The Asphalt Jungle ★★★★½

I have to admit that I was a bit predisposed to like this movie, I might say even giddy. It stars Sterling Hayden, and he plays two of my favourite characters in two of my favourite films; The Killing, and Dr. Strangelove. While it could be argued, successfully, that he plays the same character every time, I don’t really care. I just love his no nonsense tough guy delivery. Probably even more than James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart.

The first thing that struck me was the absence of score. Beyond the opening, there is none. The second thing that struck me was the sumptuous cinematography. This is a master plying his trade. This is the best looking and photographed Noir I’ve seen to date. The third thing that struck me was the almost complete lack of, er, suspense. Everything is laid bare. It’s almost as if the plot and suspense was reduced just to accommodate the characters and the performances of the actors who portrayed them. So, the only things I’ll comment on here are the characters, and my impressions of them.

Well, let’s start with Sterling Hayden. All Noirs need an everyman, someone the audience can grapple onto and judge the rest of the characters by their example. You have to be tough, have flaws, have regrets, and you have to have some moral compass and a dream. All these ingredients were in Dix Handley’s character, and Hayden executed them perfectly. His manner of speech is just so compelling.

Now onto Louis Calhern. You must have a corrupt character. One whose flaws outweigh any positive attributes. Make him a philanderer, better yet, MAKE HIM A LAWYER! His controlled, even handed, performance was exceptional.

Ok, Jean Hagen. You’ve gotta have a Doll. While this is just so terribly sexist, Noir was sexist. Her devotion to Dix was palpable. Unfortunately, this is all that is required from this character. In some ways, I wish there was a ‘modern Noir’, maybe one where the Guy was a Doll and the Doll was a Guy. Maybe there is and I just haven’t found it.

Of course you need a true friend for the protagonist. The legendary ( well, maybe not at that time ) James Whitmore portrays Gus with a calm and gentle presence. There is no question about his loyalty to Dix, and what he would sacrifice to help him. There is no real back story, but somehow you just understand it.

Sam Jaffe as the Doc. Cold intelligence and greed. A man who knows he can outsmart all who deal with him, but has his own fatal flaw. Of course fatal flaws are debts that have to be paid, and his final speech makes us understand that he recognizes this fact completely.

John McIntire as the Police Commissioner. Well, you need an absolute and judgemental moral compass. He fits the bill.

Mark Lawrence. All Noirs need a weasel who wants to climb the ladder. I’m just so amazed how Mr. Lawrence can ‘sweat on demand’. His is quintessential smarminess. . I just kept thinking about John Cazale, and how if this film was remade, and Mr. Cazale was still alive, it would be a match in heaven.

Alight, now Marilyn. This isn’t Marilyn. It’s an embryonic Marilyn. A proto Marilyn. I have to say that I really think she played the character well. I believed it 100%. Fully formed Marilyn would never have worked in this part. She really came across as naive, and I found her ‘do I still get the trip’ comment somehow rather touching.

A final nod to Jack Warden. One of my favourite B character actors. I can’t elucidate because I simply didn’t recognize him. I just read afterwards that he was in it, and it made me smile
My one and two Noirs still remain as Rififi and The Killing, but this just might be number 3 right now. I’m pretty sure Mr. Kubrick had watched this a few zillion times before tackling The Killing.

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