife (Teresa Celli) and baby; a “hooligan” (Sterling Hayden) whose would-be girlfriend (Jean Hagen) longs for more commitment; and a supposedly-wealthy financier (Louis Hayward) with a bed-ridden wife (Dorothy Tree), a sexy young mistress (Marilyn Monroe), and an ambitious private investigator (Brad Dexter). But things quickly go wrong during the heist, as loyalties shift, a crooked cop (Barry Kelley) is put under pressure, and the team must decide how to escape detection.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is surprisingly unenthusiastic about this “seminal heist film” by writer-director John Huston, co-scripted by Ben Maddow and based on a pulp novel by W.R. Burnett. He argues that the film’s “reputation… has diminished somewhat”, and that “because Huston strove for realism, he deglamorized the characters” to the point where “we find [them] and their story interesting but don’t feel empathy for any of them”. He writes (I disagree) that “the success of the heist is of paramount importance only to the most respectable participant, Calhern, the piece’s villain — so we don’t particularly care if the heist fails as we do in a film like The Killing, where all the thieves (whom we have sympathy for) desperately need money to have a chance for a happy life”. Peary writes that “we care only for the women who suffer because of their men’s foolish endeavors”, but I once again disagree and actually feel the opposite. Finally, he notes that while the “picture builds a convincing case for there being pervasive corruption on every level of society, including the police”, this is spoiled when, “in the worst scene, police chief John McIntire lectures the press about how 99% of cops are honest”. Peary does at least concede that the acting in the film is “uniformly excellent”.

While Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) is certainly a masterpiece in its own right, The Asphalt Jungle remains a different brand of classic. The male characters in …Jungle represent a nuanced gamut of archetypes, all striving to assert or maintain their masculinity through various means: efficiency at work while providing for one’s family (Ciavelli); unwavering loyalty (Whitmore); raw ambition (Dexter); faux machismo (Lawrence); desire for an idyllic return to the country (Hayden); calm, cool business savvy along with prurient if shielded lust (Jaffe); sociopathic corruption (Kelley); and virility, financial prowess, and public esteem (Hayward). All these characters, naturally, find themselves challenged in unique ways, as their ability to prove themselves and/or achieve their goals steadily dwindles. Crime most certainly doesn’t pay for anyone in this crew. Nobody but the women (and a few “good” men) are left standing by the end of this bleakest of heist flicks, which remains a consistently gripping, atmospheric, well-acted, tightly scripted noir. It’s definitely must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A truly fine ensemble cast
    Asphalt Jungle Hayden
    Asphalt Jungle Jaffe
    Asphalt Jungle Whitmore
    Asphalt Jungle Ciavelli
    Asphalt Jungle Lawrence
    Asphalt Jungle Hagen
  • Huston’s direction
    Asphalt Jungle Direction
    Asphalt Jungle Direction2
  • Harold Rossen’s cinematography
    Asphalt Jungle Cinematography3
    Asphalt Jungle Cinematography2
    Asphalt Jungle Cinematography
  • The exciting heist sequence
    Asphalt Jungle Heist
  • Ben Maddow and Huston’s script: “Crime is simply a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine noir classic by a master director.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “Asphalt Jungle, The (1950)”

  1. Agreed – must-see; once, mostly for its place in cinema history.

    I don’t really agree with Peary either (esp. re: the film’s “diminished” reputation) and his pointing out (as a complaint) that we feel no empathy for the men, considering that it seems pretty clear we aren’t supposed to feel empathy for them (the women, yes, but not the men). These guys (with the exception of Whitmore) are all pretty slimy – even Hayden, and even though he has a softness towards Hagen and horses.

    But it’s the second, well-stated paragraph of the assessment that illuminates for me why this is not one of my favorite films by my favorite director. (~which is not to say that it is, at all, a bad film – it’s a terrific film on its own terms…just not one of my favorites.) As is brought out, all of the men “represent” a single facet of masculinity, and that’s what the actors in the roles play. In Huston films that are closer to my heart, the main (and often the peripheral) characters reveal more of a richness, a complexity of personality, through-lines that are not reduced to simple aspects for the duration of the film.

    ~which leads me to conclude that ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (more like Jules Dassin’s 1955 film ‘Rififi’) is more about the heist than it is about the characters. (Actually, both ‘TAJ’ and ‘Rififi’ have a marked similarity when it comes to the actual depiction of the robberies – although the one in ‘Rififi’ is much more celebrated due to its unique handling.)

    In terms of Huston’s personal interest in character (as a director), the film seems to move more his way once the heist is over…and the character of each of the men is then undone. Huston then seems quite interested, first, in how the men awkwardly try to adjust to mishap (while still believing in success)…then in how they face failure.

    Though I think ‘TAJ’ is an extremely well-made, well-acted film, it’s not one that I personally get a lot of enjoyment out of on a revisit. Even though I admire it, I feel removed from it somehow.

    Side note: I *really* like Monroe in this small but very significant step in her career. And Hagen is particularly interesting when you consider that, two years later, she would have a polar-opposite role in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, thus showing her range.

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