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The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

by on 2011/03/08

“One way or another we all work for our vice.”

* * * *

Shall we take The Asphalt Jungle’s noirisms as read? The setting, story, characters, acting, staging lighting, and angles . . . all excellent. By 1950, director John Huston had a number of successful titles to his credit, including The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, and that great atypical western, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

There have been noiresque mob movies (White Heat, Gun Crazy), hard-boiled detections (The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep), and even artsy oddities (Ossessione, The Third Man). The Asphalt Jungle, however, stands as a stellar example of perhaps my favorite subcategory, the heist.

Heists usually involve a theft, with minimal risk of violent confrontation. Employing “specialist” ensembles, they rely on the careful planning and, hopefully, precise execution of the plot. Some satisfy their audience by means of straightforward delivery, as in the Mission: Impossible and Ocean’s series. Others, like Reservoir Dogs and The Score, capitalize on entropy to keep everyone off-balance.

Despite its early vintage, The Asphalt Jungle falls firmly in the latter category. This crew stages a daring jewel theft. Their plan is relatively straightforward but for the wrinkles of accident, greed, and timing. Best laid plans run like clockwork, until fate — or a mid-century morality — intercedes with a series of nerve-wracking accidents.

The cast, while not loaded with Big Name stars, is predominantly strong. A diverse and interesting set of personalities, they demonstrate the value of undistracting actors. Because they essentially become their roles — unlike, say, Danny Ocean, who always remains George Clooney — I was able to appreciate them on a convincingly literal level. I felt I could have been perfectly happy simply watching them “do their thing” . . . interacting, talking, and working.

  • Sam Jaffe (1951‘s The Day the Earth Stood Still) portrays Doc, the mastermind.
  • Anthony Caruso (Star Trek’s “A Piece of the Action”) adds a “family man” pressure with his safe cracker, Louis Ciavelli.
  • Sterling Hayden (Dr. Strangelove and The Godfather) is Dix, the muscle.
  • James Whitmore (Them and 1968’s Planet of the Apes) plays Gus, their driver.
  • Louis Calhern (Duck Soup and Notorious) acts as their fence, Mr. Emmerich.
  • Brad Dexter (The Magnificent Seven) lends a sense of danger as mysterious thug Bob Brannom.
  • Marc Lawrence (Diamonds Are Forever and The Man with the Golden Gun) plays Cobby, the seedy bookie who funds the entire venture.

Other significant parts are played by Barry Kelley, Jean Hagen, John McIntire and, perhaps most notable of all, Marilyn Monroe. Monroe is more visibly promoted than credited and, while possessed of a certain attractiveness, doesn’t have much to work with here. She’s damned with thankless lines like, “Haven’t you bothered me enough, you big banana-head?”

In fact, the dialogue represents my rare reservation with this piece. Less than clever, overall, its over-the-top melodrama nonetheless suits crime story conventions, and even offers an occasional insight. Too often, however, it oversteers its course, driving some points too far home. In short, it’s somewhat clumsy with its own didactic effort.

Still, my concern is a minor one in this effectively unravelling tapestry. The intricate web of players and plot makes for rewarding entertainment. If it were just a heist, it would be enough. If it were just a noir, likewise. Fortunately, it’s both. The Asphalt Jungle is a great success by any reasonable measure, and its triumphant production six decades ago suggests a filmic miracle.

* * * *

Rated PG

112 minutes

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