"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 10, 2011

"The Asphalt Jungle" (1950) (Film review)

Based on enthusiastic reviews, for example on the Film Noir of the Week website, I was expecting much from The Asphalt Jungle. But I regret to say that there was nothing especially wonderful about this John Huston film - it is watchable, but not more than that.

In the first place, I would not call this a film noir - although there are varying definitions of this genre, I would expect 1) irreversible doom brought about by the own mistakes or plain stupidity of the protagonist, and 2) a vamp who catches him in her web. Neither is present in The Asphalt Jungle which is a rather ordinary crime story about a heist gone wrong.

 "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a "crime brain" just out of prison, has a plan for a burglary to steal jewels worth a million dollars. He recruits safe cracker Louis (Anthony Caruso), driver Gus (James Whitmore), financial backer Emmerich (Louis Calhern), and strong-arm man Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden). At first the plan goes like clockwork, but little accidents accumulate and although they get away with the loot, one of them is shot and the police is on their heels.

The moralistic last part of the film shows rather mechanically how they all get their deserves. Such moralism of course has no place in a real film noir. There is one bad cop (he looks viler than the criminals) and the film stresses that such cops are exceptions, the public can really trust the police force. You instinctively feel that is pure propaganda and that Huston is preaching for the authorities. This was 1950, the black period of McCarthyism and Huston may have felt he had rooted too much for the criminals, who come off very sympathetic.

The only light in the darkness is the quality of the acting - Sam Jaffe as a meek professor type, Sterling Hayden as a strongman bursting with anger and Louis Calhern as a gentlemanly uncle-type who behind his affable exterior is as mean as they get. He even has a "niece" set up in her own small apartment, Marylin Monroe in her first small role, who happens to be no family and could be his granddaughter.

One more elderly gentlemen interested in young women is "Doc" Riedenschneider, perhaps because of his long years in prison. A nice touch is that the cops arrest him when he unnecessarily delays his escape to watch a girl dance to jukebox music in a roadside cafe.