Get out your Nitroglycerin and handguns, we’re reviewing Asphalt Jungle!
The Crime Doctor (Sam Jaffe) is out on a prison break, and has a new heist planned that could be worth millions. With the help of bankroller Emmerich (Louis Calhern) and tough-guy Handley (Sterling Hayden), they’ll pull off a fantastic heist – but getting away with the money will be the real problem.
People say this movie is an essential noir film to see, but I just don’t see the appeal. I’d actually watched this before, but can’t remember a thing about it. You’d think, for such a noir staple, I’d at least be able to remember having watched it, right? Maybe it’s one of those films that made a huge impact in its day and doesn’t hold up today. As of now, I don’t see what all the big fuss is about.
The cast of characters is good, but nothing as crazy or diverse as Casablana or Maltese Falcon. The dialogue is good, but not as quippy or memorable as Murder, My Sweet. Hayden plays a tough guy pretty well, but nothing compared to Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly. The heist itself is alright. Not as entertaining as The Killers, though. The cinematography is adequate; there’s nothing as dramatic, iconic or experimental as The Set-Up or Gun Crazy. Marilyn Monroe is here, but only barely, and not nearly as well used as any starlet in any other movie.
The story is its own first big draw. It’s an ensemble movie. It’s interesting to see how all the characters are interconnected, how all have their own flaws and weaknesses, how everyone has to answer to someone else in a vicious cycle, and how each needs this big cash-out. It’s also really intriguing to see the downfall of each criminal – what gets them in the end, and just how easily their criminal gang can fall apart. But then again, that’s one of the biggest problems; it is dangerously close to being a gangster movie in which the good guys get the bad guys and the bad guys all die or go to jail.
Its second big draw is the great character performances. Like I said, Sterling Hayden plays a pretty great tough guy. Handley is a stubborn-headed dope that won’t take no guff and completes whatever he sets his mind to. He’s like a loyal dog, stubborn to a fault. A critical fault, as it turns out. Ditrich is a corrupt cop that shakes down bar owners, but also has his captain breathing down his neck to fill quotas. Doc is fun as the man with the plan who just wants to get to a nice sunny spot where he can see some girls. I like how he’s always got a sunny disposition, even in the most dire situations. My favorite is Emmerich, though, who has to lead multiple lives for his wife, his mistress, his legitimate business, and his criminal dealings. He’s always charming and smarmy but he’s all talk. There’s a great moment where you look deep into his eyes and you can see he knows he’s messed up. Calhern really sells Emmerich as a character. There’s not much for Monroe to do, but Jean Hagen as Doll plays a lovesick dame pretty well. It’s tragic how much she loves Handley and the lengths she’ll go to for him.
The story’s got some twists and turns, the heist itself is tense, and there are even a few dramatic shots I admire. It’s an alright movie and I’m glad I watched it, but I don’t see why it’s called a classic, or how I’m going to avoid forgetting it a second time.
THE GOOD: Interesting story, great acting, great character moments, ok cinematography.
THE BAD: Everything else is just ok, Marilyn Monroe barely used, and you can probably find it better somewhere else.
THE VERDICT: $$$ If you’re going through Noir 101 it might be a good idea to see this, but otherwise, look to better films.
MOVIES LIKE IT: The Killers, Murder, My Sweet, Gun Crazy, Detour, Laura, 5 Against the House
ONE-SCENE METAPHOR: Handley gets Cobby the money he owes him so Handley can place a bet. But then Cobby hands the money to Ditrich so he can forget anything he saw in the club. “How can I forget? I was never here,” Ditrich says. It’s a pretty great line and interesting to watch the money travel.
I think this was a pretty good lean in to… NOIR WEEK! Which I’ll be having all next week! That’s 5 reviews of Noir movies! NOIR!!!