I have never heard of “The Asphalt Jungle” before. The title intrigued me and had me asking – will I be treated to a dark rocky story reeking of burnt rubber? Amazingly, the movie somehow lives up to its name. The 1950 black and white film is set on an unnamed Midwest city – smoggy and foreboding. The streets might be lifeless and dull, but you sense the bustling of lawbreakers on the hidden corners.

The movie follows a heist – from the meticulous planning to the erroneous aftermath. Just got out of prison, Doc Riedenschneider, a small man with a heavy German accent, has a “foolproof” plan in stealing some jewels. But his plan won’t come into fruition without funding and abled bodied men with certain skills. But of course, adding humans to the equation does not make that plan foolproof anymore. Honor among thieves? Pssh, not in this story, bud.

What I loved about “The Asphalt Jungle” is that it is a great ensemble movie. Today, we’re spoiled with character actors, but back then, Hollywood was about its stars. There is no real lead actor in the film. The talented cast is in service of the story. There are a couple of good performances. I liked Sam Jaffe as the German mastermind and Loius Calhem as the double-crossing Emmerich. But perhaps my favorite is Marilyn Monroe. She is in a very minor role, but damn, she is the paragon of a scene stealer.

Perhaps the star of the film is the man behind the camera. Director John Huston composes a textured film, with characters caught up in their own flaws. I also like the way he frames his shots and paints a visual play of shadows (a film noir signature). I also liked its nitty-gritty story – where not one character is portrayed in good light. I just find these kind of tales so robust and fascinating. (I recommend Dashiell Hammett’s lean novel Red Harvest, which I devoured last year). “The Asphalt Jungle” is a great movie. It’s rough on the surface, but lays out one smooth ride. This caper is a keeper.

Grade: A-

Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Marilyn Monroe, and Sam Jaffe
Based on the novel by
W. R. Burnett
Written by
Ben Maddow
John Huston
Directed by
John Huston