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Great film noir heist-drama

Author: grantss from Sydney, Australia
26 February 2015

Great film noir heist-drama by master-director John Huston. A movie that surely influenced Stanley Kubrick (the Killing, which came 6 years later feels so similar, and not just for the common presence of Sterling Hayden), and ultimately directors like Marin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.

Solid plot. Good set up, introducing the main characters, the plan...and then we see how it unfolds.

From the word go Huston creates a seedy, moody, fatalistic atmosphere. The use of black & white goes a long way to creating this atmosphere.

However, while the pacing and focus is spot-on for the first 60% of the movie, it does feel like it drifts a bit towards the end. Too many unnecessary detours, or lingering on certain scenes.

Solid performances all round. Interesting to note the appearance of an early-career Marilyn Monroe, in a not-insignificant, but not major, supporting role.

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Author: evening1 from United States
15 December 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A sublime caper film driven by superior casting, character development, and ensemble work.

Against the gray, gritty backdrop of the city, I couldn't take my eyes off of Sterling Hayden. Such a masculine, ruggedly sexy guy! One sensed he almost had a heart somewhere in scenes with the tremulous Doll, played expertly by Jean Hagen.

Louis Calhern oozes slime as a corruptible lawyer placating his bedridden wife while keeping a strikingly young and winsome Marilyn Monroe tucked away as a mistress. One squirms a little, observing the "Kid" and "Uncle Joe" in their moments alone.

The jewel-heist crew is perfection itself, its mastermind, German-born Doc (Sam Jaffe), operating with exquisite elegance, calculation, and aplomb. Masterful!

Marc Lawrence, as pockmark-faced Cobby, makes his every jitter contagious. A weak man who plies tougher thugs with booze but gets kicked around anyway, he pitifully goes kicking toward his demise (and perhaps presages the equally pathetic Freddie, much later, in "The Godfather").

Barry Kelley as a cynical, look-the-other-way lieutenant, is the worst kind of cop -- and his arrow-straight commissioner, played stirringly by John McIntyre, gets it. Both are fascinating to watch.

This film is a rousingly supportive paean to police work, portraying it as the thin blue line -- albeit not unassailable -- between civilization and mayhem. Yet "The Asphalt Jungle" hints that psychology is an even more powerful force. Even if the coppers don't always get their man, then the hooligans' character flaws will.

Dix would not slow down and accept a good woman's love. Emmerich thought he was smarter than everyone else. Cobby couldn't, or wouldn't, grow a backbone. And Doc, intelligent as he was, fell victim to lust.

In all, this film is a stunning credit to director John Huston. They sure don't make movies like this much anymore...

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Worth a Closer Look

Author: dougdoepke from Claremont, USA
13 November 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It's a subversive movie in a conformist decade. Asphalt Jungle stands the conventional business enterprise on its head. Instead of portraying law-abiding people acting cooperatively and intelligently to advance a profit-making venture, John Huston & Co. show professional criminals acting intelligently and cooperatively for ill-gotten gains. Not that this is so unusual. Other gangster films going as far back as Cagney's Public Enemy have made similar points. Jungle, however, goes two steps further.

First, unlike other crime films from that era, it thoroughly humanizes the culprits. Each gang member, including double-crosser Louis Calhern, acts on recognizably human motives, and though each has a fatal weakness, all are treated in subtly sympathetic fashion by director-co- writer Huston. The evolving bond between Sterling Hayden's muscle and Sam Jaffe's brain is especially affecting -- ditto, Louis Calhern's genuine regard for both wife and mistress. Moreover, the bank heist develops from a raw criminal undertaking into an model of professional expertise, encouraging viewers at the same time to root for its success. On the other hand, law enforcement is treated in unusually cynical fashion. The one overtly brutal character, Barry Kelley's corrupt cop, is clearly dislikable, while John McIntyre's voice of official rectitude is so harshly self-righteous that viewers are likely repelled. As a result, the respectable overworld becomes not so much an opponent of the underworld as its grim and unfeeling seed bed.

The movie has many fine touches. Except for attorney Calhern's plush surroundings, the sets are appropriately seedy. The cast is outstanding, as Calhern again shows his capacity for tragic dimensions, while Monroe again proves her flair for kittenish seduction, even as Marc Lawrence (Cobby) faces sudden unemployment as a victim of the Hollywood blacklist. Two scenes are especially worth savoring. Seldom has culture clash been more tantalizingly displayed than in Sam Jaffe's ogling of teenage jitterbug Helene Stanley, his old world intellectualism lost amidst the sensual gyrations of her new world exuberance. The fit is perfect, and the impression is that he gladly gives up his freedom for one tawdry glimpse of earthly delight.

The final scene is an oddly moving mixture of pathos and misogyny. Across the horsey fields of Kentntucky, the love- lorn Jean Hagen chases after a dying Hayden as he chases after the dreams of his lost youth, oblivious to her emotional train-wreck. Rarely has a movie treated such a vulnerable victim with such casual indifference. In fact, her punishment may be the most painful of all. Everybody, of course, ends up a loser as the production code of the time dictated and Huston agreeably underscores.

This caper film set the style for those to follow, most notably Kubrick's The Killing. Amidst the de-politicized 1950's, this genre comes about as close to a political statement as can be found. Daring people are shown organizing themselves outside the law for collective gain, their emotions and motives thoroughly humanized. And if their goals never get beyond the basely mercenary, they at least establish eye-opening bonds beyond the conventional hypocrisy of the day. As a result, their combined skills demonstrate the powerful potential of collective action among ordinary and not so ordinary people, and therein lies the subtle message of a darn good movie.

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A moral and physical wasteland

Author: James Hitchcock from Tunbridge Wells, England
13 July 2013

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"The Asphalt Jungle" was not the first film noir to tell its story from the viewpoint of the criminals; "Double Indemnity"; for example, had done the same thing a number of years earlier. The film does, however, point the way to the future in one respect. It is an early example of a "heist movie", that sub-genre of the crime film which deals with the planning, commission and aftermath of a robbery. It is sometimes referred to as a "caper film", but that is not a description I would use as I have always associated that term with films like "The Italian Job" or the recent "Ocean's" franchise which take a much more light-hearted view of the subject than John Huston does here.

The action takes place in a Midwestern city, probably Chicago. A criminal mastermind named Erwin Riedenschneider is released from prison and immediately sets about planning his next exploit, a jewel robbery. We see how he goes about obtaining the necessary finance from a lawyer named Alonzo Emmerich, via a bookie named Cobby, and then recruits the three men who will help him carry out the crime, a professional safecracker, a getaway driver and a "hooligan". (The word "hooligan" would seem to have a wider meaning in the United States that it does in Britain, where it means a young thug or vandal. In this film it means the robbers' strong-arm man who in Britain would be referred to as a "heavy").  

As one might expect of a film made in the days of the Production Code, which forbade film-makers from romanticising crime and from showing the criminals getting away with it, the robbery ends in failure with all of the gang either dead or under arrest. Unlike some crime dramas from this period, however, (such as "White Heat"), "The Asphalt Jungle"does not really romanticise the police either. The most prominent police officer, Lieutenant Ditrich, is as corrupt as Emmerich, taking bribes to protect Cobby whose bookmaking business is illegal. Moreover, Huston attempts to show the criminals not just as faceless villains but as individuals in their own right, not all of them wholly despicable.

Today by far the best known name among the cast would be Marilyn Monroe, but in 1950 she was a little-known young actress and her name did not even appear on the posters. Although her role, that of Emmerich's beautiful young mistress Angela, is a relatively minor one, she makes enough of an impression to allow the discerning viewer to spot an upcoming star in the making. It is interesting to note that in this film, and in some of her other early serious dramas, Monroe speaks with a quite different voice, deeper in tone and less breathless, than the one which she was to use in the comedies which were to become her stock- in-trade during the later part of her career.

There is a good performance from Louis Calhern (previously best known to me as Julius Caesar in the 1953 production of Shakespeare's play) as the corrupt, cowardly Emmerich, an intelligent, educated man gone to the bad, but the two best contributions probably come from Sam Jaffe as Riedenschneider and Sterling Hayden as the "hooligan" Dix Handley. Riedenschneider's name and accent clearly mark him out as a foreigner, probably a German. Like Emmerich he is a clearly intelligent man with some formal education- his nickname is "Doc"- who has ended up on the wrong side of the law, but unlike Emmerich, who tries unsuccessfully to double-cross his associates, has a certain code of honour. He dislikes violence, for example, and always refuses to carry a gun. I wondered if his Christian name was borrowed from the German General Rommel, another honourable man who nevertheless ended up on the wrong side. (Audiences in 1950, only five years after the end of the war, would have been more alive to such references than modern ones).

Dix Handley, whose real name is William, is another man known by a nickname; "Dix" is probably derived from "Dixie" in a reference to his Southern origins. Dix is motivated by an honourable ambition, that of buying back the family farm in Kentucky that his father lost during the Great Depression. His gambling addiction, however, means that Dix has not been able to raise the necessary cash through honest means, so has turned to crime in desperation. Unlike Riedenschneider Dix is capable of violence, but his tenderness towards his girlfriend Doll suggests a softer side to his nature.

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards, including "Best Director" for Huston, "Best Supporting Actor" for Jaffe and "Best Adapted Screenplay", quite an achievement at a time when film noir was not always appreciated as much as it is today. The fourth nomination was for "Best Cinematography, Black and White", and the visual look of the film is certainly impressive, conjuring up a vision of a bleak urban wasteland, the "asphalt jungle" of the title, a wasteland whose physical barrenness hints at the moral barrenness of the men who inhabit it. The film might have lost out in all four categories to "All About Eve", the Big Film of the year, but it remains a powerful and impressive example of the noir style, one of the best in this particular genre. 8/10

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"One way or another, we all work for our vice."

Author: classicsoncall from United States
5 May 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I was thinking about my summary line quote as it applied to the principal characters, and was struck by the way Sterling Hayden's Dix Handley came out of the picture. His vice, if you can call it that, was playing the small time hooligan with a desire to make it back home to reacquire the family horse farm. Yet in parting company with Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe), he didn't want any part of the stolen loot. There was something almost admirable about that and it puzzled me for the remainder of the story.

Many reviewers here call this picture an exceptional example of film noir, and it has those elements to be sure, but I see it more as a caper film, one of the earliest of the genre that would eventually give rise to such modern day flicks as "Inside Man" and the 'Ocean' films. Today, the writing and cinematography produces a much slicker product, but it's hard to replace the kind of gritty realism found in Fifties era filmmaking done in stark black and white, especially with characters who exhibit varying shades of gray. Emmerich (Louis Calhern) would be the best example of that here, a respectable lawyer and citizen on the outside, and a two-timing, conniving crook on the inside.

Say, remember that scene when the cops came calling on Emmerich after Brannom's (Brad Dexter) body was fished out of the river. They produced the list of 'clients' that Brannom was strong arming for his boss, but to my thinking, that flimsy piece of paper would have been unreadable after hitting the drink. Ever see a handwritten note after it's gotten wet?

As great as all the characters were in the film, wouldn't it have been cool if Strother Martin had more to do here than just show up for the police lineup at the beginning of the picture? And when all was said and done, Marilyn Monroe wasn't on screen for that much longer considering the fact that you see her prominently positioned in promotional pieces for the film. I have to admit, watching her kiss old Emmerich was a little jarring, but probably not as bad as planting one on Sam Giancana a decade later. Seeing a slim Marilyn in this early role was also an interesting contrast to her more full bodied look in 1953's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and 1959's "Some Like it Hot".

Anyway, this is one of those movies all serious cinema fans should get to see at least one time. Director John Huston gets terrific performances out of his players, as the characters slowly unravel due to the old double cross and unintended consequences. With no disrespect to southpaws, it's a masterful treatment of 'crime as the left handed form of human endeavor'.

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A Centerpiece of Noir's All-Too-Brief Apex

Author: Sean Lamberger from Bradenton, FL
27 March 2012

One of the best-known examples of film noir, John Huston's Asphalt Jungle follows the trail of an infamous heist-meister, fresh out of jail, and his plans to pull off one more big score before retirement. Sam Jaffe is cool-headed and convincing as the brains behind the operation, while a ragtag cast of backup anti-heroes pay the price as the whole thing slowly starts to unravel. A young Marilyn Monroe makes several scant appearances as nothing more than eye candy, still so green she can barely keep from looking straight into the cameras. It's noteworthy that very few characters are as black and white as the film stock, a trademark of the genre, even if their motivations are ultimately sinister and selfish. A worthwhile slant on the heist picture that's crammed full of smoke and atmosphere, it expertly balances several different faces and pays off each story, most with especially dark consequences. Quite good, but not great, it creates some new conventions while bowing to many others.

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The Jungle

Author: enjoi_me from United States
17 December 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

If you like film noir, you'll appreciate The Asphalt Jungle. The lighting, as in most noir movies, sets the tone with emphasis on light and shadows playing over actor's faces. Scenes take on ominous tones with long shadows often shrinking the actor. A must-see classic for fans of vintage noir; it's a gritty and atmospheric portrait of a big-time heist gone awry -- with brooding personalities, double crosses, and a little sex appeal courtesy of Marilyn Monroe. Although it definitely doesn't reach the standard set by the Maltese Falcon. Every member of the heist team is reduced to two essentials: their role in the story and their tragic weakness. Every female character is an archetype: fading floozy with a heart of gold, sexpot attracted to her sugar daddy, lonely wife, doting mother. The thieves are skillful and pull off their crime, but double crosses, chance events and human weaknesses lead to the whole caper unraveling one person at a time.

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Not bad.

Author: thecole777 from United States
15 December 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This wasn't that hard to watch because it stayed interesting and a little suspenseful. There were lots of dramatic shadows throughout it and the camera angles were used well. The suicide was interesting in that they didn't even show the gun. I guess it would be against the code to show it or something. The ripped up paper blowing away was good too. This was the first movie I've seen Marilyn Monroe in and I thought she was fairly good. The complexity and well planned crime was also engaging and made it easier to watch. I also liked how most of the criminals died at the end, also probably adhering to the code. But I thought it was good for the story too.

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Pretty good movie

Author: a-ferrera from United States
2 November 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I thought this movie was pretty good, not the best, but pretty good. The story was really good but throughout the whole movie I couldn't tell who the main character was, it seemed to be switching the whole time. Sterling Hayden I suppose is the main character because he is in the last shot and the climax kinda falls around him, but I think the main character is the doctor who he was partners with. He does such an amazing job acting in this movie and steals every scene he is put into. I know this movie is a film noir but it didn't feel dark enough to me. The plot just followed around a heist and people trying to scam one another but there wasn't any real darkness or betrayal in this movie, in my opinion.

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When thieves fall out...

Author: jc-osms from United Kingdom
25 June 2011

One of the best noir/heist movies ever and I speak as an aficionado of both genres. Peopled with gritty, believable character it's a study in greed and broken dreams on the one hand and love and camaraderie (even amongst thieves), on the other. Of the members of the criminal gang carrying out the heist, three wind up dead and the rest get caught and go to jail ample evidence that crime indeed doesn't pay.

You suspect all the characters in the film know this and never convince the viewer that they're going to get away with it, which while giving the events a fatalistic turn, only make the film more compelling to watch.

The ensemble acting is great. There's no star here big enough to get their name above the title but I wouldn't change a single role or performance. If I had to highlight any of the cast, I'd have to single out Sterling Hayden as the apparently cold-hearted heavy who, mollified by the love of an I won't say good woman and a childhood dream of taking back his parents' old farmstead. There are also great turns by Sam Jaffe as the jailbird mastermind who comes up with the idea for the job, Louis Calhern as the corrupt and broke scheming lawyer approached to bank-roll the operation and of course, as the DVD cover now makes plain, although she doesn't even make the first roll of title credits, Marilyn Monroe as the latter's young mistress. She only gets about three scenes but definitely makes an impression leaving no doubt that she could wreck any happily married home she chooses! Really, however, all the playing is great, which only further reinforces the realism of the piece, these are real people in desperate situations and you believe their stories completely.

Naturally it's all down to great direction from John Huston. He rarely gives us an "on the level" camera angle and often employs the device of overlapping portraits of his characters, three deep at times, as they jostle for our attention. The dialogue is sharp and natural-sounding, while the handling of the large cast and their interrelated stories are expertly handled. He's clever too in the way he shows up their peccadilloes - notably Calhern and especially Jaffe's less than wholesome interest in young girls, which ultimately leads to both their downfalls.

This, in summary then, is a must-see movie, as good as any this great director ever made. More than just a crime movie, it's a superb study of the human condition from multiple viewpoints.

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