Friday, May 23, 2014

Review: "The Asphalt Jungle" is a Film-Noir Gem (Remembering Sterling Hayden)

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 152 (of 2006) by Leroy Douresseaux

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – B&W
Running time:  112 minutes (1 hour, 52 minutes)
DIRECTOR:  John Huston
WRITERS:  Ben Maddow and John Huston (from the novel by W.R. Burnett)
PRODUCER:  Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
CINEMATOGRAPHER:  Harold Rosson (D.o.P.)
EDITOR:  George Boemler
COMPOSER:  Mikos Rozsa
Academy Award nominee


Starring:  Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Marc Lawrence, Barry Kelley, Anthony Caruso, Teresa Celli, and Marilyn Monroe

The subject of this movie review is The Asphalt Jungle, a 1950 film noir and crime drama co-written and directed by John Huston.  The film is based on the 1949 novel, The Asphalt Jungle, written by author W.R. Burnett.  The Asphalt Jungle the movie is a caper film that focuses on an initially-successful jewelry heist that turns sour because of bad luck and double-crossing.

There was a time when an urban crime drama didn’t require massively staged shootouts in which by the time the credits rolled literally hundreds of bullet shell casings had hit the ground.  There was indeed a time before painfully loud gunfire and bodies flying backwards from high impact bullet hits.  That was before Hong Kong produced cop dramas and crime thrillers were the gold standard for crime films.  That was a time when all a director needed was a solid script, a large ensemble cast of character actors, and a gritty, urban American setting.

That simple age yielded a film like director John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle.  The actor/writer/director best known for such films as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen could also turn a cool trick with such crime films as the timeless flick, The Maltese Falcon, and the Oscar-nominated Prizzi’s Honor.  Released in 1950, fans of the movie genre, Film-Noir, consider The Asphalt Jungle to be a noir classic.

The film follows a band of thieves who plan and execute a million dollar jewelry store heist.  Fresh out of prison, German-born master thief, Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance), takes into his confidence a wily hood named “Cobby” Cobb (Marc Lawrence) who runs an illegal betting parlor.  Cobb helps Doc assemble just the kind of team he needs to execute his crime:  Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a safe cracker; Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), a driver; and Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a hooligan or thug.

However, they run into complications with the man who is supposed to help them fence (sell) the diamonds on the black market, Alonzo D. “Lon” Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a prominent criminal attorney.  Lon is in deep financial straits.  Broke and desperate for cash, he plots with a shady cohort, to double cross Doc and his gang, which, of course, puts the entire plan on the road to ruin.

John Houston and his crew splendidly create the gritty and grimy world in which skilled thieves and hardened criminals exist.  An underworld, it is indeed as the film’s tagline reads, “The City Under the City,” or at least it is the world behind the backdoors, alleyways, and criminal haunts (like Gus’s restaurant).  The actors superbly play to type the kind of ethnic and poor white characters that fill such stories – career criminals whose jobs or addictions (like Dix’s gambling habit) force them to continue working the streets the same way the needs of a family necessitate that an honest man or woman keep working just about everyday.

The Asphalt Jungle isn’t glossy or shiny noir.  Houston’s film is as matter-of-fact and as tough as Hayden’s Dix Handley – mistrustful of those who might befriend him and ready to put a big hurt on anyone in his way.  The Asphalt Jungle seems not to really care if someone likes it, and that makes this coarse little film truly a gem of a crime film and a gritty Film-Noir treat.

8 of 10

1951 Academy Awards:  4 nominations: “Best Actor in a Supporting Role” (Sam Jaffe), “Best Cinematography, Black-and-White” (Harold Rosson), “Best Director” (John Huston), and “Best Writing, Screenplay” (Ben Maddow and John Huston)

1951 BAFTA Awards:  1 nomination:  “Best Film from any Source” (USA)

1951 Golden Globes:  3 nominations: “Best Cinematography - Black and White” (Harold Rosson), “Best Motion Picture Director” (John Huston), and “Best Screenplay” (John Huston and Ben Maddow)

2008 National Film Preservation Board, USA:  National Film Registry

Monday, July 17, 2006

Updated:  Friday, May 23, 2014

The text is copyright © 2014 Leroy Douresseaux. All Rights Reserved. Contact this site for syndication rights and fees.

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