I expected crime noir classic The Asphalt Jungle to be something of a cheesefest: stiffly acted, overly melodramatic, and maybe a bit hamfisted in its morality, like The Hardy Boys for adults of the Greatest Generation. Thankfully, John Huston’s film adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s 1949 novel is none of that.
No sooner is Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) out of the big house when he hatches a plan to do what he does best: steal. Like, a million bucks or more in jewels from a jewelry store (not Jared’s). Yes, a jewel heist. He pitches his plan to Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a two-bit gambling bookie, who puts him in touch with Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a rich but shady attorney. Emmerich buys in, not just providing financial backing but also agreeing to handle disposing the booty for cash.
Doc assembles a crew of petty thieves consisting of a “box man,” or a safecracker (Anthony Caruso), a driver (James Whitmore), and an all-important “hooligan” (Sterling Hayden) to execute the plan. The heist goes off without a hitch, mission accomplished. It’s smooth; uneventful, even. That is, until a stray bullet accidentally hits one of the crew members.
This is where the plot gets really interesting, as human nature and a slew of bad decisions rear their ugly heads. It doesn’t help that at the same time, sundry troubles that have been brewing alongside all the planning are coming to a boil. Soon, it’s every man for himself in a sticky web of deception, doublecrossing, and death.
The Asphalt Jungle is an exquisitely layered and calibrated drama that’s tough to turn away from — and tough not to appreciate. Written by Huston with Ben Maddow, the screenplay is tight. The characters — a collection of urban lowlife thieves, thugs, private detectives, crooked cops, and good looking dames — all have dimension. Interestingly, what would probably be the most intense scene in most movies — the break-in — isn’t; the intensity and the drama come from what happens after that. A manhunt that ends in Cleveland and an attempted swindle serve as the ticking clock here. This is the perfect thriller for a hot summer night in the city. Bonus: The Asphalt Jungle features a young but unmistakable Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest roles.
In 2008, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Asphalt Jungle “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).
With Jean Hagen, John McIntire, Barry Kelley, Teresa Celli, William “Wee Willie” Davis, Dorothy Tree, Brad Dexter, Helene Stanley, John Maxwell, Strother Martin, Jack Warden, Tim Ryan
(Music Box) A-