The Asphalt Jungle is a 1950 American film noir heist film directed by John Huston. Based on the 1949 novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett, it tells the story of a jewel robbery in a Midwestern city. The film stars Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern and Jean Hagen, and features James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, and John McIntire. Marilyn Monroe also appears, in one of her earliest roles.
|The Asphalt Jungle|
|Directed by||John Huston|
|Screenplay by||Ben Maddow|
|Based on||The Asphalt Jungle|
by W. R. Burnett
|Produced by||Arthur Hornblow Jr.|
|Edited by||George Boemler|
|Music by||Miklós Rózsa|
|Color process||Black and white|
|Distributed by||Loew's Inc.|
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards. In 2008, The Asphalt Jungle was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
When criminal mastermind Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider is released from prison after seven years, he visits a bookie named Cobby in an unnamed Midwestern river city. Cobby arranges a meeting between Doc and Alonzo Emmerich, a wealthy lawyer. Doc tells Emmerich of his plan to steal jewelry worth half a million dollars or more. Doc needs $50,000 to hire three men—a safecracker, a driver, and a hooligan—to pull off the caper. Emmerich agrees to provide the money and find a fence.
Doc hires Louie Ciavelli, a professional safecracker. Ciavelli only trusts Gus Minissi, a hunchbacked diner owner, to be the getaway driver. The last member of the gang is “hooligan” Dix Handley, also a friend of Gus. Dix tells Doll Conovan—who is in love with him—of his dream to buy back the horse farm that his family lost when a prized colt broke its leg.
To access the jewelry store, Ciavelli hammers through a brick wall, deactivates a door alarm to admit Doc and Dix, and opens the main safe using home-brewed nitroglycerine. Things begin to go drastically wrong. The concussion of the explosion triggers several alarms in the area. Dix slugs a security guard on rounds. The guard drops his revolver, which discharges and wounds Ciavelli in the belly. The men get away unseen, but a police manhunt begins.
Ciavelli insists that Gus take him home. Gus's wife wants to take him to the hospital, but Gus sends for a trusted doctor. Dix and Doc take the loot to Emmerich. The audience knows that Emmerich is broke. He sent private detective Bob Brannom to collect sums owed to him, but Brannom failed. Desperate, Emmerich tries to double-cross the others with Brannom's help, suggesting that they leave the gems with him. Realizing that Doc and Dix have seen through Emmerich's stalling, Brannom draws a gun. Dix kills him but is wounded by a through and through shot. Doc scolds a suicidal Emmerich for his foolish plan and tells him to offer the jeweler's insurance company the return of the valuables for 25% of their value.
Emmerich dumps Brannom's body in the river. The police find the list of debtors on Emmerich's letterhead on the corpse. When they question him, Emmerich lies about his whereabouts and claims he spent the night with his mistress, Angela Phinlay.
Under pressure from police commissioner Hardy, police lieutenant Ditrich—who is on Cobby's payroll—beats the bookie into confessing everything in a vain attempt to save himself. Ditrich is later arrested for corruption.
With Cobby's confession, Hardy arrests Emmerich at Angela's home and pressures Angela to tell the truth about his whereabouts the night of the crime. Emmerich is permitted to leave the room to phone his invalid wife and commits suicide.
After Gus is arrested, he attacks Cobby in the jail, warning him that he will end up in the morgue. When the police knock on Ciavelli's door, they find his funeral in progress.
In Doll's apartment, Doc offers Dix some of the stones but he refuses. He just wants to go home. They separate. Doll gets a car and insists on going with him. He “doesn't get it.” Doc persuades a taxi driver to drive him to Cleveland. They stop at a roadside diner, where Doc lusts after a pretty young woman dancing to jukebox tunes and is entranced. Because of the delay, Doc is recognized by two policemen, who arrest him after finding the stolen jewels hidden in his overcoat.
In the car, at a railroad crossing, Dix passes out. A railroad employee takes them to a doctor, who phones the local police to report the gunshot wound. Dix regains consciousness, pulls out the plasma IV and escapes. The doctor observes that he “doesn't have enough blood in him to keep a chicken alive.”
Hardy briefs the press, noting that the remaining fugitive is a hardened killer without human feeling. Dix drives through the fields of Kentucky. Delirious, he talks about the black colt he loved as a boy. They arrive at his family's former farm. Dix stumbles into the pasture and collapses. Doll runs for help, and horses gather to nuzzle the dead man.
The film was an adaptation by director John Huston and screenwriter Ben Maddow of the 1949 novel by W. R. Burnett. It was backed by the major film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where it was green-lighted by production chief Dore Schary, over the objections of studio head Louis B. Mayer. From the publication of Burnett's first novel, Little Caesar in 1929, Burnett had a strong track record of books that were adapted into films shortly after publication. Huston and Ben Maddow wrote the adaptation, which emphasized the crooks' story and reduced the police procedural aspect. Burnett was consulted as the shooting script was being written, and he approved the final version. The studio allowed the production a relatively free hand.
In shooting the film, Huston was influenced by European neorealist films such as Open City (1945) and Bicycle Thieves (1948). He combined the naturalism of that genre with the stylized look of film noir and Hollywood crime films. When the film was complete Louis B. Mayer said of it "It's trash. That Asphalt Pavement thing is full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty things. I wouldn't cross the street to see a picture like that."
The Production Code Administration's main concerns with the script were the detailed depiction of the heist and the fact that the character of the corrupt lawyer Emmerich seemed to cheat justice by killing himself. Neither the studio nor the censors interfered significantly with the script, however, and both the heist and the suicide featured in the final cut. The suicide scene was, however, re-written: the original scene had Emmerich finishing a suicide note, while the revised scene has him not being able to write the note and being extremely agitated about the decision to kill himself.
Huston's first choice for the role played by Marilyn Monroe was Lola Albright, who was not available. Huston brought in Monroe for a screen test, and rehearsed for it with her in his office. He wasn't convinced that she was right for the part, and dismissed her, but changed his mind when he watched her leave the room. According to film noir authority Eddie Muller, Huston later said that Monroe was "one of the few actresses who could make an entrance by leaving the room." The role was a breakout for Monroe.
Both Huston and star Sterling Hayden, a war hero, were members of the Committee for the First Amendment, which opposed the blacklisting of alleged communists active in the film industry during the Red Scare.
On the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 97% based on 35 reviews, with an average rating of 8.4/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Asphalt Jungle is an expertly told crime story with attention paid to the crime and characters in equal measure."
The Criterion Collection critic Peter Heath Becker admired Huston's technique:
Through his experience as a painter, [Huston] learned to frame an image, and throughout the film, he uses one shot where other directors might have needed three. He dispenses with editing flourishes and over-dramatic lighting and opts instead for sustained, well-composed shots. By balancing elements in the foreground and background of his images, Huston frames events and responses at once, without cutting between them.
A review in Photoplay stated:
This brutally frank story of crime and punishment in a Midwestern city was directed by two-time Academy Award winner, John Huston—son of the late Walter Huston. John's pictures are usually grim (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), but always dramatic and exciting. This time he exposes the behind-the-scenes details of the robbery of a jewelry store... This picture is packed with stand-out performances... There's a beautiful blonde, too, name of Marilyn Monroe, who plays Calhern's girl friend, and makes the most of her footage.
The New York Times said of the film:
Louis Calhern as the big lawyer who tries to pull a double cross and muffs it is exceptionally fluid and adroit and Sterling Hayden is sure-fire as a brazen hoodlum who just wants to go back home. Likewise Sam Jaffe does wonders as a cool-headed mastermind, James Whitmore is taut as a small 'fixer' and John McIntire is crisp as a chief of police. But, then, everyone in the picture—which was produced incidentally, by M.G.M.—gives an unimpeachable performance. If only it all weren't so corrupt.
|Year||Organization||Award category||Recipients and nominees||Result|
|1950||Venice Film Festival||Volpi Cup for Best Actor||Sam Jaffe||Won|
|Golden Lion for Best Film||The Asphalt Jungle||Nominated|
|National Board of Review||Best Director||John Huston||Won|
|Directors Guild of America Award||Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film||John Huston||Nominated|
|1951||Edgar Allan Poe Awards||Best Motion Picture Screenplay||Ben Maddow and John Huston||Won|
|Academy Awards||Best Director||John Huston||Nominated|
|Best Actor in a Supporting Role||Sam Jaffe||Nominated|
|Best Adapted Screenplay||Ben Maddow and John Huston||Nominated|
|Best Cinematography – Black-and-white||Harold Rosson||Nominated|
|British Academy of Film and Television Arts||Best Film from any Source||The Asphalt Jungle||Nominated|
|Golden Globe Award||Best Cinematography||Harold Rosson||Nominated|
|Best Director||John Huston||Nominated|
|Best Screenplay||Ben Maddow and John Huston||Nominated|
|Writers Guild of America Award||Best Written Drama||Ben Maddow and John Huston||Nominated|
|The Robert Meltzer Award (Best Written Film Concerning Problems with the American Scene)||Ben Maddow and John Huston||Nominated|
The film spawned a television series, The Asphalt Jungle, starring Jack Warden, Arch Johnson, and William Smith, billed as "Bill Smith", which ran for thirteen episodes in the spring and summer of 1961 on ABC. The series, though, resembled the film in name only, except for one episode, "The Professor", which was constructed as a sequel to the feature. Aside from this one-shot, however, none of the characters in the film appeared in the television scripts, and the plots were devoted to the exploits of the major case squad of the New York Police Department. One of the most notable features of the series is the theme song, written by Duke Ellington.
Burnett's novel The Asphalt Jungle was the basis of M-G-M's western film The Badlanders (1958) directed by Delmer Daves, as well as Cairo starring George Sanders, followed by the blaxploitation film Cool Breeze (1972), directed by Barry Pollack.
The Asphalt Jungle instigated the crime thriller subgenre of caper films. The 1955 French film Rififi, which critics such as Leonard Maltin have labeled as the best heist film ever, drew much inspiration from The Asphalt Jungle.
The movie was the subject of a film colorization lawsuit and controversy in France. Turner Entertainment entered into an agreement with the French television channel, La Cinq, to broadcast the colorized movie. John Huston's heirs objected, filing a lawsuit against broadcasting this version. On November 23, 1988, The Asphalt Jungle was prohibited from being broadcast in France. On July 6, 1989, La Cinq won on appeal, broadcasting the film on August 6, 1989, the day after the anniversary of the death of Marilyn Monroe. Finally in Turner Entertainment Co. v. Huston, on May 28, 1991, the Court of Cassation cancelled the judgment delivered on July 6, 1989, stating that colorizing the movie transformed the original artwork enough to potentially transgress the author's moral rights. Huston's heirs had sought to block the broadcast of the colorized version.
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