The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

John Huston | 1hr 52min

Beneath a low-hanging lamp in a shady room, four men gather around a floor plan spread across a small table. The smoke from their cigarettes wafts through the beam of light shining directly down upon their faces, while above them darkness cloaks their covert discussion in a thick air of sheltered secrecy. There is no mistaking the expressionistic lighting, low angles, and rigid blocking for being anything other than watermarks of film noir, which John Huston himself had a hand in kick-starting some nine years earlier, but he is also doing far more than just doubling back on old tricks from The Maltese Falcon. The Asphalt Jungle breaks noir convention in being neither a hardboiled detective story, nor the tale of one man’s descent into corruption, as it instead develops into a tight, sharp heist movie, following the exploits and comeuppance of a skilled gang of crooks destined to fail by nature of their own inevitable flaws, and the cruelty of a fatalistic universe.

Huston arranges his actors in tight formations like these, using the lighting from low-hanging lamps to emphasise the claustrophobia.

Beyond its inexorable influence on virtually every future caper movie, from the films of Jean-Pierre Melville to Quentin Tarantino, The Asphalt Jungle sets a perfectionistic standard of plotting that has rarely been topped. The 12-minute heist scene itself is a masterclass in tension from Huston, equalling even Hitchcock in its patient long takes that follow key items around the room, the careful detail of each intricate step unfolding in close to real time, and the editing between each crew member performing their roles, all the while quietly managing their anxiety. Outside these walls, the “asphalt jungle” of the city is implied in the grimy hardships endured by working class criminals looking to make a fortune, but in this jewellery store, the obstacles take on literal significance. Here, it is relatively easy to slip beneath the electric eye, and to hammer through brick walls, as these physical barriers do little to stand in the way of men used to far greater challenges.

Always an emphasis on the painstaking, methodical detail of the heist, building up the fragile importance every single action.

But there is no such thing as a completely watertight plan in this world of tragically flawed humans, and all it takes is the unintentional disruption of the city’s power grid to start shifting everything off course. From this point on, Huston expands our perspective a little so we may watch both sides of the following cat-and-mouse chase, further driving in the sharp tension of the piece by revealing the exhilarating proximity with which they scrape by each other. Even in the tightest of situations, the nimble lies and improvisations of these crooks are still not enough to compensate for their shortcomings in the long run.

Chiaroscuro lighting all through this cat-and-mouse chase, as the law slowly closes in around the thieves.

Just as the mastermind of the heist, “Doc” Riedenschneider, thinks he has finally gotten away, he pauses for a few extra minutes at an out-of-town diner to watch a young girl dance to a jukebox. Had he left even slightly earlier and rejected the temptation of his lustful thoughts, perhaps he might have been able to evade the police officers turning up during the song. The only difference between freedom and capture is “about as long as it takes to play a phonograph record,” Doc wryly notes, recognising the weak minds of both himself and his captor who lingered for the same reason. Evidently, human vulnerabilities lie on both sides of the law.

“We’ll get the last one too,” Commissioner Hardy claims when Dix becomes the only man left for them to catch, though he doesn’t seem to be speaking so much on behalf of the police force as he is for the laws of a universe looking to restore balance and order. This is the last we see of Hardy, but in true noir fashion even when Dix is beyond the grasp of the law, his own sins and wounds fatefully catch up with him. Stumbling into the bright sunlight of the country estate he grew up on as a child, he mentally regresses back to a time when his innocence was still intact, collapsing in the farm’s open fields. In the closing shot as Huston pulls his camera back from the horses nuzzling Dix’s body, some twisted form of tragic hope is restored – hope that he finally managed to find some peace, far away from the dark unscrupulousness of the asphalt jungle.

Throwing shadows across faces in tightly framed close-ups as we approach the climax.

The Asphalt Jungle is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

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