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Asphalt Jungle

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Asphalt Jungle

Starring: Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe
Director: John Huston
Rated: NR
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: May 1950
Genres: Action, Classic, Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Marilyn Monroe, John McIntire, Marc Lawrence

Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

There are plenty of people in contemporary America who claim that the wave of school shootings and similar violent incidents should be blamed on movies, TV, computer games and other media that allegedly instigate violent tendencies and other forms of social pathology among the young audience. Such notions might be true and false, but they weren't very original. Many decades ago, long before TV and Internet, there were scholars who used to study the influence of films and popular culture on the formation of criminal personalities. One of them was the author of a Criminology textbook I read many years ago. He thought that the movies indeed could instigate criminal behaviour and he named one anecdote as an example. Two young boys robbed the jewellery store and went into the life of crime after watching of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, 1950 caper drama by John Huston. I find this anecdote very unbelievable, because the film happens to be one of the classics of film noire, and an undisputed mother of all "criminal enterprise going bad" movies.

The plot, based on the novel by W.R. Burnett, is set in the unnamed big city somewhere in American Mid West and follows a group of different people engaged in various criminal activities. "Doc" Riedenschneider (played by Sam Jaffe) is a criminal who became a underworld legend because of his methodically planned heists. After being released from prison, he wants to put one of his old plans - robbery of jewellery store - into action, but he needs personnel and someone to finance the operation. After being approached by Alonzo P. Emmerich (played by Louis Calhern), a lawyer with criminal connections, "Doc" begins assembling his crew. The safecracker is Louis Ciavelli (played by Anthony Caruso), who accepts the job because he wants to feed his family. The "muscleman" is Dix Handley (played by Sterling Hayden), violent street mugger who wants to pay his gambling debts, and the getaway driver is Gus Minissi (played by James Whitmore), hunchback and Dix's only friend. The heist, although methodically executed, goes bad, and in the end, the criminals themselves are in danger of being robbed. Emmerich entered into this business because he was flat broke and he wants to steal the loot for himself.

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE should be distinguished from many other film noires because of the treatment it gives to the crime and criminal underworld. Unlike many films with the same subject that treat criminals like utter villains, this film, scripted by Huston and Ben Madow, goes to the great lengths in order to explore such characters and their ulterior motivations. As a result, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE is a one of more realistic films of such genre. Criminals are portrayed as people not very different from "normal", law-abiding citizens; they share the same hopes, dreams and fear like the rest of us, but, most importantly, they all have very human and understandable flaws. And those flaws, and not their inherent evilness, are responsible for the wrong choices that would lead them to the life of crime. Huston condemns those choices and shows the comeuppance his characters would get, but he still feels the need to show some sympathy and even pity for them.

Those characters are probably the most important element of the film, and Huston was very lucky to have a great acting talent at his disposal when he made this film. Each of them was almost perfect for the role, always revealing the fatal flaw of their characters in subtle, but effective details. Sterling Hayden is great as a street hooligan who wants to leave the filthy city streets for the clean, open air of rural home. James Whitmore's getaway driver went into the life of crime because of his physical deformation. Louis Cahern plays probably the best role of his career -the aura of cultivated, self-confident and respected legal professional, used during contacts with his criminal clients and associates, is just a mask under which he hides the real character of womanising weakling. It was a real spectacle to see how Cahern gradually removes this mask as the movie approaches its conclusion. But, even such utterly crooked and pathetic individual is worthy of pity since he showed some conscience towards his old, sick wife. Probably the best character is the one who is most enigmatic of them all - Sam Jaffe plays a criminal mastermind who gives a positive reference to the expression "professional criminal". His Riedenschneider is a model of utterly business- like, emotionless, intelligent yet very charming criminal; his professionalism , disdain towards violence, temperance and even gentleman's manners makes us wonder why did such character chose the life of crime in the first place; the answer is very discreetly hinted in one of the last scenes of the film. The other actors are also good, like Jean Hagen in the role of Dix's trusted girlfriend. Marylin Monroe, on the other hand, is very good as Emmerich's bimbo mistress, but, that role, being her first big break in Hollywood, haunted her later career in Hollywood with its stereotypes.

Huston as director is in his prime, utilising the script and the acting talent to their fullest. The pacing of the film is superb, plot moves very quickly despite the lack of action. The dark, urban scenery and almost exclusive use of interiors is also very effective in creating the atmosphere of depression, anxiety and final doom that waits its protagonists. Probably the only flaw of the film, and very minor and debatable flaw, is the presence of Police Commissioner Hardy (played by John McIntire), character whose moral virtue and crime-fighting determination looks somewhat artificial and put in this film only to counter-act for early 50s rather bold motive of police corruption. But, even such one-dimensional character is played by good actor and his lines stick long in the memory (although they look more appropriate for Sidney Lumet's dramas about moral ambiguities of law enforcement). Perhaps only a small step away from perfection, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE is one of the best films ever made, and its greatness could be witnessed by the fact that many films in last half a century were inspired by it, but very few came even close to its quality.

Copyright 1999 Dragan Antulov

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