The Asphalt Jungle 1950 Movie Scene Sam Jaffe as Doc hearing alarms go off during the heist

The Asphalt Jungle [1950]

I kept hearing about The Asphalt Jungle for several decades now and finally decided to check it out. Funny how things change as you get older. Ten years ago I avoided black and white movies like plague. I wanted something modern and slick but also engaging and masterfully crafted. That’s probably because I identified too much with the movies I watched but enough about that. I want to convince you not to go in my footsteps and check out this heist, I’m sorry, caper movie. And it doesn’t matter if you’re not ready for it now. It can wait for you.

So, what can a seventy-year-old movie offer a viewer in this day and age? Well, a lot of things. However, first I want to talk about the first five minutes of The Asphalt Jungle. A man is walking through the empty streets of a city with only distant police sirens to keep him company. We don’t know his name or why he’s out there. He walks into a bar and hands his gun to the man behind the register. And not a moment too soon as police burst right through the door in a couple of seconds. They decide to book him for vag and the scene ends.

The movie doesn’t explain what vag is or why the man had a gun. It simply continues on its trajectory with confidence and style. What type of confidence and style you ask? Well, the type of when you’re pulling off a heist you still wear your hat and don’t rush anywhere. And don’t think this is some artsy movie you’re not going to “get” as it rivals any modern one in almost every aspect. By the way, vag is vagrancy, they booked him for vagrancy. This is where we get the first hints of the main theme of The Asphalt Jungle. The struggle between oftentimes crooked cops and ruthless robbers.

As its title suggests, it puts forth the idea that we haven’t come far from our tribal roots. An idea I tend to agree with. Also, you can only imagine how fucked up things were in the fifties. Remember, WWII ended just five years ago so wounds were still fresh even in America. This is something that this movie shares with its counterparts in Europe and especially in France. Rififi and Bob le Flambeur feature similar but a bit darker atmospheres and plots. So, if you’re looking for something even heavier I suggest you check them out.

Doc is an experienced criminal who just got out of jail. He’s looking to put together a crew for one final heist before he retires and heads for Mexico. Cobby is a mid-level crook with all kinds of connections and the two of them start working on a plan. A plan that they hope is going to make them all very rich.

If this plot sounds familiar it’s because all the modern heist movies drew inspiration from it. The genre evolved over the decades sprawling into all kinds of different sub-genres. So, we got over the story but what about the visuals? Apart from the black and white picture, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them. The cinematography is great and what you’ll probably be watching is a restored and remastered Criterion edition version. A true joy for any cinephile.

I know it’s funny to talk about a cast from a movie so old but I have to do it nonetheless. And right away I have to mention James Whitmore whom you might remember from such movies as The Shawshank Redemption and The Relic. However, the star of this movie is Sterling Hayden with his commanding presence. Just five years earlier, Hayden was deep behind enemy lines parachuting into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia and working with the resistance movement there. You can also check him out in another fifties heist movie The Killing, directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Finally, we will also have the opportunity to see young Marilyn Monroe in one of her early roles. The characters they play are well-developed and feel very realistic. They also offer a window into the past and how things worked back then. Not surprisingly, quite similarly as they do today to tell you the truth. The Asphalt Jungle is a no-bullshit thriller that will perhaps spur you on to check out other older movies. Especially if you’re a fan of noir, so just remember that it’s there and the time will come when you will be ready for it.

Director: John Huston

Writers: Ben Maddow, John Huston, W.R. Burnett

Cast: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, Marc Lawrence

Fun Facts: Marilyn Monroe cites her performance here as one of the best she ever did.


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