The Asphalt Jungle Reviews
For me, since I am oft more intrigued by the narrative arc than the comprehensive mise-en-scene a director concocts (at least in this present period), the film excels itself in founding its empathy on several well-depicted characters. Sterling Hayden, the first-billed star of the film, equivocally the leading man among the motley crew, is not the brain, but a trustworthy hooligan, suitably amplifying his simplistic kindheartedness by exposing himself to his girl friend (the moderately-used Jean Hagen) of his stroke of bad luck and his humble-but-never-realized dream (which Huston cleverly opts as the heart-rending culmination) under the veneer of his stalwart physique.
Sam Jaffe, who acquired his one and only Oscar nomination (the film altogether got 4 nominations including a BEST DIRECTOR for Huston) for the role of Doc, the constantly behind-the-wall mastermind, has another sort of fatalistic empathy through his non-violent, genteel policy which is simply the otherness for a perpetrator, he is a born leader, who welds a collection of gifted offenders into a real team, the only thing he misses it luck. Louis Calhern, the paymaster and the fence, ostensibly well-off, but bankrupted, is the major mis-step of the heist, Calhern‚(TM)s commonly understated performance finds the right place as he is juggling between his wife and his trophy mistress (a 24-year-old Monroe, whose striking sheen cannot be overlooked even in such a minor role).
The film is feasibly an agitprop of police department, although the coppers are neither over-beautified nor disparaging represented (unlike the present mockery trend), it emits a pertinent point-of-view of their functions and liabilities, Huston is the torchbearer of the American neorealism, and I hope this assertion can stand its ground.
A jewelry heist is formulated and sprung into action by an eccentric ex-con played by Sam Jaffe and among others ensnared in the mix is the ever dominating Sterling Hayden. Although he shares the spotlight with Jaffe and Louis Calhern, he shines as bright as ever. Hayden went on to start the crucial chain of events that we saw unfold in Dr. Strangelove and he also gave potent performances in such classics as The Godfather and The Killing. He is a giant leading actor and therefore dominating the screen seems to come easy for the actor. Many of his scenes are him showing his strength but also confessing his depth (he speaks of retiring to his deceased father's land, full of horses and mainly peace).
The story is expertly led by Huston in the director's seat and it packs a punch that not only leaves a mark but it is also strategically placed. This is not a shoot 'em up crime thriller, it has a brain and offers a distinct human side to crime noir. I absolutely love the final closing scenes, they really captivate the art of the time and the brilliance of the entire film concept. The creativity, overall details, and especially the final frames make this a landmark film. It is not a moment too soon, it feels right on time as it paces towards the finish line. 5/5
***Updated after 2nd viewing on 8/29/12***
A criminal named Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is just out of prison with a brilliant plan for a million-dollar jewelry heist he's had in his mind for some years now. Funded by crooked attorney Emmerich (Louis Calhern), Riedenschneider recruits three men for the job, among them is Louis (Anthony Caruso) a professional at cracking safes; Gus (James Whitmore) a hunchbacked bartender as the getaway driver; and Dix (Sterling Hayden) as a strong-arm man to help with the caper. Dix is an impoverished hood who sees the caper as a means to finance his dream of owning a horse farm. Also a bookie named Cobby (Marc Lawrence) acts as Emmerich's go-between. The heist is pulled off successfully, but an alert night watchman shoots Louis. Angry that the bookie didn't let him in on the caper, a corrupt cop (Barry Kelley) beats the bookie into becoming a fink, confessing and fingering the other criminals involved. From here, the painstakingly planned crime falls apart quickly with each member of the gang proving to have his own fatal weakness and each contributing to his own downfall.
Like John Huston's directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon (1941), inventing the film noir genre, he invents the caper/heist genre with The Asphalt Jungle. Much imitated, unlike the many films made after this one, it is less concerned with the plan or the brilliant heist. Instead it is more character driven, exploring deception, relationships and human weaknesses. Like The Maltese Falcon before it, there isn't a whole lot of action in the film allowing the cast the opportunity to fully develop their characters. The cast credits read out like a who‚(TM)s who of great, talented character actors like Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe (who got an Oscar nomination for playing the mastermind of the heist), and James Whitmore. Also worth mentioning, making her "big break" in the film is Marilyn Monroe in an excellent star-making bit performance as Emmerich's lusty "niece". She‚(TM)s only in the film for a few minutes total but as is evident of the movie poster, she sure made an impression on audiences. John Huston is at his best with his great direction and gets the most out of his cast and the script, he co-wrote with Ben Maddow. Beautifully shot in ominous black and white photography by Oscar nominated Harold Rosson. Influencing many subsequent films such as Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955), Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) (also starring Sterling Hayden in a very similar role), Ocean's Eleven (1960) as well as Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992), The Asphalt Jungle is a classic of the caper film subgenre as well as the film noir genre. And considering it was one of the first films to be told [realistically] through the point of view of the criminals, one can see it‚(TM)s influence reach to gangster films like Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction. The Asphalt Jungle is an essential piece of cinema and comes highly recommended to movie fans that love crime films. 10/10