Film-Forward Review: [THE ASPHALT JUNGLE]


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Directed by: John Huston.
Produced by: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Written by: Ben Maddow & John Huston, based on the novel by W.R. Burnett.
Director of Photography: Harold Rosson.
Edited by: George Boemler.
Music by: Miklós Rósza.
Released by: Warner Home Video.
Country of Origin: USA. 112 min. Not Rated.
With: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe & Marilyn Monroe.
DVD Features: Commentary by USC Cinema History Professor Drew Casper & actor James Whitmore. Introduction by John Huston. Trailer. English & French audio. English, French & Spanish subtitles.

This 1950 crime caper is a superbly-crafted heist movie, and remains a model of efficient cinematic storytelling. Ostensibly a pulpy genre work, the film details the carrying out of a jewel robbery by a ragtag group of thieves. It initially has the feel of a naturalistically-chronicled police procedural (due in large part to Miklós Rósza's score, which is used sparingly over the course of the film). Gradually, the film emerges to be not only an anatomy of a crime and its unraveling, but a quietly evocative meditation on fate.

With its play of light and shadow, The Asphalt Jungle eloquently conveys the ambiguity the viewer feels at certain moments toward the anti-heroes, and the sense of instability that permeates their environment, with all its double-crossing and police corruption. Its staccato, razor-sharp dialogue contains quite a few hilarious and memorable one-liners. And the engaging ensemble cast of robbers include a lecherous criminal mastermind played with gusto by Sam Jaffe (especially in a later scene as perverse today as it must have been in 1950), and Louis Calhern as the lawyer financing the operation, a poignantly broken man. Also deserving mention is Marilyn Monroe in her breakthrough performance as the lawyer's mistress and Dorothy Tree in the sympathetic role of the lawyer's wife.

DVD Extras: James Whitmore, who plays the hunchbacked Gus, provides a few compelling anecdotes on the commentary track, such as Huston's quipping to him, when Whitmore first started getting into character, that the actor resembled "a towel boy in a Mexican whorehouse." Later, Whitmore paradoxically refers to Monroe as one of the shyest people he ever met.

Film professor Drew Casper provides insightful thoughts on Huston's innovativeness as a director, chief among these being the Hemingwayesque nature of his dialogue; the fully fleshed-out backstories of each major character (unusual for a heist film); and how Huston's brush with death early in life led to an emphasis on risk, both as a theme in his films and in his life.

Most significantly, though, Casper deems Huston to be Hollywood's post-war "resident existentialist," devising movies with a post-classical structure that posited the world as absurd and meaningless - an attitude then contrary to the conventional tradition of the studio system. Specifically, Casper places this film in the context of the production history at MGM, enthusiastically wondering at and admiring that a movie of a supposed low-brow genre was made under the banner of Tinseltown's most prestigious studio. He cites this development as heralding the end of Louis B. Mayer's reign as studio chief. Reymond Levy
September 1, 2004



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