Director: John Huston
Production: M.G.M.; black and white; running time: 105 minutes; released August 1950.
Producer: Arthur Hornblow Jr.; screenplay: Ben Maddow and John Huston, from the novel by W. R. Burnett; photography: Harold Rosson; editor: George Boemler; sound: Douglas Shearer; art directors: Cedric Gibbons and Randall Duell; music: Miklos Rosza.
Sterling Hayden (
); Louis Calhern (
Alonzo D. Emmerich
); Jean Hagen (
); James Whitmore (
); Sam Jaffe (
); John McIntire (
Police Commissioner Hardy
); Marc Lawrence (
); Barry Kelley (
); Anthony Caruso (
); Teresa Celli (
); Marilyn Monroe (
Maddow, Ben, and John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle , Carbondale, Illinois, 1980.
Benayoun, Robert, John Huston: La Grande Ombre de l'aventure , Paris 1966; revised edition, 1985.
Kaminsky, Stuart M., John Huston , Maker of Magic , Boston, 1978.
Madsen, Axel, John Huston , New York, 1978.
Giannetti, Louis, Masters of the American Cinema , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1981.
Hammen, Scott, John Huston , Boston, 1985.
McCarty, John, The Films of John Huston , Secaucus, New Jersey, 1987.
Variety (New York), August 1950.
Lightman, Herb A., "Realism with a Master's Touch," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), August 1950.
Houston, Penelope, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), September 1950.
Lambert, Gavin, in Sight and Sound (London), November 1950.
"Huston Issue" of Positif (Paris), August 1952.
Cinéma (Paris), June 1972.
Bitomsky, H., in Filmkritik (Munich), January 1980.
Audibert, Louis, in Cinématographe (Paris), May 1981.
Combs, Richard, in Listener (London), 14 August 1986.
Reid's Film Index (New South Wales, Australia), no. 10, 1993.
Telotte, J.P., "Fatal Capers: Strategy and Enigma in Film Noir," Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 23, no. 4, Winter 1996.
* * *
With The Asphalt Jungle , John Huston laid down the definitive pattern of the heist movie. A gang of criminals, each with a particular skill, is gathered together; the job (typically a robbery) is pulled with measured professionalism; but ill-chance, or internal dissension, undermines the gang's success, bringing them to diaster and death. The formula was to be taken up, and creatively reworked any number of ways, by directors as varied as Kubrick ( The Killing ), Mackendrick ( The Ladykillers ), Becker ( Touchez pas au grisbi ), Dassin ( Rififi ) and Monicelli ( I soliti ignoti ); but Huston's film still sustains comparison with any of its successors.
The Asphalt Jungle also broke new ground in presenting crime as an occupation like any other, carried out not by the preening megalomaniacs of 1930s gangster movies, nor by the disillusioned antiheroes of the 1940s, but by ordinary people motivated by everyday preoccupations and small private ambitions. The expert cracksman (Anthony Caruso) has "mouths to feed, rent to pay"; the tough hood, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), dreams of buying back the Kentucky farm of his childhood. Crime, muses Louis Calhern's crooked lawyer in the script's most famous line, "is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."
Resisting the studio's desire for big-name stars, Huston cast his film with character actors and relative unknowns, a policy which paid off handsomely. Hayden and Calhern gave the performances of their careers, as did Sam Jaffe in the role of Doc Riedenschneider, the mastermind with a fatal weakness for nymphets, and Jean Hagen as Handley's sad-eyed moll. Around them Huston deployed a fine roster of supporting players: Caruso's safe-cracker, James Whitmore's catloving hunchback, and Marc Lawrence as a cringing bookie ("Money makes me sweat. That's the way I am"). And, touchingly eager and tentative in her first worthwhile screen role, Marilyn Monroe as Calhern's childlike mistress—a relationship treated with unexpected tenderness and a total lack of prurience.
The absence of stars accentuates the movie's fatalistic mood. There's no controlling boss-figure, pulling strings and calling the shots; neither Reidenschneider with his brains, nor Emmerich (Calhern) with his social status, is any less at the mercy of events than his accomplices. Rarely do we see anyone alone; Harold Rosson's camera frames tautly, holding the characters in tight complicit groupings—a closed community severally trapped by their obsessions, each one's needs involving and ensnaring the rest. "One way or another," Riedenschneider observes, "we all work for a vice." Huston's spare, uncluttered style conveys tension and urgency, but no sense of spurious excitement. Violence is staged without ceremony; shots are fired at close quarters in sudden, edgy confusion, and death strikes more by accident than by design.
As always, what interests Huston is relationships under pressure, how people react when the chips are down. Betrayal, recurrent theme of all his early movies, features strongly; but it's less endemic here than in the slick, cynical world of The Maltese Falcon. Loyalty, in The Asphalt Jungle , can still survive, despite greed and the fear of failure. And even the betrayers deserve sympathy: Emmerich, scrawling a hopeless, unfinished note to his wife before shooting himself, or Cobby, the bookie, abjectly weeping as he cracks under police pressure. Huston's hostility is reserved for the cops. Posing before the flashbulbs, the Commissioner makes play with a bank of police radios, and spins yellow-press clichés around the fugitive Dix Handley, "a hardened killer . . . a man without human feeling or human mercy."
From these melodramatic words, obsequiously noted down by the reporters, we fade to Handley, his lifeblood seeping away, sustained only by his obsession as he heads doggedly back towards his lost childhood dream. In the film's final shot he lies dead on the grass of a wide Kentucky meadow, while three horses graze around him, nuzzling his body. It's an image at once comforting and desolate; of all the downbeat, elegiac endings in Huston's films, none is more moving than this.
Unhampered by its lack of star names, The Asphalt Jungle scored a hit with the public; apart from The African Queen , it provided Huston with his only box-office hit of the decade. Most directors, having pioneered such a popular genre, would have felt tempted to return to it; but Huston, who always hated to repeat himself, never made another heist movie. Which may be cause for regret since, on the evidence of The Asphalt Jungle , few filmmakers were better qualified to do so.