Even though he has a towering reputation, in some ways I think John Huston is still a slightly underrated director who is viewed as somewhat more of a studio hack, albeit a really bloody good one, rather than a man with a truly great artistic vision. Upon viewing The Asphalt Jungle (1950) I became even more convinced that he is definitely the latter.
The Asphalt Jungle is a heist film, following a fresh out of jail con as he puts together a big jewellery store job. The film shows the entire process as the ringleader sets about finding the start-up cash and the right team to pull off the job. This is a really interesting part of the film, feeling like a genuine insight into the machinery that sits behind a heist such as this. The heist itself actually comes midway through the film and it is once it has taken place that the intrigue really starts up. The crosses and double crosses amongst the gang and the machinations and issues with dividing up the loot that take place are clearly influential on a huge number of crime films that would follow in the decades to come. Given that the film was made under the Hays Code, it is no spoiler to say that they do not get away with it in the end. But it is a tribute to the script that even under these harsh, restricted times, the ending of the film is not that simple. In many ways the character of Dix has a happy ending, finally getting back ‘home’.
Sometimes when watching a film, one thought dominates my thoughts about it. In this case, my notes were dominated by the word ‘edge’. There is just such a hard fuckin edge to this film. The script surely contains one of the absolute greatest couple of hours of dialogue ever committed to the page (and then transferred to the screen). The dialogue is non stop incredible with a streetwise feel to it, like it was stolen from a classic hardboiled novel or something like that. Everything about the film lives up to that too. The characters, their interactions, the acting that brings all of this to life. The characters themselves are really interesting and the film does a really impressive job of drawing out some of the human and family undercurrents that motivate them. This never becomes the focus of the film, but it allows the viewer to see and know what is driving each of these characters. Huston gets in on the action too. The film is quite beautifully shot and every single scene is quite thoughtfully framed as well. There is something else about the film that just feels really cool. An atmosphere that is generated by all of the intangibles, one soaked in gambling, drink, women, cigarettes and coffee. Not to mention the brilliant title that you can’t help but think of as you watch the film, especially when it draws out ideas of the difference between the city and the country and the different types of jungle that occur in the modern world (well 1950s world, but still today too).
The dialogue in this film is absolutely all time. A heist film, with just a hint of noir, in its execution rather than its themes, I really highly recommend this film. Great acting and an even greater script make this a truly satisfying crime caper.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
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