John Huston wrote, produced, and directed this pivotal piece of film noir released in 1950. Filmed in gritty black and white, full of gray shadows and beautiful nighttime scenes of a gritty, industrial-looking Cincinnati, it’s essential viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in the genre.
I absolutely love this shit – stories of broken people down on their luck, trying to lift themselves up by pulling off some ill-conceived crime, or right some wrong by a murder that always goes astray. All attempts at happiness are crushed by a cold, uncaring world. Film noir is the counterbalance to Disney – the antidote to children’s stories and Marvel movies.
Everyone’s a loser in a hard world where danger lurks everywhere, and any effort to escape one’s doomed fate always ends in tragedy. Love is for saps, trust is for simpletons, and violence is the solution that never works.
In other words, my idea of entertainment.
Which brings me back to The Asphalt Jungle. I hadn’t seen this movie in many years and recently watched it again. Not once, but twice. I don’t do that often…
As always, the cinematography and the writing plays a huge part of the noir experience, and Huston doesn’t disappoint. But it’s the casting that seals the deal. Sterling Hayden is both menacing and heartbreaking at the same time in one of his best performances. His role in the doomed caper is “the hooligan,” the muscle, the enforcer. There’s a scene early on where he’s in a wife-beater, drinking and smoking with his ill-faited girlfreind “Doll.” At 6′ 5″ he looks enormous, arms and shoulders thick, like a dangerous gorilla. But he balances his menacing presence with a wistful innocence, making the character much more complex than he first appears.
Sam Jaffe plays a German criminal mastermind fresh out of prison with an eye for teenage girls – a weakness that proves fatal. In one of her early starring roles, a 24-year-old Marilyn Monroe looks like an underage sex kitten taking doomed attorney Louis Calhern for everything he’s got. Barry Kelley plays a dirty cop not afraid to slap around an accomplice like he’s beating a child. We’ve even got a 22-year-old Strother Martin appearance in a police line-up.
Of course, nothing turns out well for anyone, but isn’t that the point?
Two films before this John Huston made “Key Largo,” and two films later “The African Queen.”