#247) The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
OR “Ocean’s Acht”
Directed by John Huston
Written by Huston and Ben Maddow. Based on the novel by W.R. Burnett
Class of 2008
The Plot: The Midwest crime world of the ‘50s gets an unexpected jolt when notorious thief Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is released from prison and wants to immediately pull off another heist. Backed by corrupt lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), Doc employs three hoods to steal half a million in jewelry. Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) is a drifter with dreams of getting out of the racket, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) is the getaway driver and Dix’s voice of reason, and safe-cracker Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is…also there. The heist is a success, but there may be more than one joker in this deck. And that young actress playing Emmerich’s mistress is Marilyn Monroe. And now you know the rest of the story!
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “brilliant crime drama” and mentions Marilyn Monroe’s performance.
But Does It Really?: I’m worried this film is only remembered today for Marilyn. To single out Ms. Monroe would be to completely ignore a film that is expertly crafted from top to tail. As film noir was going out of vogue, “The Asphalt Jungle” helped ease the transition into the grittier pulp crime dramas of the ‘50s. In the confident hands of John Huston, and quite possibly the best ensemble of ‘50s character actors in one film, “The Asphalt Jungle” is the rare crime film where the characters are just as interesting as the caper. A “minor classic” compared to Huston’s other entries, but worth a watch nonetheless.
Everybody Gets One: The only major players making their sole NFR appearance are Marc Lawrence as Cobby and Anthony Caruso as Louie. Both men were character actors who specialized in playing shady underworld types.
Wow That’s Dated: Lots of great ‘50s slang in this one, like “a bunch of swells” and “yipe”.
Seriously, Oscars?: “The Asphalt Jungle” missed out on a Best Picture nod, but did manage Oscar nominations in four major categories: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Sam Jaffe), and Cinematography. The film lost the first three categories to Best Picture winner “All About Eve” (Jaffe lost to George Sanders), while Cinematography went to a little British import called “The Third Man”.
- Is an Asphalt Jungle any relation to a Blackboard Jungle?
- I can never see Sterling Hayden in a movie and not think of those three magic words: “Precious bodily fluids”.
- Wow, young James Whitmore! He does exist!
- Will #2 please step forward? That’s him, Officer! That’s Strother Martin in his film debut!
- His name is Dix Handley? No, I’m not quietly giggling like a 10-year-old.
- Commissioner Hardy is played by John McIntire, who you know as either Sheriff Chambers in “Psycho” or crotchety cat Rufus in “The Rescuers”. Hardy is easily his best film performance.
- Like you need me to tell you that John Huston is a brilliant filmmaker. Look no further than the scene where Gus tries to convince Dix to lay low. Huston covers the entire scene in one uninterrupted take. He even gets the cat to hit its mark!
- While we’re at it, shoutout to cinematographer Harold Rosson. Anyone who can film this, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Singin’ in the Rain” deserves high praise.
- Cobby looks like if Laurence Olivier played Fredo Corleone.
- No offense to Sam Jaffe, who is wonderfully restrained as Riedenschneider, but if I were an Oscar voter I would have put Louis Calhern on my ballot for Best Supporting Actor. It helps that Emmerich gets a stronger character arc, but Calhern gives him a lot of dimension. I suspect Jaffe’s nom was to reward his versatile career (and possibly to show support for his run-in with HUAC). Calhern didn’t go unnoticed by the Academy, however; he was nominated for Lead Actor that year for recreating his stage performance in “The Magnificent Yankee”.
- Get it, Lina Lamont! Jean Hagen adds a nice touch of humanity as Doll, Dix’s live-in moll.
- Thanks to this film’s 11-minute centerpiece heist, I now feel fully qualified to rob a ‘50s bank vault. It’s just a shame they blew up the vault while Burgess Meredith was still in there.
- Dead Man Blinking! We got a Dead Man Blinking!
- Emmerich is not very convincing when he gives his alibi. Jon Lovitz is a better liar.
- Fine, I’ll mention Marilyn. She’s good, and is everything the part asks of her. She’s not incredible, but it’s nice to see her in a performance from when she was still an actor and not an icon.
- Perhaps my favorite character in the piece is Eddie the stereotypical Italian. He’s played by Puerto Rican actor Alberto Morin. Dat’s a spicy-a cultural appropriation!
- Alright Huston, that’s enough shots of the dancing girl’s torso. Break it up, break it up.
- Oh my god, a score! Miklos Rosza finally shows up five minutes before it’s over. He must have gotten lost on the way to the recording studio.
- While not the first in the genre, “The Asphalt Jungle” is the granddaddy of all heist movies where a guy is released from prison and pulls “one last job”. Immediate follow-ups in the genre include “Rififi” and “The Killing”.
- The original novel also inspired such wide-ranging films as the Western “The Badlanders” and the Blaxploitation movie “Cool Breeze”.
- “The Asphalt Jungle” TV series aired on ABC in the spring of 1961. The show starred Jack Warden, who may or may not have a role in the movie. Further research is needed.
- Gus would eventually be transferred to Shawshank State Penitentiary. Going by the alias “Brooks”, he rehabilitated himself by maintaining the prison library.
- Just a reminder that the director of this film would go on to helm the original film version of “Annie”.