Saturday, June 3, 2023

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle was based on W.R. Burnett’s novel of the same name and released by MGM in 1950.

Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison and he’s planning a big caper. It’s a fool-proof plan to knock over a jewellery story and steal a million dollars in jewels.

He needs someone to put up fifty grand for operating expenses. Using bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence) as an intermediary he approaches crooked lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern).

Meanwhile small-time stick-up man Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) needs $2300 badly to pay a gambling debt. His pal Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) can advance him a grand and persuades Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) to find the rest of the money.

Gus, Louis and Dix are recruited to help carry out the robbery.

We have indications very early on that this heist is likely to run into trouble. There are warning signs, in fact we’re pretty sure that a major double-cross is going to go down.

That’s bad enough, but bad luck takes a hand as well. You can plan a robbery in intricate detail but you just can’t predict the trivial little things that are are likely to go wrong, and that’s how guys end up in the penitentiary.

Our sense that things are going to go badly wrong turns out to be correct. It’s then a question of whether there’s still a chance of getting clear before the cops close in.

The police are a slightly sinister presence in this movie. Our sympathies are with the criminals. They’re crooks but they’re not evil. They all have at least one major weakness (women, liquor, gambling or in the case of Louis a desire for money to provide for his wife and son). But these crooks all have redeeming qualities as well. They’re a lot more sympathetic than the cops. And a lot more likeable.

Dix resembles Roy Earle from High Sierra, another W.R. Burnett story. Both have a yearning to return to the past, to their rural boyhoods, and the past is wildly romanticised in their minds. There’s a lot decency in Dix. He can’t bring himself to treat Doll badly. Doll is a hooker and she’s crazy about Dix. He thinks she’s a nuisance but cruelty is just not in his nature.

Sterling Hayden’s reputation as a film noir icon rests mainly on this movie. There’s no question that very few actors ever looked more like film noir icons than Hayden. He gives a typically understated but effective performance.

Louis Calhern as Emmerich, Sam Jaffe as Riedenschneider and James Whitmore as Gus are all very good. This is a movie that focuses more on the characters, and the interactions between the characters, than on plot (although the plot is actually very solid).

Don’t get too excited by the prominence given to Marilyn Monroe on the re-release posters. Hers is strictly a bit part, although it has to be said that she’s fun as Emmerich’s ditzy mistress Angela.

John Huston and Ben Maddow co-wrote the screenplay. They retain much of Burnett’s original dialogue, which is fine since Burnett’s dialogue is terrific. This is an extraordinarily faithful adaptation of the novel. The heist is made slightly more elaborate in order to make it more cinematic but there are no significant changes at all to the story. The ending is unchanged, although it’s also handled in a more cinematic way (which actually improves it).

This is film noir but there’s no femme fatale. Doll is perhaps a sad character but she’s goodhearted and devoted Dix. Angela isn’t really a femme fatale. Her attraction to Emmerich is clearly based entirely on his money but she’s pretty open about it and she’s sweet and good-natured.

The Asphalt Jungle is top-notch entertainment.

I’ve also reviewed W.R. Burnett’s novel, on Vintage Pop Fictions.


  1. Dee, I enjoyed your fine write-up of the Classic heist movie THE ASPHALT JUNGLE(filmed 1949, released 1950), which I first remember viewing on THE CBS LATE MOVIE in 1974. Interestingly enough, the night before THE BADLANDERS(1958) was shown on THE CBS LATE MOVIE. This Delmer Daves Western was a sort of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE on horseback with a large gold robbery taking place. Both movies are taken from W. R. Burnett's book. I think THE BADLANDERS is a good, but THE ASPHALT JUNGLE is the better movie. Although, I think THE BADLANDERS is well worth viewing. It has a good cast with Alan Ladd, Ernest Borgnine, Katy Jurado, and Claire Kelly.

    1. Walter, THE BADLANDERS sounds enticing. It's hard to go wrong when you start with a W.R. Burnett story. Delmer Daves as director and Alan Ladd as the star make it very enticing indeed.