Coming off his 1949 Oscar win for The Treasure of Sierra Madre, director John Huston crafted a tightly coiled caper brimming with murder and corruption and told almost entirely from the point of view of its criminals. The Asphalt Jungle, a seminal work in Huston’s impressive filmography, has a gritty realism that sheds light on a dark corner of society.
Based on the novel by W.R. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle zeroes in on “Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a German immigrant who masterminds the ultimate score during the seven years he spent in incarceration. Funded by Alonso Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a treacherous businessman with his own set of objectives, the jewel heist is meticulously plotted. Regarded as a flawless scheme by the diminutive Doc, the puzzle pieces finally fall into place once he recruits a safecracker (Anthony Caruso), a driver (James Whitmore) and a street-savvy hooligan named Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) whose desire for wealth masks his inherent decency. When the heist backfires and the men retreat to their own separate hiding places, The Asphalt Jungle chronicles the descent of each of them as they struggle to survive both the police task force – and each other.
There’s an artistry to the film that only someone with Huston’s impressive credentials can bring to what is, essentially, a low-budget B-movie about tough guys and their dames. With its richly textured black and white cinematography, expertly lensed by Harold Rosson, and its sparse and rundown city streets, The Asphalt Jungle has a claustrophobic documentary style. Devoid of the contrived dialogue that is often a staple in the noir genre, there are times when conversations feel almost entirely improvised and natural. With a large cast on his hands, Huston, who co-wrote the script with Ben Maddow, weaves each plot point into a deeply absorbing – and dialogue-heavy – endeavour. Following a linear narrative (the rare noir without any flashback sequences), The Asphalt Jungle is a relatively quiet urban crime drama with only brief bursts of violence and action.
The jungle – that seedy underbelly of society that lies beneath city streets – is chock-full of corruption, backstabbing and dead ends.
A woman’s touch is keenly felt with two electric supporting performances from Jean Hagen and a then-unknown Marilyn Monroe. Hagen is the standout as Dix’s long-suffering girlfriend, Doll Conovan. In one notable scene, Hagen, in the middle of an emotional breakdown, rips her fake eyelashes off, while mascara drips down her face and mingles with her tears. Her nervous smile, always so eager to please Dix, is heartbreaking in its poignant honesty. Monroe is a knockout as the much-older Emmerich’s mistress, Angela. Beautiful and vulnerable, Monroe shines, giving audiences a glimpse of the star she was later to become.
One of the few downfalls in a film with a plot as crammed with characters as The Asphalt Jungle is that the character development of some of the other players falls short. There’s also the underwritten role of Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire), a preachy moralist who is inserted into the film simply to counter the actions of its central figures. As Hardy sermonizes to his police troops: “Suppose we had no police force, good or bad …Nobody to listen, nobody to answer. The battle's finished. The jungle wins. The predatory beasts take over.” It’s excess baggage that weighs down an otherwise tight script.
But those “predatory beasts” that Hardy rants against are very regular people making very big mistakes – tough guys and their dames, just trying to make it in the world by any means possible.
Welcome to the jungle.
FINAL GRADE: A-