John Huston. As an actor, he always played characters with an edge and with his gravelly voice and not so classic looks, he always sold the part. As a director, he excelled with movies that were as tough as the stories they told. They were 'guy's guys movies' that rarely disappointed and one of his best was 1950's The Asphalt Jungle.
This 1950 heist movie is worth talking about for two reasons. One, released at the height of film noir popularity, 'Jungle' finds a way to put its own spin on the story and it ends up being a classic in the genre. Two, you can judge it by the impact it had on later underworld heist movies. Watch a heist movie released since 1950, and it's almost impossible not to make some connection or influence Huston's flick had. At just under two hours, there is not a wasted minute in the build-up, heist, and fall out of a jewelry robbery.
Just out of jail after seven years inside, Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe) wastes no time setting up a job that could net him and his partners almost a million dollars. With some help and financial backing from a crooked lawyer, Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), Doc reveals his plan to knock off a diamond exchange. He'll need some help though and recruits three men, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), the muscle, Gus Minnisi (James Whitmore), the getaway driver, and Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), the safe-cracker to help him pull off the job. The Doc has everything figured out down to the second, but all the planning in the world can't account for the unexpected. And then there's Emmerich, who may have ulterior motives for the heist.
The 'jungle' of the title is the underworld, the crime figures who threaten to take over cities and ruin the lives of good people all across the country, or at least that's how Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) explains it. Like most noir movies, Huston shoots in black and white in this unnamed midwest city. The characters live and die in smokey rooms and dark, shadowy alleys as they go about their heist. Like few other movies, Huston creates a real feeling of the underworld, the seedier parts of town that you don't want to be caught in after a certain hour. With composer Miklos Rozsa's score, you've got the right start to a winner.
Working with an ensemble cast, Huston gets the best out of this talented crew. Often stiff and a little wooden in starring roles, Hayden delivers a career-best performance as Dix Handley (other than the pornstar-sounding name). Handley is a two-bit thug -- dubbed a 'hooligan' -- who dreams (watch HERE) of raising enough money to buy his childhood farm and leaving this dirty city life. I don't think he was ever better than he was here. Jaffe too is beyond perfect casting as the small in stature but brilliant planner of crimes and heists, earning an Oscar nomination for his part. His Doc is incredibly intelligent and a gentleman to boot, seemingly involved in crime because he's good at it. These two characters end up forming an unlikely friendship based on truth and hard knocks, a surprising friendship to come out of a heist movie.
The rest of the cast isn't anything to sneeze at as well. Calhern as Emmerich is the prototypical slimy villain. From the moment the heist is brought up, you know he's looking to double-cross Doc and his crew (with some help from equally slimy Brad Dexter). Where Handley might beat you with his fists, Emmerich would do the same with words and intellect, never ruffling a hair on his head or putting a crease in his suit. Jean Hagen is solid as Doll, a wandering young woman attracted to Handley in who she sees something good where no one else does. Whitmore too is great in his quick appearance as Gus, the hunchback getaway driver who will be loyal to the end. Also look for an actress you might have heard of, Marilyn Monroe in just her 3rd credited role, as Emmerich's mistress. You look at her and understand what Emmerich was thinking.
The beauty of 'Jungle' is in the execution because it never slows down. The actual heist -- an exciting if not groundbreaking sequence -- is over less than an hour into the movie. The fallout from the heist is where the movie revels because even Doc can't plan for everything, in this case unforeseen accidents popping up when least expected. It's an idea and a premise used in so many types of movies, but it is has never been used so well as it is in the heist movie. Without giving too much a way, it's safe to say 'Jungle' doesn't exactly have a happy ending -- it is 1950 -- but overall it works better because there wasn't a happy ending.
Because so many heist movies have been made since, The Asphalt Jungle may play like a movie that you've seen many times before...been there, done that. But watch it thinking that when it was released in 1950, there hadn't been a movie quite like this before. Director Huston puts together a doozy of a cast with Hayden delivering a career-best part leading the way, and there isn't an aspect of the movie that fails. A winner in every sense of the word.
The Asphalt Jungle <----trailer (1950): ****/****