Director: John Huston
Producer: Arthur Hornblow Jr
Screenwriter: Ben Maddow and John Huston
Cinematographer: Harold Rosson
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Studio: MGM 1950
Main Acting: Sterling Hayden and Sam Jaffe
The caper or heist film is a very popular sub-genre of film noir. Here with John Huston’s 1950 examination of a bunch of crooks planning and then accomplishing a jewel robbery, we have one of the first of its kind. Since this movie would go on to influence so many other pictures with similar narratives, it would be criminal to understate its influence. This is a well-paced feature with a strong ensemble cast that runs for almost two hours. The A-picture running length does nothing to diminish its power. One of John Huston’s two or three best films in his long, and frankly, erratic career. It was also included in Warner Brothers Film Noir Classic Collection Volume One and is thankfully rather easy to locate and purchase.
The year 1950 was fruitful for film noir. In my humble opinion, it was probably the best year for the genre. So far in this countdown, The Asphalt Jungle has been joined by Panic In The Streets, Gun Crazy, and Where The Sidewalk Ends. Not to mention, multiple worthwhile selections that missed out of the top 50 and would have appeared if this were a top 100 list.
The Asphalt Jungle gets going with robber extraordinaire Erwin “Doc” Riedenschnieder planning to go forth with a jewel heist he’s been cooking up since his time in prison. Played wonderfully by Sam Jaffe, Doc is looking to hook up with crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to finance the proposed robbery and get the right people to execute the daring endeavor. Each member of the gang is picked depending on his special skill, like the muscle, safe-cracking, and driver. This has been borrowed by countless other films with similar storylines. The planned crime is meticulously shown in a glorious sequence where the participants assuredly take care of every last detail in order to achieve their mission. While not as elaborate as Dassin’s Rififi, these segments are the strongest in the film and have a quite intense power to them. Setting off alarms and bringing policemen to the scene (as their sirens can be heard in the background ominously approaching), the tautness gets ratcheted up a notch with every passing minute. For those that escape, the rest of the movie is a slow unraveling as we see how every crook eventually trips up and gets punished for his transgressions.
Each character is shown in minute detail as we learn about his background and what has lead them to partake in the heist. In many cases, these are desperate men looking to pick themselves out of the gutter and find some security in life. Like most noirs, there is no good or evil, black or white, our Asphalt Jungle inhabitants live in a perpetual world of grey. They are not blood-thirsty criminals, but marginalized people thrust into a world of dishonesty due to personal failures. The desperation leads to double crosses that only further exasperate their present precarious conditions. A slow journey further down a path of misery. “Are you a man or what? Trying to gyp and double cross but with no guts for it. What’s inside of you? What’s keeping you alive?” For these sympathetic individuals carving out a futile niche on skid row, each dire choice is another step into the noir void.
Miklos Rozsa’s score is another winner and credit must be given to W.R. Burnett’s novel in which Huston refrained from altering much. The cinematography of Harold Rosson is also superlative and effective during those moments where he sneakily focuses in on close-ups of the troubled criminals. His use of deep focus and stark long shots is vividly obtained. Sterling Hayden gives perhaps his best noir performance and the whole cast rises to the occasion to deliver a well-nuanced and penetrating job of breathing life into these multidimensional characters. The depth and slow development of each individual mired in the caper is astounding. The superior script does a marvelous job of making us care for each doomed member of the makeshift gang.
“One way or another, we all work for our vice.”