This week in The Best of Film Noir we’re taking a look at The Asphalt Jungle, a wonderful 1950 film directed by the great John Huston. Based on a novel by the same name, The Asphalt Jungle is a great caper film about a group of men planning and executing a jewel robbery. The film was nominated for numerous awards, including four Academy Awards (Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Sam Jaffe; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White, Harold Rosson; Best Director, John Huston; Best Writing, Screenplay, Ben Maddow and John Huston) and it was named one of the most influential crime films of the 1950s.
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
This is one film noir that I don’t think has one really defined noir hero. What we seem to have is a bunch of noir heroes, men who trust no one, who are out for themselves, men whose sense of self-preservation ultimately leads to their downfall. Doc Riedenschneider, played by Sam Jaffe, is just out of prison, and he’s the character who gets the caper rolling. He enlists the help of other noir heroes, like the safecracker, the getaway driver, the thug, and the attorney who will handle the money. Dix Handley, played by Sterling Hayden, helps Doc ensure that the attorney won’t double-cross them once they have the jewels. And, as we know of film noir, they are doomed from the start. Only this time, a femme fatale is not the culprit, it’s each other. On a side note, the women in The Asphalt Jungle are not the usual femme fatales, but devoted, committed women who endure the bad luck of their men.
The Best of Film Noir – The Writing
If you are an author, especially if you write crime fiction, The Asphalt Jungle is worth studying. The characters are multidimensional, full of weaknesses, flaws and more. We sympathize with them; we do not see them as heartless, brutal criminals. We are drawn into who they are.
A piece of the writing, of course, is the dialogue. It is crisp, witty, and very real-world. I’ve been told the dialogue in my writing is very realistic, and I’m flattered by that. The key in great dialogue is to make it sound real, without actually being real. What do I mean by that? It’s taking out the fluff, like um’s and ah’s and all the meandering that we tend to do when we speak, and getting out the points you want the characters to make in a concise, yet real-sound way. Huston achieves this in The Asphalt Jungle.
Mrs Emmerich: Oh Lon, when I think of all those awful people you come in contact with, I get scared.
Emmerich: There’s nothing so different about them. After all, crime in only a left-handed form of human endeavor.
Cobby: Well, here’s to the drink habit. It’s the only one I got that don’t get me into trouble.
Doc Riedenschneider: One way or another, we all work for our vice.
Louis: If you want fresh air, don’t look for it in this town.
You get the idea. Every character has great, memorable lines. The great script, along with superb acting, is what makes The Asphalt Jungle shine.
The Best of Film Noir – The Direction
The Asphalt Jungle also benefits from great direction. John Huston takes a different approach than in most film noir, giving us a landscape that is open, with a real gritty urban feel to it (unlike most film noir that is closed in and claustrophobic). The attention to detail is phenomenal, and as viewers we almost feel like we’re watching a documentary. We feel a part of this film. Huston does a wonderful job of getting the best out of his actors as well, and they complement each other very well.
The Best of Film Noir – The Legacy
The Asphalt Jungle is the earliest example of the crime caper, and it’s considered the instigation of the crime thriller subgenre in caper films. The 1955 French film Rififi (which many critics considers the best heist film ever) drew inspiration from The Asphalt Jungle. Many later films have copied or paid homage to The Asphalt Jungle, including The Italian Job (1969), Ocean’s Eleven (1960, and the remake, 2001), and The Usual Suspects (1995). The same storyline has been used in Cairo (1963), Cool Breeze (1972) and The Badlanders (1958).
The Best of Film Noir – Trivia and Goofs
Debut of Jack Warden.
Georgia Holt, mother of Cher, tested for the role of Angela Phinlay.
When Doll was helping the wounded Dix into the doctor’s office, the shadow of the camera is seen at it runs across her back.
When Dix and Doll arrive at the Hickory Wood Farm in their car, you can see the reflection of some of the crew members on the passenger side door.
A publicity photo for the film showed Dix between Doll and Angela, who desperately tries to get him to turn away from Doll. Angela and Dix never meet in the film.
Thanks to IMDb for those!
So grab your popcorn and soda and settle in for a real film noir treat, an outstanding example of the genre.
If you like film noir, try THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN IN THE MOVIES, the first in the Reed Ferguson mystery series. It’s full of fun and film noir. Kirkus Reviews says:
Pawlish also earns high marks for plot construction, with twists and turns naturally unfolding as Ferguson, inexperienced but not incapable, feels his way through the case.
Pawlish has a good eye for the smaller details, and she’s built a fantastic cast of supporting characters—including Ferguson’s goofy neighbors and especially his computer expert friend Cal—that’ll give readers something to look forward to in future installments of the series. In a nifty bit of worldbuilding, the characters, who never feel tacked on, each help reveal some aspect of Ferguson’s personality while filling out the story. Even the regular phone calls from his mother don’t interrupt the story’s flow.
A promising start to a good-humored mystery series worth following.