on 2 October 2005
'The Asphalt Jungle' is a seminal piece of post-war (1950) social realism which harks back to some of the more cosy clichés of the pre-war era. It focuses on the commission of a crime: Doc (Sam Jaffe) is freshly released from prison, a dapper, intelligent, little old bloke, and the man with the plan to carry out an audacious jewel robbery - he needs a team, and he needs finance for the operation. We watch the criminal underworld at work as the plan falls into place, the team assembles, and they set about this major theft, intent on changing their lives.
This is the stuff that dreams are made of - that one, big payday which will change your life. Only the criminal underworld has no honour, and there are double-crosses to worry about, and while get-rich-quick is the objective, the participants all have their own psychological conflicts and contradictions.
John Huston's film presents itself as a naturalistic, almost documentary account. He uses a linear, easy-to-follow narrative - no special effects, no flashbacks, just a simple storyline stripped to the basics. We follow the logic of Doc's plan, enter the lives of the players, understand their hopes and dreams, recognise their flaws. Shot in black and white, Huston employs a film noir style without pushing it to extremes - this is more grimy urban realism than noir. He creates an atmosphere of reality without it ever being truly authentic.
There are plenty of images of bleak, windswept, city streets - some anonymous urban sprawl of concrete and asphalt which contrasts with the dreams of all the participants. They want out, want sun, sea, rural tranquillity, somewhere they are not just rats in the race.
Significantly, there are no moral judgements made in the film. The financier of the scheme, Emmerich (Louis Calhern), is a corrupt lawyer with a sickly wife and an expensive mistress (Marilyn Monroe, making her debut). Dix (Sterling Hayden) is a big farm boy who simply wants enough money to get the family farm out of hock, and he has the muscle and gun to make sure nobody stands in his way. Doc (Jaffe received an Oscar nomination) is a nice little old bloke who surely deserves a quiet retirement because, after all, nobody's really going to get hurt in this caper?
And the policemen, meanwhile, are evidently quite capable of either blatant corruption or instrumental evasion of the law - they'll happily take bribes, they're unselfconsciously brutal and not averse to planting evidence. The audience is left to decide who are the bad guys and who are the good.
There is, however, one major moral question suggested without ever being directly posed. This is 1950, and huge sections of the audience will have been caught up in the war effort, either in uniform, in the factories, or waiting for loved ones to return. While British films of this era can make disparaging allusions to the wartime profiteers and black market criminals, 'The Asphalt Jungle' is coy on the subject. Except that Huston makes clear that all the criminals - and probably all the policemen - evaded wartime service because they were in prison, on the run, or unfit for the military.
Seen at the time as a gritty, 'hard-boiled' epic, it can appear a little coy by today's standards. Nevertheless, it presents an America stripped of glamour - Monroe's cameo role is the exception - a post-war society with no obvious direction or values, a city populated by people with obvious, materialistic concerns. This is a world in which the individual is alienated from society, a world where might is right, a world in which people can be allowed occasional acts of decency or humanity, but a world in which the individual is too flawed and too self-centred ever to be guided by moral principles.
The DVD offers acceptable picture quality - a bit aged and worn in places, a bit dated in others. The soundtrack, while mono, is crisp but unsophisticated. And there are some entertaining extras - a brief piece by Huston, a scholarly commentary, and cast reminiscences.
An entertaining film, a must-watch for students of the cinema or those fascinated by the crime genre, and a film which, though it will continue to date, has a gripping enough storyline to keep you engaged.