The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

“There’s nothing so different about them. After all, crime in only a left-handed form of human endeavor.””

‘The Asphalt Jungle’, directed by John Huston in 1950, is an American film noir starring Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe and Jean Hagen. Jaffe plays Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider, a newly released prisoner who builds a gang to steal jewellery. He hires a team including a safe-cracker, a driver and a heavy to carry out the heist, but after the crime has been committed, the team turns in on itself and the cops get ever closer to them. Forming the third part of an unofficial trilogy with Huston’s earlier films ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and ‘The Treasure of Sierra Madre’, ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ is an early example of the caper genre, one in which the lines between the police and the criminal; between protagonist and antagonist are blurred. The moral liquidity here is reminiscent of the earlier gangster films such as ‘Scarface’ or ‘Little Caesar‘, but you get the feeling that ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ is it a tipping point between the pre-Hays code dark Hollywood thrillers, and the slick, cool and ironic French New Wave movies of Godard, indeed the film ends with a similar moment to the main character in ‘Breathless’. There is a pleasure to be had with the interactions and eccentricities of the large cast, almost as dysfunctional as the team in the Ealing comedy ‘The Ladykillers’. It’s made with precision and an almost preternatural feeling for light and shade, but the highlight is the sense of inevitable failure and almost apocalyptic feeling of doom that suffuses the film.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s short and punchy. Watch with ‘Breathless’ for a sense of where Godard drew inspiration, or ‘The Ladykillers’ for the same story but with a delirious tone.

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