Movie Review: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

What did I watch? The Asphalt Jungle, a noir heist thriller from 1950.

Who’s in it? Sterling Hayden, iconic and controversial actor of the 50’s, and some serious actors like Academy nominees and winners James Whitmore and Jean Hagen. There’s also-

OMG is that Marilyn Monroe? Yes. She’s in it, but there’s also Sam Jaffe, who was nominated for an Academy Award for this movie, and-

MARILYN MONROE! Sheesh, stop. She’s in it for a few minutes.

The Asphalt Jungle is a crime story based on a book of the same name. It’s fondly remembered (nominated for four Academy Awards) and has influenced a number of heist movies, including (supposedly) the brilliant Raffifi.

Hayden is a thug, a dumbed down version of his other criminal characters from movies like The Killing. Here he uses his powers of being a loud piece of meat to stand still and maybe hit someone while lesser known actors (at least today, and definitely to me, sorry) plot the theft, carry it out, and then backstab each other. Hayden still stands there for the most part. Also he has a girlfriend who dotes on him while he tells her to shut up and make coffee.

Also, Marilyn Monroe is in it.

An elderly man gets out of jail and seeks an audience with a lawyer to help him find criminals to rob a jewelry store, and finance it. The lawyer agrees, but withholds that he himself is broke, and gets another criminal to prepare a double cross once the heist is done.

Well, anyway, the crime nearly goes off without a hitch, with the sole hitch being Hayden punches a cop, the cop drops his revolver, and the revolver goes off and mortally wounds their safecracker. Oops! From there, the team falls one by one. Hayden & the old man go to the lawyer whose criminal pal enacts their double cross, which is basically holding Hayden & the old man at gunpoint. The other criminal and Hayden shoot each other and now the lawyer has to get his hands dirty disposing of one body while the old man planner and an injured Hayden try to sneak out of a city full of cops on the hunt.

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It’s dramatic and slow, and nearly every character is shown to have a lot at stake, with the exception of Hayden, who is just an oaf whose sole motivation is to buy back the family farm and horses, he tells his girlfriend. It’s also pretty slow. There’s also very little music. I think the only time I heard music is during a scene at a diner where kids are dancing to a jukebox, and “The End” music at…the end.

Lunkhead Hayden is the least interesting of these characters, and I feel for his delusional girlfriend who wants to make him happy by being supportive of his criminal endeavor, despite that it’s obviously a go-nowhere plan that ending in arrest would be the best result (SPOILER: it doesn’t). Their relationship is almost comical in contrast to what the rest of the crime crew has to go through, and whose lives they touch that are now ruined.

One scene that stands out is a lecture from the police commissioner giving a press conference as most of the criminal dominoes have fallen. It’s a stern reminder, slightly more fun than a public service message that almost feels wedged into a dark crime tale, that there’s a web of support there to help people victimized by the dominoes whether they fall or not. That’s my terrible metaphor, not the film’s.

So, was it good? It was okay. Hey, four Academy Awards, who do I think I am by saying it was just “okay?” It was kind of boring. Does the movie focus so much on the most boring character because it’s played by the most popular actor of the movie? Is the thug with little to say (other than he wants to hear about the ponies) our proxy because he’s such a blank slate?

And Marilyn Monroe? She’s the lawyer’s mistress who keeps calling him “Uncle.” She has like two or three scenes. She looks great, of course, and nowadays is the focus of any image shared these days.

Is there anything about the actors other than Hayden or Monroe that could be a biopic crazier than a jewel heist that goes horribly wrong? Uh, John Huston the director made a lot of classic movies like The Maltese Falcon. He moved out of the country briefly in the 50’s as a protest to HUAC. So, you know, one of the greatest directors of American cinema dedicated to great stories and visuals. This is a good movie that seems tame compared to his other movies and by some of the movies it inspired.

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