Director John Huston made the film noir/caper film The Asphalt Jungle in 1950. Since the movie’s release, it has influenced many filmmakers that have explored the crime thriller genre—right down to Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs. Though many films have used Jungle as a blueprint, few have actually surpassed it. It stands tall as a caper classic.
Jungle shows the plans going into a crime, its execution, and the consequences that follow. The film builds by introducing a man named Doc, played by Sam Jaffe, who is released from prison and plans to gather a group of criminals in order to pull off a jewel heist. The men that join the group include a hooligan named Dix (Sterling Hayden), a driver named Gus (James Whitmore), and a safe cracker named Louis (Anthony Caruso). Also populating the screen are classic noir character types, including a crooked cop, a rotten lawyer, a handler, and a mistress (Marilyn Monroe, who shines in her few brief moments). Jean Hagen stars as Doll, Dix’s neighbor, who punctuates the film’s darkness with her light presence (loving Dix no matter what). The story, though interesting, is secondhand to all of these compelling characterizations in Huston’s criminal underworld.
There isn’t a bad performance in Jungle. Hayden (sporting a Southern personality) and (especially) Jaffe shine, though. Hayden’s firecracker of a robber and Jaffe’s subtle career criminal make for an entertaining duo, as the two become the main characters of focus in the aftermath of the heist. Huston lets every character have their moment, however, showing how “the streets” can affect a variety of people. This collection of personalities (and great performances) really gives the movie spark and strength—many thanks should be given to scriptwriters Huston and Ben Maddow for this.
Huston once again uses detailed craftsmanship in his directing in the noir genre. Right from the opening, he establishes the city as its own character. With distinctively lonely and dark looks and feels, Huston’s city locations work as the perfect backdrops for the characters. The black and white cinematography is beautifully used, paying real respect to the power of shadows (along with tight angles) in displaying an area. Huston also manages to keep a steady pace throughout, allowing the suspense to really build and boil before moments of high excitement. Much praise can also be given to the editing and music for aiding Huston in his overall creation.
Next to Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Jungle is one of the top film noirs/capers to come out of the 40s and 50s. At one point in Jungle, a character states that crime is “a left-handed form of human endeavor.” Huston brilliantly displays the actions behind such thoughts in his dark, tough, and gritty underworld.
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.