Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)


Fresh out of prison, genius thief Doc (Sam Jaffe) recruits a small crew to pull off one big crime with which all of them can start a new life. Headlining this crew are small time hooligan, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), Dix's long time friend, Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), and family man Louis (Anthony Caruso). All of which are backed financially by a millionaire lawyer (Louis Calhern) who seeks a way out of his current financial trouble.

As narrative films go The Asphalt Jungle is a rather by the book experience. A bit darker than most 50's films you'll find, it's not a crime caper with a lot of twists and turns, of the sort you find in modern films. As well it's often more well known for the early part in played in shaping the career of a young Marilyn Monroe, whose role is about 8 minutes long. All in all though the quality of this movie is entirely in the hands of John Huston. His skill and desire to play with the camera some really creates a great combination of noir methodical movement, with quick paced action and strong camera jerks to create a sense of danger in instantaneous moments.

Unfortunately for Huston the rest of the film never quite lives up to his direction. Hayden is a mixed bag, often asked to stop mid scene to carry out long winded dialogue, of which he's never been the best. To counter this Jean Hagen is cast as the small time criminal, and only woman who truly loves Dix (despite his lack of ability to see it). Hagen is powerful and really provides a good emotional balance to Hayden. Of course it doesn't hurt that Jaffe delivered a career defining performance, Whitmore is always perfect, and Calhern is a scene stealer in a rather cliche character (the scenes with him and his wife are quite priceless).

In the end though Asphalt Jungle is one of those films that never manages to exceed its own bounds, and instead just achieves entertainment at each corner. It does manage to really bring about some great characters. And of course I always enjoy seeing the start, act, and aftermath of a group of people committing a crime, but this time around it just felt a little bit more fresh. Perhaps its the characters having depth, the knowledge bestowed on us that not all will end well, and an overarching sense of danger that brings the film to life. All too often crime capers are more comedy than realism, and Jungle manages to be a bit of both. Sticking to what Huston does best, it's a character film about a crime, not a crime film about characters. And in that respect each one jumps off the screen and into your home for a couple hours, while you wish the best, and fear for the worse, and that's cinema.

A captivating, directorial feat of a film, weak on narrative, Asphalt Jungle carries well in the gifted hands of Huston.

1 better thoughts:

TheAnswerMVP2001 said...

uh oh, we agreed on something again. I feel chills down my spine! ;)

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