Film noir sprouted from the aftermath of World War II. The propaganda films of the war effort had faded away and soldiers returned home with a new found sense of disillusionment that found an outlet in deceitful tales of deadly dames and crimes gone horribly wrong. Though it doesn’t have femme fatale, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle is a true American film noir, a tale of crooks hoping to grab their slice of the American Dream through illicit means and the slow winding way the perfect crime unravels. Now The Asphalt Jungle is a part of the Criterion Collection and its brand new Blu-ray is a loving restoration of this somewhat unheralded classic of American crime fiction.
In an unspecified corner of the American Midwest, nobody is innocent. The criminal element in the underbelly of the city use crime to fund their various vices. The police are on the take. When we first see Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), he’s fleeing the sound of sirens, hiding in the shadows of urban decay that resemble the wreckage of war-torn Europe. Dix is a roughneck, a hoodlum, but he operates under his own code of honor among thieves. Stuck in this rotten heart of a city, Dix yearns to leave behind the grit of this urban hellhole and make his way back to his family farm in Kentucky. But Dix can be his worst enemy with his predilection for betting on horses, though he numerous faults don’t undermine his long-running friendship with Gus (James Whitmore), a hunchback that runs a local shop, or the ample affections of Doll (Jean Hagen), who loves Dix to a fault.
Dix’s ticket out of the city might be punched when Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is released from his time in jail. The elder convict has a knack for planning heists that have massive payouts and he approaches Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a local crime boss, with a plan for a new job. With over a half million in loot, Cobby seeks out Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to operate as the money man on the job, fronting the money to pay out the team of crooks and goons necessary to carry out the heist. Before long Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is on board to crack the safe and Dix is hired to be the strongman. But Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire) is cracking down on cops that are on the take, including the wobbly morals of Lieutenant Ditrich (Barry Kelly), and combined with the greed among the perpetrators of the daring heist, the perfect crime may entirely unravel.
The screenplay adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s novel by Huston and Ben Maddow eschews a lot of film noir conventions, chiefly in its lack of narration. First and foremost, though, The Asphalt Jungle lacks a femme fatale but there’s still the deadly vices of each of its lead characters. Cobby is a boozehound, constantly with drink in hand. Dix has his gambling problem with the horses. But the biggest vice of these characters belongs to Alonzo, who has an infatuation with younger women that is embodied by the alluring Angela, played by a young Marilyn Monroe in her breakout role. Alonzo has squandered his wealth in a vain attempt to woo the young blonde and schemes with Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) to betray his fellow criminals. The story seamlessly bounces between all these different threads as its makes it way towards climax of criminality.
In a lot of regards, The Asphalt Jungle is like a precursor to another Sterling Hayden-led crime drama also in the Criterion Collection, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. Whereas Kubrick’s film is interested in all the steps of the heist and its eventual unraveling, Huston makes The Asphalt Jungle a much more fatalistic and moralistic tale. The opening scenes highlight the urban decay illustrate that rotten heart at the central of the film’s unspecified city. It’s not just one person’s fault that this carefully orchestrated plan falls apart, but a series of events that are seemingly unavoidable due to the corrupt nature of each player.
The towering Sterling Hayden provides The Asphalt Jungle with its heart and soul as the film’s leading man. Hayden’s booming voice lends an authoritative aura to his criminal character that commands the screen. And yet the hard-boiled persona of Hayden also has a lingering sadness that shines through the rough veneer, as his is a character that yearns to be free from the concrete and brick façade of the city and in the open fields of Kentucky. The criminal element that surrounds Dix brings forth the character’s rough edges and his relationship with Doll brings forth his underlying tenderness, a balance that only a few could bring to life with the disparity that Sterling Hayden brings to the role.
As with all entries in the Criterion Collection, the special features on the Blu-ray for The Asphalt Jungle are robust and delve deep into the history of the film and its key players. There are two archival segments featuring interviews with John Huston, one from the film’s initial release and the other a television interview from 1979. There are featurettes that explore the film with cinematographer John Bailey and film historian Eddie Muller that examine the film’s visual style as well as its place in history. Adding to the historical context is the audio commentary track by historian Drew Casper, which examines the film as well as its place within the studio system of old. The most fascinating of all the special features is the documentary Pharos of Chaos, a 1983 documentary about Sterling Hayden. At this point in his life, Hayden was living on a boat in Europe. Hayden at this point is in hiding from the IRS and spends his time on camera drinking, smoking hashish, and giving a mixture of biographical information and his own musings on life. It’s a fascinating look at a screen icon far removed from the glitz and glamour of the silver screen.
The Asphalt Jungle is one of the great films from the filmography of John Huston that is often overshadowed by his classic collaborations with Humphrey Bogart, such as The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But this film has Huston bringing back some of that disillusionment that many people brought back with them following World War II. This fatalistic piece of noir features an America in the throes of urban decay as deceit and violence run rampant. Deep in those shadows within the seedy underbelly of the city lies some of the most engrossing cinema ever made.