Note: There are spoilers in the article.
Everyone has a weakness, and if you let it consume you it just might do you in: young girls, high living, horses, it does not matter, they can all become vices and destroy you. That what happens to the various characters in John Huston’s classic caper film “The Asphalt Jungle.” Written by Huston and Ben Maddow, based a novel by W.R. Burnett whose tough yet effortless style is responsible for such other memorable films like “Little Caesar” and “High Sierra.”
“The Asphalt Jungle” is the first caper movie to detail in a realistic, gritty style, a step by step process on how to pull off a heist job. It definitely set the standards for future heist films to come like “Rififi,” “The Killing,” “The Anderson Tapes,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Reservoir Dogs” and even a lesser film like “Ocean’s 11” all of which owe a debt of gratitude to this film. The characters that we are now familiar with in so many other heist films are all there, the brains behind the plan, the brawn, the safecracker, the getaway guy, the stoolie, and the double-crosser who wants everything for himself. The women are there too, Doll (Jean Hagen) and Angela (Marilyn Monroe) whose biggest weaknesses are they love their men too much.
Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is just out of prison and wants to pull a big heist, one he had planned long before being sent away. He hooks up with a small-time bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence) who brings in the money man, a slimy lawyer named Emmerich (Louis Calhern), who is in debt up to his neck. Despite being married, Emmerich has a beautiful and very young mistress named Angela (Marilyn Monroe), a woman with expensive taste. Emmerich and his thug partner Bannerman (Brad Dexter) convince Cobby to put up the front money; you see they have plans to steal the jewels from Doc and company and fence it on their own. Doc brings in Dix (Sterling Hayden) as strong arm, Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) as the pro safecracker and Gus (James Whitmore), as the getaway guy. The heist goes well except during the getaway, Louis is critically wounded. This is the first of a series of actions that unravel their “perfect plan.” Gus is soon picked up by the police, Cobby turns stoolie after being beaten up by a former friendly corrupt cop. Dix will kill Bannerman when he and Emmerich try to take the jewels; however, Dix has been wounded himself from a shot Bannerman got off before dying. When the cops come to pick up Emmerich at his house, he commits suicide. Doc decides to get out of town heading for Cleveland but is picked up by two police officers at a pit stop when he waited a few minutes too long drooling over a young teenage girl dancing to music on a jukebox. Dix plan is to head back to his home in Kentucky. He and his girl Doll (Jean Hagen) take off but that wound is still bleeding, and as he reaches the ranch he collapses and dies in his field of dreams.
From the first shots where we pick up Dix roaming the dark, deserted city streets trying to avoid the police to the approximately 10 minutes heist scene, to the final scenes where Doc and then Dix meet their fate Huston films it all with a commanding intensity and strong atmospheric camerawork, extracting a series of excellent performances from the cast.
Their perfect plan is done in by the weaknesses of the men. Doc would have escaped from the city had his weakness for young girls not held him back a few extra minutes. He had to watch the young teen girl boogie to the tunes on the jukebox. Emmerich was simply done in by greed, a common theme in Huston films (Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon). Even Dix had to try to make it back to his old Kentucky home and the horses he loved only to die trying.
Huston cast the film with an excellent group of actors. For Sterling Hayden, this was his first leading role in a major film. Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe and Jean Hagen were known entities but lacked marquee strength. Marilyn Monroe was still a starlet in what was essentially her first substantial part in a major film. She was not even Huston’s first choice for the role; he originally wanted Lola Albright. Monroe does not have much screen time as the young plaything to the sleazeball lawyer but she manages to make a big impression with her limited exposure, and she looks great.
In 1958, a western called “The Badlanders” (available via Warners Archive Collection) starring Alan Ladd was a loose remake. An even looser version was tried as a TV show in 1961. Basically, they used the title and changed everything else turning it into a standard cops and robbers series. Needless to say, the show did not last long. Other remakes include a 1963 film called “Cairo,” with George Sanders, and in 1972, a blaxploitation version called “Cool Breeze” was released with a cast that included Pam Grier.
The film received four Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Sam Jaffe), Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Interesting enough MGM had two other films they pushed for best picture that year, “Father of the Bride” and unbelievably “King Solomon’s Mines” were both nominated.
“The Asphalt Jungle” holds up very well retaining a sense of realism, three-dimensional characters, darkly lit noir lighting, and claustrophobic close-ups. The film is more visually representative of Warner’s ripped from the front pages of newspapers 1930’s style than the glossy films you would expect from MGM.
Watch this film, and you will see everything that is missing in the unrealistic thrill seeking super acrobatic capers that today’s stars like Tom Cruise and others attempt to entertain us within multiplexes.