The Asphalt Jungle Review


It’s hard to believe it took until 1950 to tell a crime story from the point of view of the criminals. John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” did just that and opened up the door for later films like “Reservoir Dogs” and the “Ocean’s” films. The film goes on too long, which prevents it from earning true classic status. But its mark on cinematic history is undeniable, and the interesting set of characters helps make the too-long running time much more bearable.

Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is one of the most respected and well-known thieves around, and upon his release from prison, he is ready to make a million-dollar score. The jewelry-store heist isn’t complicated, but involves a lot of moving parts. He recruits a number of shady characters including Louis (Anthony Caruso), the safecracker; Gus (James Whitmore), the driver; Dix (Sterling Hayden), the strongman; and Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the financier. However, this rag-tag team doesn’t have a “Three Musketeers” kind of mentality. Each has his own goals in mind, and when a few little things go wrong, their conflicting plans threaten to derail the entire operation.

The set-up is fantastic. Watching the heist team come together was great because we got to see where each member’s motivations come from. We also see tiny fissures spreading between them. The suspense is high and the anticipation of the characters’ inevitable fall is great.

Unfortunately, not only do the characters experience their fall, so does the quality of the film. The heist itself is fine, albeit unremarkable. But after the heist, the film is just average. It was especially frustrating because the first half of the film was so strong. In the first half of the film, the characters walk on thin ice around one another which is why the suspense is so high. But in the second half, that uneasiness falls apart suddenly. I just think it could have been handled more deftly.

The acting throughout the film is a bit uneven. I thought the best performance is by Sam Jaffe as Doc. He’s a thief with class. He does the least amount of scheming of the entire group and is the easiest of the group to root for.

I was also impressed by Louis Calhern as Emmerich. This is an easy character to to root against (he’s the one who initiates the scheming which leads to the group’s demise). But I actually pitied him. All the man wants is to maintain his wealthy lifestyle. I didn’t think he was a bad man (despite the infidelity with Marilyn Monroe), just someone caught up in something beyond his control. Calhern essayed these qualities and made Emmerich one of the most interesting characters in the film.

The worst actor award for this film goes to Sterling Hayden. Dix is a one-note character, and Hayden plays him very awkwardly. A lot of his dialogue is clunky, which I don’t think was the fault of the screenplay.

“The Asphalt Jungle” is undoubtedly an important film. I would also say it’s a good one – just not a great one. I’m glad I watched it and I would definitely recommend it just so you can see when the crime genre changed. Just don’t go in expecting something incredible or you might end up being disappointed.

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