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The Asphalt Jungle

As a child, John Huston was told that he may not have long to live. Doctors had determined that he had an enlarged heart, and even if the condition were not fatal, he likely would be infirm for most of his life. Thus, with his notably stubborn nature, the young boy decided to take a swim in a river — aware that he might not return. When it was determined that he was not nearly as sickly as once thought, Huston took up the business of living with a rare passion. He began boxing in his teens, started writing short stories and plays, traveled through Europe, and considered taking up acting as a profession. However, Huston's literary gifts would lead him to the opposite side of the camera, where he would establish himself as one of the 20th century's cinematic titans. A restless man in life who married five times, loved traveling, and was an avid hunter and pilot, Huston's filmography is a varied one. Not all of his pictures were successes, and he refused to stay in one genre. He's well-known for adventure films such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, but he also helmed literary adaptations (Moby Dick, The Dead), war films (The Red Badge of Courage), three wartime documentaries, a Biblical epic (The Bible), a sports film (Victory), and even a musical (Annie). However, Huston will be best remembered for his contributions to the crime film and American noir. His first hit, 1941's The Maltese Falcon, put both the writer/director and his star Humphrey Bogart on the A-list. Huston and Bogart would re-team again for Key Largo. And in 1950 Huston adapted and directed one of the most acclaimed noir titles ever — The Asphalt Jungle.

Adapted from the popular novel by W.R. Burnett (one of Huston's favorite writers), The Asphalt Jungle's dense, multi-character plot concerns a small gang of criminals in a large midwestern American city who hope to loot $1 million in diamonds from a local jeweler. The plan is devised by Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a notorious con who's only been out of jail for a matter of days. Looking for financing, Doc and local bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) approach wealthy attorney Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), hoping he can front $50,000 for the operation. They also need a fence to move the hot rocks — Emmerich might be able to provide a source, but the businessman instead offers to unload the diamonds himself. What Doc doesn't know is that Emmerich is in dire financial straits, and that he and private detective Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) are planning to skip the country with the entire heist. Meanwhile, Doc uses Emmerich's financing to hire three men — diner cook Gus (James Whitmore) will man the car, safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is the box-man, and small-time gambler Dix Handle (Sterling Hayden) is the muscle to serve as lookout and protection. However, the police, led by no-nonsense Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire), are already cracking down on crime in the city, and Hardy has taken corrupt Lt. Ditrich (Barry Kelley) to the mat over the city's notorious gambling parlors. The plot is pulled off, but not without complications, causing each individual thread to unwind in a series of mishaps, mistakes, and personal failures.

*          *          *

"Crime is just a left-handed form of human endeavor." The most-quoted line from The Asphalt Jungle is said by attorney Alonzo Emmerich, hoping to reassure his wife that the shady characters he does business with aren't all that different from the legitimate men in suits and ties who inhabit office buildings and sunlit streets. It's the film's overriding theme and the reason why it's become an indelible classic over the passing decades. Taken merely by its plot, there is nothing to distinguish The Asphalt Jungle from virtually all other heist films with its easily recognized three-part structure (preparation, job, reversals of fortune) and criminals who perform specialized tasks within a larger team framework. Where Huston's film succeeds is by making its criminals more than just clever or devious, but erringly human and sympathetic. Sterling Hayden as the hooligan Dix is a hothead who'd just as soon slug a man as take an insult, and while he can be abrupt with his girlfriend Doll (Jean Hagen), he also misses his boyhood farm in Kentucky and hopes to return someday. Doc may be a crook, but his refined manners and earnest reasoning make him the sort of boss who inspires loyalty. Emmerich is the most pitiable character of the bunch, living behind a facade of wealth and stability while having an affair with a younger woman (Marilyn Monroe) and desperately avoiding bankruptcy. And while women often are left in the background in Huston's films, two notable performances are on display from Jean Hagen as Doll (who would transform two years later in Singin' in the Rain as the abrasive Lina Lamont) and a slender 23-year-old Marilyn Monroe as Emmerich's mistress, delivering a certain amount of Turneresque sensuality, but with her own unmistakable innocence. Film students should also take a closer look at The Asphalt Jungle, no matter how many times they have seen it. Widescreen composition may be the format of today, but few directors had the command of full-frame Academy composition like John Huston, who could layer two or three people into a single shot, creating a stifling sense of claustrophobia while subtly illustrating the dynamic relationships of his various characters.

Warner's DVD release of The Asphalt Jungle offers a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1) from a black-and-white source-print that would benefit from a restoration, but is still pleasant to watch with some collateral wear and one frame-dropout. Audio is clear with hardly any ambient noise on the DD 1.0 track. Supplements include a detailed commentary from film scholar Drew Casper with archival recollections from co-star James Whitmore, a vintage introduction from John Huston, and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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