A gritty crime drama, The Asphalt Jungle is a brilliant story of greed and deception among a group of desperate men. Director John Huston elicits sympathy for deeply-flawed criminals, and finds the subtle shades of grey that separate the bad from the evil.
Scholarly criminal mastermind "Doc" Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is released from prison, and immediately sets about meticulously planning a daring heist, which involves breaking into a jewelry store through a sewer tunnel wall. Doc approaches small-time criminal financier Cobby (Marc Lawrence), who in turn brings into the plot respected lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to help provide financing and fencing services. Doc hires Louie (Anthony Caruso) as the safecracker, Gus (James Whitmore), the owner of a local diner, as the getaway driver, and Gus' friend Dix (Sterling Hayden) as the muscle. Dix is a down-on-his-luck dreamer with a gambling addiction, although he is trying to reassemble his life with the help of somewhat girlfriend Doll (Jean Hagen).
Cobby is trying to keep his money-lending business afloat despite the unwelcome attention of corrupt cop Ditrich (Barry Kelley) and customers like Dix who don't pay back their debts. Dix's family was victimized by the Great Depression, and he dreams of making enough money to buy back the horse farm that his dad had to sell. But his uncontrollable appetite for betting on horses means that he is unlikely to ever get close to fulfilling his fantasy.
Doc and Emmerich are both elder statesmen of the underworld, but polar opposites. Doc takes pride in his work, is smart, careful and thoughtful, and within the context of the crime world, exceedingly open and honest. Emmerich is deceitful and greedy, a man who has over-stretched his resources to buy the company of women like Angela. Emmerich seemingly has everything that Doc, Dix and Cobby strive for, and yet is in the most amount of trouble.
The jungle is the domain of male survivors, and the two women in the cast are used primarily to sharpen the definition of Dix and Emmerich. Jean Hagen's Doll is a sounding board for Dix, providing a sympathetic ear as he outlines a future that could revive his past. Marilyn Monroe, in her first major movie role as Angela, goes a long way towards justifying Emmerich's excessive spending habits.
Stylistically The Asphalt Jungle is awash in worry, Huston's black and white images filled with harsh contrasts as the men contemplate futures that are either much better or significantly worse than the present. Huston's cameras are restless, always shifting towards edgy angles as in less than two hours the characters are introduced, the heist planned, the crime committed and the aftermath spirals towards disaster. And in The Asphalt Jungle, there are no soft landing spots.
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