Next film to cross off the the iCheckMovies imdb film-noir list, is John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle“. This is arguably the grand-daddy of all noir heist movies, and it reads like a dictionary of the underworld. Boxmen, getaway drivers, fences, hoodlums, bent cops, double-crossers, stoolies – the language of the heist movie was defined here for most enthusiasts, and it’s influence can be strongly felt in movies such as “The Usual Suspects“, “Heat“, and (in my opinion, the superior) “Du rififi chez les hommes“.

Doc (Sam Jaffe) is fresh out of jail after serving a seven-year stretch, and has used his time inside to concoct the perfect heist of sparkly macguffin-stones. On his release he wastes no time in gathering a team and funding to put his plan into action. First stop is Cobby (Marc Lawrence), an underground bookie with police on the payroll and contacts in every shadowy corner. Cobby puts Doc in touch with Emmerich (Louis Calhern) a lawyer and the money behind the operation. Unbeknownst to everyone, Emmerich is actually broke, bled dry by his young lover (Marilyn Monroe) and so has plans for the diamonds himself. Together they assemble the perfect team; Dix, the muscle (Stirling Hayden), a boxman Louis Ciavelli (aka safecracker, Anthony Caruso)  and a getaway driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore).  Sound familiar? Probably because this blueprint has been respectfully copied and blatantly plagiarised many times over since. Cue a tightly woven, suspenseful plot with more backstabbing and well-written character interplay than you can shake a bag of diamonds at.

What Asphalt Jungle succeeds gloriously at, is fleshing out all the characters amply, and there is no waste here, no superfluous character expositions aside from a couple of odd moments in the final scenes of the film. It is Stirling Hayden’s Dix though who has the most backstory, and is essentially the film’s anti-hero, and here is one of my main problems with the film. Hayden, to be honest, is a little stiff. Mannerisms which would play in his favour as Jack D Ripper in Dr Strangelove (a distant look, a look of always being somewhere else mentally) hold him back here. As the film advances he relaxes into the role, but he also visibly lacks range. Luckily, this generally sits favourably with his character, a musclebound brawn-over-brain type hoodlum, but Dix is at times shown to have a lot of heart and emotion under the hood, and Hayden isn’t really able to express this too well. The rest of the cast are pretty damn faultless however, especially the charismatic Sam Jaffe. Monroe even manages to pull off the laughable line  “You big banana-head!” without attracting too much attention. I should probably also mention at this point that despite Marilyn being plastered all over the box-art and promotional material for this film, she has the smallest part with only a few lines, and really only exists to be an alibi for one of the main characters – but oh what a beautiful alibi!

The heist is actually very straightforward, and if truth be told could have been thought up in a few days brainstorming instead of taking seven years of planning in prison to figure out, but I guess the thought process is slowed when you are being buggered daily by your cell-mates. That being said, it is still executed very well with ample tension, and proceeds as flawlessly as Doc imagined – until things start to unravel. A series of double-crosses, accidents and errors make the group dynamics shift, loyalties sway, and tensions mount as the whole exit strategy falls down around the protagonists heads. This leads to a decent third act which is marred by a couple of strange moments.

In the final scenes, Dix, losing blood from an earlier wound, passes out on the road to freedom, and is taken in by a doctor who realises the situation and calls the police. Dix, hearing this, somehow revives himself and drives off. Why? No idea – it didn’t change anything in the plot and seemed only to serve as a reminder to the audience that Dix was losing blood and dying, something which the film had already gone out of its way to show us. Perhaps it was to show the audience that he wasn’t free yet, and the  unseen police were still on his tail, inducing a sense of false tension, but to me it was unnecessary exposition that spoilt the pacing of the final act. The very final shot in the film does make up for this slightly, while at the same time only proves how pointless the scene was.

Alongside this, in another moment, Doc (also seperately on the road to freedomsville) takes time out with the police on his heels, to watch a young girl perform a rather bizarre dance in a cafe, leading to his capture. Although he sets this up with a line earlier in the film “we all work for our vices” this surrender to personal vice was a strange decision at this point of the film and didn’t gel with my previous impressions of the character.

In summary a few minor things do not detract too much from the film’s overall pull, which is to be a very entertaining film-noir heist movie with well developed criminal characters, nimble pacing and excellent character dynamics – and it is these things that secure the films undeniable influence. It is just a shame the pay-off is spoilt slightly and as such does not quite meet the great expectations set by the tense setup, and heist itself.  Watch this first, and then follow up with Rififi, which has all of this film’s positive points, and none of the negative.

4/5

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