The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
Another noir film by John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle is a heist film that’s more gritty than jaunty. As in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the characters fail (this can’t be a spoiler for a Huston film, can it?) at their task. While the characters are engaged in illegal activity, the film portrays them somewhat sympathetically, allowing the audience all the complex emotions necessarily inspired by likeable but flawed characters doing meticulous but condemnable deeds.
Vice is a recurring theme in this film—every main character has at least one vice, and the vice turns out to be the character’s undoing. Vice is weakness, but it’s also an addiction; Doc (Sam Jaffe) says, “One way or another, we all work for our vice.”
The Asphalt Jungle features at least ten significant characters, each of whom gets enough time on screen for the audience to be able to follow the plot and its intricacies. In addition to being the inspiration for many crime thrillers and capers (including the highly regarded Rififi), it serves as a study in making a story with so many important characters and plot points easy to follow without insulting the audience.
The Asphalt Jungle was one of Marilyn Monroe’s early films, before she had fully developed her sex goddess persona. MGM didn’t see her potential, and failed to sign her to any long-term contract. You can see in this film the beginnings of what she would become, but you can also see a little of the road she might have taken with more influence from a director like Huston, who respected her abilities more than her appearance.
Huston won an Oscar for directing and shared another with Ben Maddow for the screenplay. While I don’t consider it one of Huston’s best, it’s certainly a very good film worth studying for its contribution to its genre and for its story construction.