The Asphalt Jungle(1950)

Directed by John Huston, written by Ben Maddow and John Huston (screenplay), W.R. Burnett (novel)

“Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

A criminal mastermind is released from prison and makes his way to a bookie where he pitches a new job he’s dreamed up. When the particulars are hammered out, the crew assembled and the job in progress, everything starts going south. As these things do.

A lot is at work in the film. One key issue is the incompetence of people out of their element–in this case, the rich. Masters of the universe are revealed as worms when real heat is on.

There’s a sad moment of truth when our mastermind is fleeing the city after everything turned so badly and he stops at a diner where a girl is dancing by the jukebox. Something in his expression… a thousand words. He wanted nothing more than this in his life, the simple pleasure of watching a girl dance, and he tried to get closer to it any way he thought he could. It’s like a misfiring engine. His life could have been so simple, but instead became endlessly complicated when he took the road to becoming one of the most revered planners in the game.

Also, near the end is a stern but impassioned speech by the police commissioner to reporters, defending police work as being 99% honest men trying to do an honest job. He flips through the available active radio channels, leaving each one active so a clamor of people needing help builds in the background:

“We send police assistance to every one of those calls. Because they’re not just code numbers on a radio beam; they’re cries for help. People are being cheated, robbed, murdered, raped. That goes on 24 hours a day, every day in the year. That’s not exceptional; that’s usual. It’s the same in every city of the modern world. But suppose we had no police force, good or bad. Suppose we had (he switches the radio channels off one by one) just silence. Nobody to listen. Nobody to answer. The battle’s finished. The jungle wins.”

It’s a great speech, and he then goes on to be completely wrong about a guy still at large—possibly the most honorable of all the players…

See? It’s not black and white. It’s not even gray. It’s just mistakes, piled on top of each other. Rarely do we glimpse evil, but we deal in it every day. And not all of us are lucky.

The cinematography is gorgeous, so go for the Criterion Blu-ray if you can. The acting in the film is top of the line. Smarminess oozes from some, bluster is unmistakeable in others, and the competence of the crew is assured and subsequently verified. If anyone can pull off the job, they can. But Sterling Hayden… this guys nails it. To a post. Then runs the whole thing over with a train.

This is faultless noir and gets the highest recommendation.

5 stars

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