Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Director: John Huston                                    Writers: Ben Maddow & John Huston
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                              Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, Louis Calhern and James Whitmore

John Huston was just one of the all time great directors, and this is one of the great caper films of all time, right up there with Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and The Sting. Huston had a knack for finding great properties, even if they’d already been done before, getting his second of twelve Oscar nominations for The Maltese Falcon which had previously been filmed twice. His Academy Award was for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, based on the novel by Ret Marut, a German living in Mexico. The Asphalt Jungle was written by the prolific crime novelist W.R. Burnett. And while Huston was credited for writing many of his screenplays, most of them were very direct adaptations of existing works, his attempt to bring what was great about the novels to the screen intact, a lesson many modern screenwriters could learn from.

This story is centered on the mild mannered Sam Jaffe who has just been released from prison, all the while sitting on a jewelry heist he had been planning before he went in. Once out he goes to numbers runner Marc Lawrence to see if he can get financing for the caper. Lawrence brings in the great Louis Calhern as the money man, Anthony Caruso as the safecracker, James Whitmore as the wheelman and Sterling Hayden as the muscle. Unknown to the crew, however, Calhern is actually broke and is planning on taking the diamonds to be fenced and never coming back. Hayden is the real loose cannon, a small time hood who is addicted to betting on horses. For some reason, however, he’s the one that Jaffe trusts the most and confides in him that they should stick together in case anything unexpected happens, just to protect their investment. The wonderful Jean Hagen plays Hayden’s love interest, though he’s not really interested. She’s down on her luck and just hanging on.

Meanwhile, police commissioner John McIntire is infuriated that his men can’t get a better handle on the crime that is going on in his Midwestern city. What he doesn’t realize is that most of his detectives are on the take. Nevertheless, he pushes for a war on crime a the same time the crew is making their move and the two groups run headlong into each other with predictable results. The Asphalt Jungle is typically classified as a noir film, and there certainly are elements of the style in abundance, the night scenes in the city, shadows and cynicism, and a wonderful film score by Miklós Rózsa. Burnett, however, was never really a noir writer. He wrote wonderful crime stories that, when filmed during the heyday of noir seemed tailor made for the genre. I would categorize the first half of picture as more of a caper film, with the emphasis of the plot on the heist and the police. The second half, though, is strictly noir, with everyone in the cast seemingly falling into the abyss.

One of the things that annoys me, however, is the emphasis of the modern advertising on Marilyn Monroe, plastering her face and image on the posters and DVDs when she has little more than a cameo in the picture. Not only does it diminish the true stars of the picture, but has to be a disappointment for Monroe fans who see almost nothing of her. Jean Hagen is the real actress here, a serious artist who was stuck playing ditzy stereotypes for too much of her career. It’s too bad, because she was a gifted performer. Hayden is a freight train, rumbling through the picture from beginning to end with characters either climbing aboard or being unceremoniously tossed off, while Huston is the engineer, heading down the tracks he laid in the screenplay and opening the throttle full. The Asphalt Jungle is just a fantastic film and a testament to Huston’s genius that it wound up being remade three more times. Highly recommended, especially for fans of the genre.

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