The city under the city.
In my head, I know that John Huston’s 1950 film noir The Asphalt Jungle is considered a classic and one of the best examples of its genre. In my heart, though, I still feel like the movie doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves. This is an American masterpiece that should be talked about in the same sentences as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. It’s a great film.
Sterling Hayden stars as Dix Handley, a two-bit criminal who gets brought into an elaborate jewelry heist. The score, worth over a million bucks, should give Dix enough money to buy back his father’s horse farm and possibly let him start a life with the woman who loves him, Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen, Singing in the Rain). Dix is teamed up with his friend Gus (James Whitmore, The Shawshank Redemption), a getaway driver, and safecracker Louie (Anthony Caruso, Young Dillinger), to pull off the job, which they do in a stunning 11-minute sequence of no dialogue; it’s not quite Rififi, but what is? Once the money is in hand, that’s when the double crosses and violence starts, and The Asphalt Jungle shifts from being a hard-boiled crime noir into a tragedy.
It is these changes in tone that help make The Asphalt Jungle such a great film. Here’s a movie that’s dealing with crime and greed — as many a film noir does — but also honor among thieves, broken dreams, broken hearts, police corruption…you name it. It has the feel of a sprawling crime epic while still remaining an intimate character study of some characters living on the fringes of society, clinging to their idea of the American dream (it’s different for each character) but with no real idea of the means to achieve it that doesn’t involve crime. There is a desperation to everyone in The Asphalt Jungle — from the criminals to the man who arranges the job because he’s just out of prison and doesn’t know how else to operate to the women who love these men (including Marilyn Monroe in an early supporting role as one character’s mistress), hoping that each job will be the last and an actual life can begin. These are sad characters, and their desperation drives the events in a way that feels much more immediate than a lot of other film noir fueled by the usual lust or greed.
John Huston, one of the great American directors of the 1940s and ‘50s (his career would carry on through the ‘60s, ‘70s and even ‘80s but most of his best work was behind him), cannily doesn’t overdose on style in his approach to The Asphalt Jungle. Don’t get me wrong — the exaggerated style is one of the things I love best about film noir. And Huston certainly knows when to embrace stylistic devices (the choice to shoot the heist as an 11-minute wordless sequence is inspired and would echo through both Jules Dassin’s Rififi and Michael Mann’s Thief), but mostly takes a matter-of-fact approach to the events that underscores the human drama by underplaying it. He’s aided immeasurably by the performances, including Sterling Hayden — one of the great flawed men of cinema, whose towering stature always seems to be at odds with his broken soul — and heartbreaking turns from both Jean Hagen (never more beautiful) and James Whitmore. A bench of perfectly-cast character actors make every moment, every face count.
Criterion’s new 2K restoration of The Asphalt Jungle is nothing short of stunning, offering a full 1080p HD transfer of the 1.37:1-framed black and white image that has been cleaned of any wear or signs of age while still preserving the grain field. The best aspect of this new high def transfer is the contrast on display — probably the most important part of any black and white film. Darks remain stable and consistent, balanced sharply against against the rest of the image. The movie looks incredible. The only audio option offered is a lossless mono track, which removes most of the hiss that can sometimes plague the audio of older films, and otherwise presents the dialogue clearly and cleanly. As usual, Criterion’s AV quality is first rate.
The bonus features are exhaustive, too, starting with a feature-length archival documentary called Pharos of Chaos from 1983. It runs two hours and covers the life and career of star Sterling Hayden, always an amazing screen presence and an interesting guy. There are two new interviews that examine the movie’s status as a film noir, the first with noir expert John Bailey running 25 minutes and the second a 20 minute talk with cinematographer John Bailey (Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire), who discusses the work of Harold Rosson. There a brief collection of audio-only interviews with director John Huston, as well as an even shorter (like, a minute) video interview in which he makes a few comments on The Asphalt Jungle. More in depth is an episode of the 1979 television series City Lights, which interviews Huston for just short of an hour. Rounding out the bonus features are the original trailer and a commentary track with noir historian Drew Casper (interspersed with archival comments from co-star James Whitmore), which is carried over from Warner Bros. excellent 2006 DVD release, part of their Film Noir Collection Vol. 1 box set.
I’m so happy to see The Asphalt Jungle getting the Criterion treatment, as it’s a movie entirely deserving of the upper-echelon status afforded to it by its inclusion in their library. Their disc is incredibly well-produced, with good supplements and a beautiful new transfer. It’s a great presentation of one of the best crime movies ever made.