Wednesday, November 08, 2006

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE - heist-noir "classic" has weathered badly

Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one's all right, he turns legit.  The conventional wisdom seems to be that John Huston's 1950 noir-heist movie, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, is a pantheon movie. Not only a classic, it seems to inspire reviewers to bring out the most florid superlatives and tortured metaphors. The BBC revierer calls it "a biting, bitter espresso of a movie"; Variety praises its "ironic realism"; in The Guardian, Andrew Pulver claims it is "a Brechtian ode to the urban wasteland"; Philip French calls it "possibly the greatest heist thriller ever." By contrast, Bina007 - a firm fan of film-noir, heist movies AND John Huston, declares THE ASPHALT JUNGLE more boring than a very boring thing. To put this in perspective, I like, nay, love, cricket, possibly the most boring sport ever invented, so I know whereof I speak.

Now, THE ASHPHALT JUNGLE is not a bad film. In fact, it's really well-made. It's an intelligent, talky movie, that rejects glamour and unrealistic capers for a gritty, crime procedural. Cinematic genius, John Huston, crafts a tight script full of twists, turns, double-crosses and snappy one-liners from the novel by W.R.Burnett (the guy behind the screenplay for THE GREAT ESCAPE.) The really NEW thing about the film when it was first released was that it dared to tell a story about criminals who looked and acted like your average boring old middle-aged men and who lived in depressingly ordinary dingy apartments. The movie DARED to just spend time with differing sets of people just sitting around talking in dingy rooms.

To that end, it cast character actors rather than big Hollywood stars of the Bogart variety. The movie stars Sam Jaffe (sadly best known for being a victim of McCarthy's Red Lists) as a criminal master-mind called Doc Erwin Riedenschneider. (Now that's a Gene Wilder character waiting to happen!) The Doc may look like just another sad old man, but he's planning one last audacious jewel heist before retiring to Mexico where he can fondle pretty young women. He assembles a squad of similarly anonymous-looking men to pull off the heist - a fence, a safe-cracker, some muscle...Louis Calhern plays the fence, Alonzo Emerich - an old man with a sinister relationship to his "niece" - a cameo debut for Marilyn Monroe. The muscle is provided by an improbably named man called Dix Handley. Dix is played by Sterling Hayden, probably best known to modern viewers as General Jack D. Ripper, the man who looks scarily like Dubya and was petrified that Communists were after his precious bodily fluids in DR STRANGELOVE.

The actors are all fine as is the editing (George Boehmer and deceptively simple, austere black and white photography by Harold Rosson. What little we hear of the orchestral score by Miklós Rózsa is also fine, but for the most part the realistic tone of the movie is maintained by having no formal score - just "natural" sound effects.

The problem is that everything is fine but pedestrian. To modern eyes and ears what little action there is is spread too thin and the supposedly ground-breaking psychological insights look a little out-dated in the wake of movies such as THE GODFATHER and INFERNAL AFFAIRS. Even the twists and turns look quaint compared to THE USUAL SUSPECTS - a movie that was evidently heavily influenced by THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. And this brings me to the rub. If you're an hnest punter looking for a good
night out, you probably won't enjoy THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. It's just too slow and too - well - obvious in its plotting - for jaded, modern viewers. Fans of film history aside, the movie has aged too badly to hold the general audience's interest. Its ordinariness was once its novelty - now it is its failing.

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE was originally released in 1950. It is currently on re-release in the UK. The movie is also available on DVD but be careful you're not getting the colourised version - unless of course you're delusional and actually WANT the colourised version.

1 comment:

  1. I love this film and watch it often. I saw it earlier this year at the Noir City in San Francisco. The audience appreciated the film