The Asphalt Jungle
- Street Date:
- December 13th, 2016
- Reviewed by:
- David Krauss
- Review Date: 1
- December 13th, 2016
- Movie Release Year:
- 112 Minutes
- Release Country
- United States
The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
"Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor."
Heist films have been a popular staple of Hollywood's repertoire for decades, but even the slickest of robbery capers (that means you, 'Ocean's Eleven') owes John Huston's 'The Asphalt Jungle' a substantial debt. This taut, expertly crafted adaptation of the novel by W.R. Burnett ('Little Caesar') may not be as flashy as its successors, but it's got much more meat on its bones. Packed with suspense and intrigue and distinguished by a literate script and hard-boiled tone, 'The Asphalt Jungle' is the gold standard by which other movies in a cluttered genre are judged.
And none of its gilt has chipped away in the 66 years since it first wowed both audiences and critics, many of whom couldn't believe such a down-and-dirty tale of subversive behavior came from MGM, the studio of lavish Technicolor musicals, wholesome Andy Hardy comedies, and Lassie. Yet MGM's evolution reflected an industry-wide shift toward darker, more realistic tales, and 'The Asphalt Jungle' epitomizes the trend. What makes the film so accessible is its frank depiction of an underworld that's strikingly similar to the straight-and-narrow society in which most of us reside. (It's not a coincidence the story takes place in middle America.) The criminals here look suspiciously like you and me - well dressed and well spoken, yet they play by a different set of rules and take advantage of the ones we abide by and respect. They're fascinating specimens, driven by different needs and desires. Yes, they have their respective roles - mastermind, hooligan, getaway driver, bankroller, and safecracker - but they're all complex and dimensional. The robbery unites them, but doesn't define them...just as the robbery is the central focus of this film, but may not be what we remember most about it.
Huston provides a meticulous procedural on how to pull off a difficult crime - and brilliantly examines how it all unravels afterward - but it's the haunting group of disparate characters ensnared in the narrative web who keep us coming back to this riveting yarn. Leading the list is Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a hulking, plain-spoken gambling addict who longs to wash off the city's filth and buy back the Kentucky horse farm his family lost during the Depression. Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen), a sweet, down-on-her-luck "clip joint" girl, recognizes his tortured spirit and unrequitedly pines for him, but he has little use for her. Soon, Dix is recruited by career criminal Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) to take part in a lucrative jewelry heist that should pay him the money he needs to realize his dream. A mild-mannered, bespectacled European with a penchant for young girls, Doc has just been released from prison, yet he instantly dives headfirst into this new caper, which he plotted with surgical precision while behind bars.
Doc looks to Cobby (Marc Lawrence), a local bookie, to help him bankroll the project and assemble a team. Cobby enlists hunchback diner owner Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) to be the getaway driver and Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) to crack the safe. He also introduces Doc to suave businessman Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), who they hope will front them the cash to execute their scheme. Emmerich agrees, but soon admits to a confidante he's broke and needs the robbery proceeds to support his lavish lifestyle. He pledges to fence the jewels after the heist to increase the take, but secretly has no intention of sharing the wealth with his co-conspirators. Doc doesn't trust him and looks to Dix to use his brawn to keep Emmerich and his cohorts in line.
Huston juggles this rich character canvas with dexterity, and the tight-knit, Oscar-nominated screenplay, which he co-wrote with Ben Maddow, crisply delineates the various personalities, rivalries, vices, and conflicted loyalties. The measured dialogue is filled with criminal jargon, but Huston's deliberate pacing gives us time to digest and interpret it while drawing us ever deeper into the story. Harold Rosson's cinematography, which also received an Academy Award nomination, combines elements of film noir with a stark documentary style to create striking images, and the lack of a music score for the bulk of the film heightens not only tension, but also the aura of realism that swirls about the picture. Rarely does a movie satisfy so completely on both stylistic and narrative levels, but 'The Asphalt Jungle' does so with deceptive ease.
Though MGM produced many all-star pictures in the past ('Grand Hotel' and 'Dinner at Eight' chief among them), 'The Asphalt Jungle' was its first true ensemble film. Hayden and Calhern receive top billing, but neither were big stars at the time, nor were Jaffe, Whitmore, Hagen (who two short years later would make her biggest splash - and receive an Oscar nomination - as squeaky-voiced silent star Lina Lamont in 'Singin' in the Rain'), or a gorgeous young actress by the name of Marilyn Monroe, who makes a huge impression in two brief scenes as Emmerich's nubile mistress. (Much of the movie's poster art showcases Monroe to make her seem like the star, but nothing could be further from the truth.) Rosson, who was married to another blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow, 15 years before, beautifully photographs the 24-year-old Marilyn, bringing out both her innocence and allure, and under Huston's tutelage she files an affecting portrayal that belies her inexperience. 'The Asphalt Jungle' would prove to be Monroe's big break, and the actress herself cited the performance as one of her career highlights.
But as good as Monroe is, her work pales when compared to that of Hayden, Calhern, and especially Jaffe, who garnered a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his hypnotic portrayal of Doc. (He lost to George Sanders in 'All About Eve.') Adopting a subtle German accent and underplaying to a fare-thee-well, Jaffe (perhaps best known as the noble, titular Hindu "soldier" in 'Gunga Din') steals not just the jewels, but every scene in which he appears...without even raising his voice. Calhern specialized in playing pompous rich men, but here his frayed nerves, desperation, and unctuous demeanor enhance that stereotype, lending it a captivating edginess. And in an earnest and affecting performance, Hayden mixes dumb-lug strength and cockiness with an underlying vulnerability to craft what is arguably his finest portrayal.
'The Asphalt Jungle' remains a timeless work of cinematic art. Nary a hair is out of place in this spellbinding crime drama that blends artistry with realism, brims with memorable characters, features an engrossing plot, and showcases stellar work by a tight ensemble cast. It's astounding the movie didn't receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination (the Academy - in its infinite wisdom - deemed such innocuous fare as 'Father of the Bride' and 'King Solomon's Mines' worthier productions), but at least Huston was honored with a Best Director nod. Not surprisingly, he would never make another heist film. 'The Asphalt Jungle' breaks the mold, and Huston was smart enough to realize he could never top it. And no one else ever has either.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Asphalt Jungle' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A fold-out, 12-page booklet featuring an essay by author Geoffrey O'Brien, cast and crew listings, transfer notes, and tinted portraits of the ensemble cast is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Criterion has struck a brand new digital transfer "created in 2K resolution...from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive" for this release, and classic film fans will cheer the result. Harold Rosson's Oscar-nominated cinematography, which combines the styles of film noir and naturalism, has been exceptionally rendered, thanks to superb clarity, contrast, and gray scale variance. Noticeable but never excessive grain complements the film's gritty subject matter and helps maintain a rich celluloid feel throughout, and the pristine source material is free of any age-related nicks, lines, or scratches. Blacks are deliciously inky, excellent shadow delineation highlights subtle shadings, and a fine sense of depth draws us into the criminals' claustrophobic world. Razor sharp close-ups that strikingly showcase careworn faces and Monroe's fresh-faced allure also enhance this top-notch transfer, as do crystal clear background elements and the lack of digital anomalies. The Blu-ray release of 'The Asphalt Jungle' has been a long time coming, and this terrific effort from Criterion proves we haven't waited in vain.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
According to the liner notes, "the original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm optical soundtrack positive and a 35 mm composite print." The sparse track allows us to savor the dialogue, relish silences, and absorb numerous subtleties like jangling keys, the rustling of paper, and distant police sirens. Though composer Miklos Rosza wrote the dramatic score, Huston only uses his music over the opening titles and closing scene. A wide dynamic scale gives it plenty of breathing room, and also nicely handles the highs and lows of a couple of jazzy jukebox tunes during a critical scene. Sonic accents like gunfire and a chisel chipping away at brick are crisp and distinct, and all the hard-boiled conversations are clear and easy to comprehend. Best of all, no distortion or age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, or crackles, intrude. This track won't knock your socks off, but it still makes a palpable impression.
The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff
All the extras from the 2004 DVD release have been ported over to this Blu-ray edition, but Criterion ups the ante with plenty of new and archival material that sheds light on the film and those who made it.
- Audio Commentary - In this 2004 commentary, which includes a couple of archival recollections from actor James Whitmore, film scholar Drew Casper lauds 'The Asphalt Jungle' as "a seminal caper film" and "one of the great American movies of all time." He also states the average viewer only gets 40 percent of the movie the first time through. Casper's enthusiasm is infectious, and though his commentaries are more didactic than conversational, he draws the listener in and imparts a wealth of information about film theory, style, and history. Here, he talks about the ingredients of a caper thriller, how 'The Asphalt Jungle' influenced subsequent genre pictures, and the ideological conflict between MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer and his protege, Dore Schary, who hoped to make more realistic, socially conscious pictures for the studio. Most of his remarks, however, revolve around director John Huston, whom he calls Hollywood's "resident existentialist." Casper discusses the post-classical nature of Huston's films, the irony and absurdity that pervade them, and the themes he favors. Whitmore, all too briefly, recalls Huston's crafty directorial style and the intense shyness of Marilyn Monroe, and his colorful comments make us crave more in the same vein. Though a bit more scene specific discussion would make this track more immediate, Casper - with the able assist from Whitmore - provides excellent context and perspective, and enhances our appreciation of this classic motion picture.
- Archival Footage of John Huston (HD, 1 minute) - In this brief clip, Huston assesses 'The Asphalt Jungle' as a "story told from the inside out," one that's "melodramatic in form but not in context," where all the characters have vices.
- Documentary: "Pharos of Chaos" (HD, 119 minutes) - Sterling Hayden was a fascinating figure, and this bizarre, feature-length West German documentary from 1983 really gets under the skin of the 65-year-old actor, writer, activist, wanderer, and explorer and chronicles his long-standing war with himself. Sporting a Captain Ahab beard and often looking a little disoriented, Hayden drinks, smokes, swears, muses, rambles, and pontificates for almost two hours, admitting at one point, "I'm all fucked up." And watching this lengthy stream-of-consciousness film, it's tough to disagree. Hayden addresses such diverse topics as sailing, alcoholism, the evils of capitalism, and his own nervous breakdown. He's alternately charming, incisive, belligerent, withdrawn, and incoherent, but his most riveting comments cover his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which he betrayed some of his colleagues.("I was a shit," he said. "An aboslute, goddamned shit.") The episode haunted him for the rest of his life and contributed to his disdain for Hollywood. Not suprisingly, Hayden doesn't speak much about the movies, but he does recall working with Stanley Kubrick and needing an embarrassing 48 takes to complete a scene in 'Dr. Strangelove.' Of 'The Asphalt Jungle,' he says succinctly, "I didn't know what the fuck I was doing." Strangely riveting, this film on the one hand goes nowhere and on the other paints an illuminating portrait of a tortured spirit still trying to come to terms with his own life. It's tough to slog through, and it's kind of depressing, but it has its rewards.
- Featurette: "Eddie Muller on 'The Asphalt Jungle'" (HD, 24 minutes) - The film noir expert expounds on 'The Asphalt Jungle," calling it "groundbreaking" and the "quintessential crime film." In an affable style, he discusses the neo-realism influence on the film, its male-female relationships, and how it influenced other books and movies. He also lauds the pacing, salutes the novel's author (W.R. Burnett), and applauds how the picture doesn't pander to its audience. Muller makes several cogent points during this piece, which any noir aficionado will find informative and insightful.
- Interview with John Bailey (HD, 20 minutes) - The veteran cinematographer looks at the film's "schizophrenic" visual style and how it combines noir elements with a psychological approach through lighting and staging. In a straightforward manner, Bailey analyzes various shots and setups, reflects on cinematographer Harold Rosson's earlier films and how the unique MGM style influenced him, and discusses the collaborative synchronicity between Huston and Rosson and how World War II impacted Huston as a director.
- Vintage TV Program: 'City Lights' (HD, 48 minutes) - In this 1979 appearance on the television talk show 'City Lights,' director John Huston covers a wide range of topics, including directing his father Walter and daughter Anjelica, the hardships he experienced shooting 'The African Queen,' the lessons he learned watching playwright Eugene O'Neill direct his father, the difficulties he had writing his autobiography, and Marilyn Monroe's unconventional audition for 'The Asphalt Jungle.' Huston is always an engaging presence, and though the scattered nature of this interview is often off-putting, it's a treat to hear his outspoken views and colorful memories.
- "The Huston Method" (HD, 6 minutes) - Set to an array of behind-the-scenes photos, empty set shots, and silent clips from 'The Asphalt Jungle,' this collection of archival audio interviews with Huston features remarks on his filmmaking philosophy, minimalist directing style, and close collaboration with writers and cinematographers. Huston says most of his movies have been "labors of love," and he tries to remain as faithful to the original source material as he can. He also expresses his hatred of background music and desire not to "overdress" his productions, and admits he had no idea Marilyn Monroe would become as successful as she did when he cast her in 'The Ashpalt Jungle.'
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The movie's original preview touts it as the "most powerful picture of the year."
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
There are no high-def exclusives.
Arguably the greatest heist picture in Hollywood history, 'The Asphalt Jungle' remains a tough, probing, and riveting film more than 65 years after it first premiered. Director John Huston masterfully adapts W.R. Burnett's novel and leaves the focus where it needs to be - on the characters. The result is a rich tapestry of damaged and desperate people sewn together by an underlying aura of impending doom. Taut suspense, an engrossing story, seductive visuals, and superior performances from a stellar ensemble cast all combine to create a fascinating portrait of the underworld, and Criterion's Blu-ray presentation honors it with top-notch video and audio transfers and a potent array of absorbing supplements. Forget 'Ocean's Eleven'; 'The Asphalt Jungle' is the real deal and a must-own release for any serious film fan.
- BD-50 Dual-Layer Disc
- 1080p/AVC MPEG-4
- English LPCM Mono
- Audio commentary from 2004 by film historian Drew Casper, featuring recordings of actor James Whitmore
- New interviews with film noir historian Eddie Muller and cinematographer John Bailey
- Archival footage of writer-director John Huston discussing the film
- 'Pharos of Chaos,' a 1983 documentary about actor Sterling Hayden
- Episode of the television program 'City Lights' from 1979 featuring John Huston
- Audio excerpts of archival interviews with Huston
- Excerpts from footage of the 1983 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony honoring Huston, featuring actor Sam Jaffe and the filmmaker
- PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien
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