Directed by: John Huston
Written by: Ben Maddow, John Huston, from the novel by W.R. Burnett
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, Sam Jaffe
Black & White, 112 minutes
The basic plot for a heist film is always the same, the laying out of "the perfect plan," the assembling of a team of weathered crooks, the execution of the crime, and, of course, the fallout. You've seen it all so many times before that it is increasingly hard not to become jaded towards the genre, and you may find yourself shrugging off an old black and white picture from 1950, by saying "Well, it was probably good in it's time." John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle is a different kind of beast. Not only does it serve as the model of its kind, it is simply the best of its kind. Paced like one punch to the gut after another, it never stutters, never goes astray, and never threatens to slide off track. It finds its target, and scores a bullseye.
Doc Riedenschneider, a fantastic Sam Jaffe, is fresh out of prison. He happens to be getting on in years and he doesn't look particularly threatening, but he's smart as a whip, and he's spent his time behind bars mulling over the details of a heist to acquire a cool $500,000 in jewelry. He finds a kindred spirit in Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a small time bookie, with friends in low places. One of these friends is a corrupt lawyer by the name of Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a man who just might have the means to fund Doc's operation. However, to pull off the perfect crime, one needs the perfect crew, and Jungle has a genuine dream team of hardasses. Sterling Hayden leads the pack as Dix Handley, the "hooligan" with a love for everything equine, James Whitmore leaves a dinstinct impression as Gus, the hunchback restaurateur who moonlights as a "driver," and Anthony Caruso brings the levelheadedness as Louis, family man and expert "boxman (safecracker)." With such a top-notch crew, things couldn't possibly go wrong now, could they? If you don't think so, brother, you don't know John Huston. Emmerich is a snake, he is flat broke, and try as he might, he isn't getting help from his gold digging mistress (Marilyn Monroe, making the most out of her few minutes on screen). He intends to double cross the crew and catch a plane to Mexico, that is, of course, if the robbery goes well, which it doesn't. Bullets fly, some accidental, some not, but, in the end, everyone gets what they deserve, and, in true Huston fashion, Greed stands as the victor.
It has always been easy for a filmmaker to get up on a pedestal and share with us such infinite words of wisdom as "crime doesn't pay," or "payback's a bitch," and even though Huston can hammer this home as well as anybody, this is never what lingers in the memory after watching his work. It is the quiet time, the interaction between individuals, and their heartbreaking realizations that everything is going very, very wrong. The Asphalt Jungle is full of telling moments, Hayden reminiscing about riding his first horse, Caruso telling stories about his ill son, and, in the films most touching scene, Calhern taking the time to play cards with his wife (Dorothy Tree) after his refusal to do so only days beforehand. All of this subtle interplay makes for great juxtaposition with the films more exciting moments, notably the eleven-minute robbery sequence.
Huston's mise en scene here is a thing of beauty, and the camera work of Harold Rosson (Singin' in the Rain) makes every situation all the more real. The world of these characters is filled dank, dark, and smoky rooms, and it's all laid out in a serious, obsessively methodical manner. Huston and Rosson have a harsh, unblinking gaze from which no one is safe. George Boemler's editing makes the film as tight as possible, never allowing the audience a chance to breathe, and the score by Miklos Rozsa is appropriately paranoid, lending every glance over the shoulder an ample amount of dread.
This film has about all the talent required to construct a masterful exercise in suspense, but it's the screenplay that elevates it above its imitators. Huston was a great craftsman to be sure, but, like Billy Wilder, he was a writer first and foremost. Not many filmmakers would have the balls to adapt Hammett, Crane, Melville, and the word of God at various points in their careers, but Huston did, and he was always respectful of his material. He may not have always succeeded, but more often than not, he did. Here, he teams again with W.R. Burnett (the two made Humphrey Bogart a star in Raoul Walsh's High Sierra nine years earlier), and the result is a veritable study of action film existentialism. It has the patience to spread it's attention around, forcing the audience to truly understand where each and every single character is coming from, and where they hope to end up. Films of this type rarely hold up this well, but writing like this usually does.
It would be hard to imagine films like Heat, Inside Man, Ocean's Eleven, and especially The Killing, which stars Sterling Hayden as an extension of his character here, without The Asphalt Jungle. Even though you won't see it on any lists of the world's greatest films, it can be argued that few films have defined an entire genre the way this one has, and that is something to be admired. If you haven't had the pleasure of watching this great film, do not wait any longer. Believe me when I tell you, you'll be kicking yourself.