Friday Night Film Noir: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

John Huston directed three films that show up on virtually all Best Film Noir lists: this one, The Maltese Falcon, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. While each has in common desperate characters putting all their chips on a criminal scheme that of course (slowly) blows up in their faces, The Asphalt Jungle is the most film noir-y of the three for me.
(Nothing against the other two, of course - I love them.)

Let's start with the cinematography by Harold Rosson:

As noted here: "If, while watching, the viewer imagines a B-movie version of this story, with conventional camera work and a lackluster cast and script, the greatness of The Asphalt Jungle becomes even more evident."
"The consummate technical work and artistry involved elevate the film far above any genre or pulp limitations. "
The art design is even more striking when considering that most of it was filmed at MGM Studios. As TCM notes: "Ironically, without having been shot in a real city, The Asphalt Jungle showed how city street realism could make a film noir narrative come alive with a pervasive sense of menace." 

"Huston understood that the city was, in a sense, the most important character in the film. "

Both the film's plot and its aesthetics were immediately and widely copied. And that remains the case; The Asphalt Jungle is pretty much the definition of the Film Noir Caper film, and it can be felt in pretty much every caper film made since then. Except, notably, Reservoir Dogs. Hakuna matata.

The sequence most often mentioned is probably the score-less heist scene, expanded wonderfully in Rififi, the classic French crime film that came out three years later.

As mentioned above, the treasure of Asphalt as well as other Huston film noirs is a macgufin: like the dust in Sierra Madre or the black bird in Maltese Falcon, the bag of gems is worthless, unable to be fenced, not worth any of the considerable heat brought on them for taking it.    

The film was criticized at the time of its release for portraying the criminals too sympathetically. It's harder to see this nowadays. Even though we can empathize with the criminals -

particularly Anthony Caruso (aka Bela OxMyx) as the expert safecracker -
this a film of anti-heroes. Take the main character Dix (Sterling Hayden) and his girlfriend Doll (Jean Hagen). While we can certainly see how the Depression and lack of opportunity co-authored their tragic descent, she has a look of doom in her eye from the first moment we meet her. And outside of some small acts of genuine kindness to her, he treats her abysmally.

Sterling Hayden's breakthrough role. I quite liked how he and Hagen played off one another.
He finally makes it back to his boyhood farm, but he's lost too much blood at that point to enjoy it any.

The only one I felt genuine empathy for (besides the safecracker) was the heist's mastermind, newly-paroled Dr. Reidenschneider.

Sam Jaffe, who was in everything.
Dr. R is the old-school criminal, the Moriarty type, possessed of Old World charm and an abiding calm. I was perhaps to my discredit, rooting for him to get away.

Which he almost does. When he and the taxi driver he's hired stop at a juke joint to get some grub, he becomes fixated on a young girl (supposed to be 16 or so, though the actress playing her is quite obviously older.)
This brief relaxing of his guard - and the only time we see him with anything resembling a human frailty - is all it takes for karma to catch up with him.
Of the not-so-sympathetic characters, paramount is Emmerich (Louis Calhern) the shady lawyer who tries to set-up a double-cross on the heist. 

His plan is to abandon his bedridden wife and run off with his mistress, Angela, who creepily calls him "Uncle Lon." (Marilyn Monroe in the role that first brought her to wide attention.)
After she became a superstar, they redesigned the poster - and the order-of-credits, rather ridiculously - to make her role seem much more prominent than it actually is.
Not that she doesn't do a good job - she does.
She is not a femme fatale - this is a film devoid of femme fatales. In a reversal of the usual set-up, it is the women's devotion to the men in their lives (except Angela, who jumps ship at just the right time) that brings them misery.

I won't go through all the cast - everyone does a fine job; this if a film of highly individualized characters - but John McIntire as the gravel-voiced law-and-order police commissioner is especially good. 

He gets the big speech at movie's end: "Suppose we had no police force, good or bad, suppose we had (pause) just silence? Nobody to listen, nobody to answer. The battle's finished. The jungle wins. The predatory beasts take over."
Also, a shout-out to Brad Dexter as Emmerich's unlucky enforcer.

A classic slow-burner - Huston famously filmed each scene as if it was the most pivotal scene of the script, and it shows.


The Asphalt Jungle was not the first W.R. Burnett novel John Huston adapted for the screen. In 1941, Huston wrote the screenplay for High Sierra, also an adaptation of a Burnett novel and one of the ten westerns Dog Star Omnibus says you must see.


  1. I've been an on and off Huston viewer for some time now, starting when I was kid.

    It's gone far enough to the point where I think I qualify as a fan. This is one I haven't got to yet but now is something I'll have to keep an eye on.

    My favorite Huston film, I think, is Moby Dick, although he did a lot of other work. A lot, if not all of it, was adapted from famous novels, it seems.


    1. Huston was a real character. I've seen less than half his work, I think, but I'm definitely a fan.I haven't seen Moby Dick in far too long, but I remember really liking it back in the day.

      Speaking of Melville, someone really ought to make a movie out of Typee.

  2. Oh, the gaps in my movie knowledge...! The unforgiveable gaps!

    Obviously, I've never seen this movie. I think I sometimes get it confused with "Blackboard Jungle." That's dumb on my account, and even dumber when you consider that I haven't seen THAT movie either!

    This one having Hayden, Monroe, AND one of the gangsters from "A Piece of the Action" seems like a combination that I can't afford to continue to avoid.

    By the way, I sympathize with you wanting the bad guy to get away with it. I'm currently watching the Netflix "Daredevil" and continually find myself rooting for Kingpin. I am a terrible person, though, so bear that in mind!

    1. I've seen actually seen "Blackboard Jungle" as it turns out, It's pretty good, as well as having one character who's nickname might have inspired Stephen King's Stan "The Man"(?) Uris from It.


    2. Never seen "Blackboard Jungle," either, as a matter of fact. I wonder how that happened. Looking forward to catching up with Daredevil, tho, very much.