The Asphalt Jungle
Directed by John Huston
#224 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
This is the granddaddy of all caper films and an essential film noir. The excellent ensemble cast is matched only by the outstanding cinematography, screenplay and direction. A true classic.
Courtly master safecracker Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison and has a plan for a “perfect” jewel heist that should net half a million dollars. He just needs $50,000 to pull off the crime. He goes to bookmaker Cobby who connects him with corrupt attorney Lon Emmerich (Louis Calhern). Emmerich agrees to front the capital needed to hire a robbery team and fence the jewels. The team consists of “box man” Louis (Anthony Caruso), driver Gus (James Whitmore), and hooligan/gun man Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden). Everybody involved has a dream or vice to motivate them to participate. Needless to say, film noir is short on fairy tale endings, unless, of course, you are a police commissioner. With Jean Hagen as Dix’s girl and Marilyn Monroe as Emmerich’s mistress.
I just love this movie. I really enjoy seeing the mechanics of a well planned heist and this is one of the best. I also like the economical way Huston gives us the back stories of not one but about six doomed noir protagonists. Although our heroes, including many of the police, are flawed they are mostly sympathetic on some level. This makes the movie’s ending a bit sad but not depressing or dispiriting to me.
This was probably the role of Louis Calhern’s career and one of Sterling Hayden’s best. It also contains my favorite Sam Jaffe performance. If you have never seen Jean Hagen in anything other than Singin’ in the Rain, this will show you her excellence in a dramatic role. The cinematography is fantastic with lots of shiny city streets and unique camera angles. Highly recommended.