Thursday, February 9, 2012

Film Noir Series: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

My latest Film Noir Spotlight entry for Next Projection. The eight film on my list is The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

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.

Marilyn Monroe
Huston’s inspired casting is most notable with his two leads – Jaffe and Hayden, as Doc and Dix. As Doc, Jaffe is quietly commanding as the cool and collected mastermind of the failed heist. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Jaffe brings a softer approach to a role that is traditionally filled by a “tough-guy” thug. Meanwhile, Hayden stands out with his performance as Dix – an idealist whose life comes crashing down around him as the jungle swallows him whole.

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.



  1. Sam Jaffe is so good in this film. His continuous obsession with pretty young girls is awesome because at first it just seems like a bit of funny character development, which would have been fine anyways, but it ends up being his downfall! That was well played, to have an arc to that little joke.

    1. I know! But the final scene has a hint of sadness to it because it's almost like he's expecting to get caught he watches that pretty girl dance as like a farewell to freedom.

  2. Laura, I definitely agree, when commissioner Hardy gives his speech..and tunes in to the police radio channels near the end, i felt it took away from the power of the film.

    Dix and his crew, were far from 'beasts', I felt most of them had more sincerity and decency, than your average citizen, although they were 'criminally driven'. Dix, lets Jean Hagen stay with him. The safe-cracker had a wife and a child. Even Whitmore, who owned the diner, confronted the truck driver who purposely ran over cats.. defending animals, so, those characters who came together for the heist, weren't evil at all.. desperate, yes. The films characters who had a more psychotic pathology were The police lieutenant who was in on the take. The crooked Lawyer, Emmerich, and...his personal finances collector, the greedy, gun supported ego of the private investigator who said he gets more heart when he has a drink, in so many words.

    Great points about the film. If you enjoyed Asphalt Jungle, PLEASE check out "Odds Against Tomorrow" with Harry Belafonte, Ed Begley, Robert Ryan, Shelly Winters and Gloria Grahmn . They say this is the last true 'Noir'...1959, but i beg to differ. Anyway, "Odds.." is one of my favorite films. It's another heist film.. on the surface it is about social issues, but quite deeper it is about the desperation of three men from different generations, all trying to come off with one big score. Such a powerful film by Robert Wise, i believe more moving than "Asphalt..", in my opinion.

    I hope i haven't judged you in thinking you haven't seen "Odds..." If you have, pardon me, if not.. see it ASAP!!! LOL.. I wrote a sophomoric review about the DVD on I'm glad i stumbled upon your Bloq..
    Alex, "Harlem Champ"

    1. Hi Alex.

      Thanks for the comment and noir recommendation. I'll definitely add it to my list (especially since it stars Robert Ryan who is quickly becoming one of my new favourite classic actors).

    2. Yes, he is definitely one of my favorites. When i was young i saw him in "Bad day at black rock", on TV, and since then i have tried to see all of his film work. He was quite good at playing vicious characters or the hateful bigot, but in reality he stood for many social causes. Also check out Ryan in "Act of violence" with Van Heflin and a young, pre-psycho, Janet Leigh...thats another great Noir where Ryan's menacing presence is quite effective.
      Peace, and enjoy!
      Harlem Champ

  3. Thanks for the recommendations! I'll look into it. :)