Arguably John Huston's masterpiece, "The Asphalt Jungle" is a tautly made, realistic crime film that boasts fine portraiture and a great ensemble of mostly character actors.
An elaborate jewel robbery is planned by criminal mastermind, Doc Riedenschneider Oscar nominee Sam Jaffe), with the financial backing of corrupt lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern). Doc carefully assembles a group of semi-professional criminals and proceeds with his robbery. However, from the very outset the robbery and the subsequent escape fail, because of ill-fated circumstances.
John Huston directed this naturalistic noir, which is derived in part from a hard-boiled tradition and a code of social decay. Adapting W.R. Burnett's novel to the screen, Huston and Ben Maddow instill the film with a gritty dialogue and authenticity unmatched in films of that period.
One of the first film to depict crime from the point of view of the criminals, rather than the police, or law enforcers, "Asphalt Jungle" had a huge influence on the genre, manifest in the early work of Stanley Kubrick, and decades later on Tarantino's feature debut, "Reservoir Dogs."
Surrounding the very human criminals is a society that is almost as corrupt as they are. Society's hypocrisy, illustrated by the crooked dealings of bad cops and the irresponsible judgments given by uninvolved onlookers, is a bitter comment on the brutal realities of the noir world.
In contrast to Huston's other noir films ("The Maltese Falcon," "Key Largo," both starring Humphrey Bogart), in this picture, the claustrophobic quality is less pronounced. The few grotesque characters in "Asphalt Jungle" exist only on the periphery of the action, rather than at the core.
Though male-dominated, the ensemble features two great turns by women who would become stars in their own right, Jean Hagen (Oscar-nominated for the 1952 musical, "Singin' in the Rain") and especially Marilyn Monroe (who appeared in the same year in "All About Eve").
As many noir scholars have observed, "Asphalt Jungle" is a classic noir in its exploration of despair and alienation. The failure of Doc and his associates to transcend the common nature of criminals also suggests the irony that one can found in later Huston's films.
This film serves as the dividing line between the old John Huston and the new Huston. After this picture, Huston adapted other classic literary works, such as "The Red Badge of Courage," "Moby Dick," and an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "The Night of the Iguana."
Sterling Hayden (Dix Handley)
Louis Calhern (Alonzo D. Emmerich)
Jean Hagen (Doll Conovan)
James Whitmore (Gus Minissi)
Sam Jaffe (Doc Riedenschneider)
Marilyn Monroe (Angela Phinlay)
Running Time: 112 minutes
Oscar Nominations: 4
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Ben Maddow and John Huston
Supporting Actor: Sam Jaffe
Cinematography (b/w): Harold Rosson