In an archival interview included on this week’s Criterion release, John Huston describes his 1950 film noir The Asphalt Jungle as “a story told from the inside out.” It’s an apt description for this uncommonly patient film noir, which takes the familiar narrative of a desperate criminal putting together a team to pull off a big heist, only to see everything disastrously crumble, and elevates it through outstanding tension and detailed, character-oriented storytelling.
Working from a novel by W.R. Burnett, Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle tracks a gang of crooks from the inception of the heist that brings them all together to the betrayal-laden aftermath that drives them apart. The mastermind is Dr. Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a just-paroled convict with his sights set on a big score that will allow him to run far, far away, and he slowly assembles the rest of the crew: safe-cracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), heavyweight Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), and finally Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a crooked lawyer who indulges in crime to support the glamorous lifestyle of his young new lover (Marilyn Monroe).
When Huston refers to The Asphalt Jungle as a story told from the inside out, he’s alluding to the unusual attention paid to the film’s motley crew of characters. It’s a good 40 minutes before the team finally comes together, and Huston takes his time building an ensemble with a variety of personalities and motivations, carefully revealing character through detail. The entire film is laced with a riveting tension, both narratively and stylistically. The central heist unfolds with queasy unease, with alarms going off in the distance and guards patrolling the area, and every subsequent scene feels like a steadily tightening noose, new conflicts rolling in from every angle. Huston’s direction is equally conflicted, pitting the slick stylization of film noir against a gritty, darkness-bathed neo-realism reportedly inspired by the films of Fellini.
The Asphalt Jungle boasts quite the ensemble, starring veteran actors like Louis Calhern and Sam Jaffe alongside future stars Sterling Hayden and Marilyn Monroe. Monroe doesn’t have much to do, but brings her trademark effervescence to one of her first major screen roles, acting mostly as motivation for Calhern’s crooked lawyer. Calhern is effectively slithery in the role, clearly out of place in this gang of crooks who get by on hard looks and big reputations but subtly relishing his perceived superiority. Meanwhile, Sterling Hayden makes for a great roughneck, brash, imposing, and kind of likable even as his character is casually awful to Doll (Jean Hagen), the woman who loves him. The best in show, however, is Sam Jaffe’s tremendously calculated performance as the intelligent Dr. Riedenschneider. Jaffe’s Riedenschneider is utterly unflappable, alternately intriguing and frightening in his quiet self-assurance, and he’s somehow the best character in an ensemble filled with colorful crooks, earning Jaffe an Oscar nomination for the role.
Criterion has assembled an impressive line-up for special features for their new release of The Asphalt Jungle, spotlighting director John Huston in archival footage promoting the film and excerpts from an audio interview where he describes his directorial process. Huston is most amusing as a guest on a 1979 episode of a television program called City Lights, where he delivers delightful anecdotes about his work, even telling the story of how Marilyn Monroe performed her audition for the film on the floor of his office. Also worth mentioning is a brand-new interview with film historian Eddie Muller, who digs deep into the lasting legacy of the film, W.R. Burnett’s lengthy working relationship with Huston, and Huston’s poetic adaptation of Burnett’s novel, which took a Production Code-mandated ending and gave it a stirring poignancy. Rounding out the special features are a feature-length documentary about Sterling Hayden, a 2004 audio commentary, and a visual analysis of the film with modern cinematographer John Bailey.
The Asphalt Jungle is far from John Huston’s first foray into film noir, and far from his best; his 1940 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon is one of the genre’s foundational efforts and a great Humphrey Bogart vehicle to boot. Nonetheless, it’s a solid entry in the post-war crime film canon, most notable for its impressively detailed screenplay and a strong early turn from Marilyn Monroe. The film is also a testament to execution, deeply familiar on the surface but shining thanks to its rich character work and consistent, uneasy tension, and it more than earns its place as one of the essential texts from the storied career of John Huston.