News and Commentary – The Asphalt Jungle

The recent release of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle in a new special edition from The Criterion Collection was more than enough reason to revisit this old classic—and it did not disappoint. If anything, Jungle is even better than we remembered. What is great about this movie? What isn’t great about this movie?  Beautifully shot, tightly paced and smartly written, it features an exceptionally strong cast, including Sterling Hayden (one of the more fascinating figures of his era, look for him playing perhaps some version of himself in Altman’s The Long Goodbye), Sam Jaffe (loved him in Clouzot’s Les Espions), and Marilyn Monroe in her first noteworthy appearance on screen—but there are at least a dozen fine performances here, from top to bottom.   

As a caper film, The Asphalt Jungle set the mold: draw a disparate crew together, sketch the perfect heist, (of which there is no such thing, because the best laid plans are upended by blind chance), scramble, improvise and treat the wounded as double crosses complicate matters and the police close in—at which point it’s a short walk to nihilism.  Descending directly from Jungle, then, are classics including Rififi (Jules Dassin), Bob Le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville), The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, also featuring Sterling Hayden)—and, really, every heist movie you’ve ever seen.  It is not a criticism to add that vanishingly few of those films can match Asphalt Jungle’s humanity—these are characters we come to care about, who make connections with minor players that drift in and out of the story for just a few moments, and, when facing utter ruin, say marvelously gentle things like “you did pretty well . . . considering.”       

The Asphalt Jungle has two great themes, one of which it is especially well known for, the other I only noticed on this viewing.  The movie is renowned, and justly so, for siding with the crooks over the cops. This is to some extent inevitable in such films – as a viewer you are typically stuck rooting for the crowd you spend the most time with – but in 1950 such a posture was manifestly evident, daring, and in direct violation of the principal admonition of the Production Code: “the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.”  This is why we are forced to sit through the long, vestigial and ridiculous speech by the police commissioner near the end, provided to tidily account for the behavior of a particularly corrupt cop. But this is a movie in which the cops are generally corrupt (even that commissioner is a bit of a brute, and off-screen police beatings are presumed to be business-as-usual); whereas the criminals are the ones who act with honor. (The working class criminals, that is—turns out polite high society is as hypocritical as the law.) 

As John Huston noted in his autobiography, these sympathies lie at the heart of the movie.  For him, the line “After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor,” a reflection that insists outlaws are no different from the rest of us, “expresses the theme of the film.”  And there is no arguing with that interpretation. But this time around I became fixated on another non-judgmental observation, uttered by Doc (Jaffe), the character who arguably occupies the moral center of the movie: “One way or another, we all work for our vice.” This turns out to be true, I think, for every character in the film, and those vices, most of them forgivable, also prove their ultimate undoing. 

 

Best Laid Plans

Best Laid Plans

 

Pulling the Job

Pulling the Job

 

Bad Break

Bad Break

 

The Cops Close In

Cops Close in on a Respectable Businessman

 

No Escape

No Escape