A modern discoverer of John Huston’s 1950 noir classic The Asphalt Jungle – as this critic was, until a recent viewing of the Blu-ray now available through The Criterion Collection – may find a template that feels terribly familiar. Many will instantly recognize the archetypes in display: The bitter ex-con. The morally deteriorating older man undone by his affairs. The intelligent Lothario who tilts his head at every skirt. The drunken floozy who hopes for more, but has no idea how to achieve it. These archetypal figures will be put through their paces as they – what else? – attempt to pull off a mythic and sure-to-fail One Last Heist. This is a formula that dominates much of 1950s film noir.
It’s not until one does a little bit of reading – or engages in a casual exploration of the history of film noir – that a viewer may discover that The Asphalt Jungle is where the heist movie essentially began. The reason the archetypes feel so perfect is because they were being invented. The reason the heist feels so classical is because it hadn’t been done like this before. While The Asphalt Jungle was recognized at the time with four Academy Award nominations (it won zero), and it is often mentioned on (perhaps slightly longer) lists of the best noir films ever made, it is only now that I can personally come to recognize how influential it has been.
John Huston has created a seedy world, a jungle indeed, where tensions run high, jaws are always twitching, and everyone is teetering on the precipice of their own unsavory appetites. Sterling Hayden plays a non-too-bright ex-con grunt who secretly longs for a simpler life, but who typically operates in no-nonsense mode. Louis Calhern plays a lawyer, dating a young Marilyn Monroe, who is enlisted into a heist, and who may be a little too easily swayed when it comes to matters of betrayal. The mastermind of the heist is a recently-released criminal superstar played by Sam Jaffe (from The Day the Earth Stood Still) who is calm, well-spoken, intelligent, and possessed of a too-healthy interest in young ladies. These three will join a safecracker, a getaway driver, and an additional thug to pull of a jewel heist. No points for guessing things go south.
The unique triumphs of The Asphalt Jungle have less to do with the shadowy photography that has become the central aesthetic signifier of the noir genre, and more to do with its frank portraits of human weakness. The characters Huston has chosen to illuminate are all callow, greedy, and marked by a single, crippling tragic flaw that audiences can immediately see will ruin them. But they’re not seen as wicked, awful, or even “cool.” These characters are depicted with a surprisingly sympathetic eye, inviting us to imagine our own weaknesses and foibles as we see these relatable jerks backstab and betray one another for very understandable reasons.
The high style of classic expressionistic noir is replaced here by a surprisingly naturalistic style of filmmaking that lopes right up to the edge of kitchen sink realism. The characters are no mere cold symbolic avatars in a world gone stylistic; Huston breaks down that intellectual barrier, and allows the characters to shine in all their glorious dumb pathos.
Over the course of film history, The Asphalt Jungle has been, in many ways, eclipsed by the films it influenced. This, you may find, is a common phenomenon in film; Citizen Kane wasn’t the first film to use many of its celebrated filmmaking techniques, but it was the first to blend such techniques in such a unique way, making it seem like the central pioneer (The Rules of the Game, to name one influence, would have something to say about that). Explore the movies Welles watched, however, and you’ll find a sea of gems, waiting to be uncovered. The Asphalt Jungle is not just a cracking good movie, but it may provide a puzzle piece with which to build your knowledge.
Top Image: Warner Bros.
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.