Though The Asphalt Jungle is a film that revolves around many characters, the real centrepiece of the film is criminal mastermind Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (played by Sam Jaffe). Recently released from prison, Doc has a plan for one last heist – a big one – and seeks both financing and assistance from the grimy underworld of an unnamed Midwestern city.
Throughout the first third of the film, we are introduced to the many characters who get entangled in the scheme, knowingly or not. We meet Cobby, a black market bookmaker who also happens to be friendly with a corrupt local police officer, Lieutenant Dietrich. The officer knows that Doc didn’t check in after his release and is getting grief from Police Commissioner Hardy, but he still keeps schtum for his friend.
Cobby doesn’t have the money to finance this operation, so he introduces Doc to Alonzo D. Emmerich, a local lawyer and fixer with ambivalent morals. He agrees to finance the heist whilst secretly scheming a way to keep all of the money for himself. Emmerich sends his right-hand man, private detective Bob Brannom, to collect all debts owed, as he has no cash to hand. We discover, however, that none of his debtors can pay up, and he can’t get his hands on this money. Together, they scheme to double-cross Doc and his men, offering to hold onto the jewels whilst gathering the cash exchange, when really they plan to run away on their own.
Doc hires his men, including Louie Ciavelli, as a box man (to break open the safe) and Gus Minissi, a hunchbacked diner owner whom we met earlier in the film, a trusted contact of Ciavelli and Cobby. The last man hired is gambling addict tough-man Dix Handley, a hulking Kentucky hayseed who is a good friend of Gus’s.
With everything in place, the heist begins, with all the shenanigans we have come to expect from a great heist movie. Alarms accidentally tripped, knocking out police officers and crew members getting shot; it all goes down. The team get the jewels, however, and escape from the crime scene.
Ciavelli, injured with a gunshot wound to the belly, is rushed away with Gus to his house, where he attempts to contact a doctor. Doc and Dix run to Emmerich’s, where the attempted double cross begins. By the end of the meeting, Emmerich’s man, Brannom, is shot dead, there is no money for the jewels, and the police are crawling all over the city. There are only two burning questions: Can they get any money in exchange for these jewels by any other channels, and can they all get out of the city before the police catch up with them?
The Asphalt Jungle is a stand-out film in the fantastic early catalogue of a filmmaker who also directed such masterpieces as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Key Largo (1948) in this period. It is one of the very first heist films ever made and has set the blueprint, inspiring so many films since. This includes early remakes such as The Badlanders (1950), Cool Breeze (1972) and the scene-by-scene remake Cairo (1963), but its inspiration can still be felt today in films like Reservoir Dogs (1992), The Score (2001) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001).
One of the biggest compliments that could be made is regarding the film’s heavy influence on Rififi (1955), considered France’s greatest noir movie and perhaps the best heist film ever produced. It’s interesting as it was one of the first films to break with the mould and tell a crime story from the criminals’ perspective. None of the characters we meet are particularly likeable in the traditional sense, but we admire some traits they demonstrate, like fierce loyalty and determination. We see the authentic dark streets and get a taste of what criminality is really like. This is not a classic polished gangster movie. It portrays a low down, dirty, untrustworthy world of double-crossing backstabbers and confidence tricksters.
John Huston was keen to capture a realistic atmosphere with The Asphalt Jungle and was heavily influenced by Italian neorealist films such as Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Rome, Open City (1945). This realism was then perfectly paired with the typically stylized noir aesthetic we are now familiar with. The shots in the film are sparse, with fewer scenes edited together, instead often focusing on one setup, almost documentary-like. The dramatic lighting is less pronounced, and many exchanges are done within one framed shot rather than intercut. It’s subtle but effective.
All this relied on a fantastic cast, including the ever-brilliant Sterling Hayden and Louis Calhern, who effortlessly portrayed their roles. They are joined by great actors such as multi-award winning James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, Jean Hagen, John McIntire, Barry Kelley, Anthony Caruso and an early breakout performance from Marilyn Monroe, as Emmerich’s secret mistress.
All the performances are crisp and believable, drawing you into their lives of corruption and crime. There is a very human element to the acting in the film, where nothing is rushed, and everyone is given room to breathe. Emmerich’s final scene, after the police catch on to his involvement in the scheme, is a perfect example of this, where Louis Calhern has an opportunity to show genuinely agitated indecision and sums up the entire futility of his initial ambition.
The Asphalt Jungle is a cinematic treasure to behold and certainly one of the many jewels in the crown of the film noir genre. Recommended viewing for all noir enthusiasts and cinema lovers in general.
That concludes our review of The Asphalt Jungle.
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