The Asphalt Jungle

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“Trash,” was MGM boss Louis B Mayer’s verdict on The Asphalt Jungle when he saw it in 1950. “Ugly people doing nasty things,” he added, possibly unhappy that John Huston had borrowed from the glamour-dodging European neorealists to make what’s now considered to be one of the pre-eminent films of the 1950s.

Does Mayer have a point? Not from this end of the telescope. If nothing else, Huston has been proven right by the passage of time and the respect of countless other directors. You can see plenty of The Asphalt Jungle in the work of Quentin Tarantino, for instance.

It’s a heist movie, a heist-gone-wrong movie in fact, and so there’s nothing to see here in terms of genre for the 21st-century viewer, who has, by now, seen plenty of this sort of thing. Not so much in 1950 though. But the standout, then as now, is the way that Huston does it. Everything just works, from the casting and the cinematography to the music and the big-picture machinations of fate, the “blind accident” referred to by the film’s most interesting (and most dubious) character, “Doc” Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), the criminal mastermind who recruits a luckless band of petty criminals to pull off a massive jewel heist.

The more status characters in The Asphalt Jungle have, the more likely they are to be bent. At the top, corrupt to the bone, is Louis Calhern’s Alonzo D Emmerich, a lawyer and high-end fixer hoping to use Riedenschneider’s ill-gotten jewels to get himself out of financial difficulty. Cop Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelley) is also bent as a paper clip. Compared to these two the actual criminals – Riedenschneider, “box man” (safecracker) Louis (Anthony Caruso), driver Gus (James Whitmore) and “hooligan” Dix (Sterling Hayden) – come across as straight shooters. As does Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen), a goodtime girl who’d secretly like to give it all up for domesticity. All of them are decent people who’ve wound up in the wrong place and are just trying to do a job and do it well.

It’s this moral murkiness that probably also riled Mayer, who liked good and bad guys to be clearly delineated. And though the censors also had qualms, they left the film as Huston made it. Huston, cleverly, made sure that eventually the bad guys got what was coming to them and the good guys (the criminals) did not really profit from their misdeeds either.

Marilyn Monroe as floozy Angela
In her breakthrough role, Marilyn Monroe

The Asphalt Jungle divides down into three distinct chunks – getting the gang together, the heist and then, in the last third, the arrival of the police to return things to the status quo ante, minus a few key characters. It is so slick and so economically made it could be running on wheels.

Hayden and Hagen are perfect casting, but so are sleek Calhern and courtly Jaffe. In a tiny role as Emmerich’s bit on the side, Marilyn Monroe, her skislope breasts emphasised by clothes almost falling off her, is also exactly right. Huston apparently auditioned her and then told her she hadn’t got the part, but changed his mind as he watched her leave his office. He later said she “was one of the few actresses who could make an entrance by leaving the room” and you can see what he meant.

Monroe gets no backstory – her character is too small to figure – but one of the joys of this film is how psychologically dense it is. We know something of the history of most of the characters, from Dix (Hayden) and Doll (Hagen) on down.

The music is by Miklós Rózsa and the superb lighting is by Harold Rosson, a DP more closely associated with colour spectaculars (The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain) but entirely at home with deep-focus black and white. You can watch this film for his ingenious lighting alone, and the sharp, clean visuals of the Criterion release (linked to below) really do them proud.

It’s a brilliantly wrought tale of the needy and the greedy, with one group definitely more sympathetically treated than the other, with crime getting an unusually dispassionate hearing. At one point Riedenschneider describes it as a “left-handed form of human endeavour”. There is a lot of left-handed endeavour in this movie.

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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