The Asphalt Jungle is an intriguing story of a million-dollar jewel heist in a bleak and nameless mid-western city from the director of such hard-boiled classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), and Key Largo (1948).
Based on the novel by W.T. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle offered moviegoers in 1950 a new view of crime. During the 1930s, the crime saga had achieved a certain vogue, largely due to the monumental success of three films: Little Caesar (1930), which made a star of Edward G. Robinson; The Public Enemy (1931), James Cagney’s first starring role; and Scarface, Howard Hawks’ 1931 rendering of the Al Capone story. For the 1930s film gangster, crime led to power, recognition and public renown. The Asphalt Jungle, by contrast, looks at crime on a smaller, more intimate scale. Huston bypasses the world of the big-time racketeer in favor of the small-time professional, an underworld everyman whose aim is not to reach the top, but to “get out from under.” Although the film revolves around a lucrative theft, Huston downplays the allure of jewels—the engine of suspense which drives The Maltese Falcon—and focuses instead on the criminals themselves, their loyalties and failings, the details of their profession.
Huston was a man of many trades. Before turning to film, he had been a painter, an opera singer, an officer in the Mexican cavalry, a Greenwich Village actor, an unsuccessful news reporter, and a hobo. In The Asphalt Jungle, his love of the minutiae of professional life is evidenced in the careful realism with which he portrays his criminals.
The mastermind of the caper is no mystical, evil genius, but a small, properly dressed German whose criminal technique verges upon surgical. Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) treats the crime as a business proposition, and Huston shows us that a theft, like a merger, requires backing. The members of the gang are specialists, each an expert in his field. The “boxman” or safecracker, Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), the driver, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), and Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), the “hooligan,” must be paid off “like house painters,” Doc Riedenschneider insists. “Sometimes,” he adds, “men get greedy.”
The Asphalt Jungle is a study in patience; the criminals never scramble or rush, and, even while alarms sound all around the jewelry store, Riedenschneider sits and smokes a cigar. Not a single car-chase or cops-and-robbers shoot-out appears in the film. Instead, the calm confidence of the criminals like Cobby (Mac Lawrence), wracks the nerves of any law-abiding viewer.
For the criminals, patience derives from a confidence in their skills and technique. Huston’s direction profits from a similar patience. Through his experience as a painter, he learned to frame an image, and throughout the film, he uses one shot where other directors might have needed three. He dispenses with editing flour ishes and over-dramatic lighting and opts instead for sustained, well-composed shots. By balancing elements in the foreground and background of his images, Huston frames events and responses at once, without cutting between them. The camera seems to dally on faces in the foreground while important business transpires elsewhere in the frame, or even offscreen. But The Asphalt Jungle is not merely a film about a crime, it’s a film about people involved in a crime.
Huston’s characterizations are sensitive and detailed. Although Commissioner Hardy describes Dix Handley as “a hooligan, a man without human feeling or human mercy,” Huston rejects an oversimplified vision of the hardened criminal. Instead, he offers characters with their emotional faculties intact, characters whose longings and losses are as important to the film as their criminal skills. Dix, for instance, has a dream about a black colt on his family’s lost farm in Kentucky, a dream which resonates throughout the entire film and culminates in his lyrical death surrounded by horses who watch him “with infinite patience.” Doc Riedenschneider’s tragic passion for a dancing nymphet is portrayed with sincere understanding well before Lolita.
While critical response to the film was mixed, few scarcely noticed what was to become the film’s most popular gift to Hollywood: Marilyn Monroe. Prior to The Asphalt Jungle, Monroe had appeared in a number of films, but she had yet to play a speaking role. Liza Wilson of Photoplay mentioned her only as an afterthought: “There’s a beautiful blonde, too, name of Marilyn Monroe, who plays Calhern’s girl friend, and makes the most of her footage.” Indeed she did. In her two scenes, she caught the eye of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who cast her in a similar role in his next film, All About Eve (1950).
Regardless of the critical response, The Asphalt Jungle remains a classic. Huston won Oscar nominations for his screenplay and direction, as did Jaffe for his superb portrayal of Doc Riedenschneider.
Most importantly, however, the film challenged Hollywood’s conception of the submerged population of professional criminals, a population often pitied or ignored or psychoanalyzed or incarcerated, but rarely before so well understood.