A minor classic of film noir and one of the earliest heist capers, The Asphalt Jungle gets a welcome re-release this week to coincide with the NFT's John Huston retrospective. This tale of a jewel theft gone wrong is notable for its gritty procedural detail and an emphasis on the inner lives of the small time crooks, expertly played by Sterling Hayden and Sam Jaffe. It also features a brief but star-making appearance by the young Marilyn Monroe.
The story is a familiar one, perhaps because it has been copied so many times since. On his release from prison, criminal mastermind Doc Reidenschneider (the Oscar-nominated Jaffe) immediately begins recruiting hoods for his plot to rip off a jewellery store. His team includes Hayden's snarling stick-up artist, who dreams of returning to the Kentucky farm life of his youth. The heist itself is quickly dealt with; the meat of the film concerns the relentless double-crossing that follows.
"GRIMY BEAUTY OF THE UNDERWORLD"
As usual with Huston, greed and a yearning for the unattainable brings each character to his downfall. Doc wants to retire to Mexico and ogle the girls. His fence and bankroller (a brilliantly self loathing performance from Louis Calhern) wants to run away with his mistress (Monroe). The key to all their aspirations is a bag of gems which, much like the eponymous statue in Huston's The Maltese Falcon, prove to be unusable. Shot with an eye for the grimy beauty of the underworld and utterly merciless to its characters, The Asphalt Jungle is a biting, bitter espresso of a movie.