The Asphalt Jungle ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I never knew that Paramount Studios advertised Sterling Hayden as “The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies”. He was 25 years old at the time. When The Asphalt Jungle came out, he was 34, and I don’t know what Paramount called him at that point. He was still pretty, but he snarled a lot, which served to cover up the essential decency of his character, Dix, the muscle on a team of jewel thieves. The Asphalt Jungle is very well cast, which makes it easy to establish character. But Hayden is the best of them all.

John Huston directed some all-time classics in the 1940s, including The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He was nominated for a Best Director Oscar four times, including The Asphalt Jungle (winning for Sierra Madre). He also got an Oscar nom for the screenplay for Asphalt Jungle. All of which suggests The Asphalt Jungle might be a classic on the level of a Maltese Falcon.

It’s not. It’s very good ... the word that best describes it is “efficient”. Outside of a moronic speech about good cops that feels squeezed in, the terse dialogue does the job and is finely delivered by the cast. I’m not a big Marilyn Monroe fan, but she does great with her big speech near the end. Again, the casting helps ... it’s as if the lines were written for Hayden and Sam Jaffe and the rest. Jean Hagen is also good, two years before Singin' in the Rain.

It’s very much of a piece with other Huston films, with its emphasis on revealing character through actions and its examination of male codes of honor. We like the “bad guys” here, because Huston likes them. I suppose for some, the fine line between an Asphalt Jungle and a Maltese Falcon is small indeed. But for me, while I think it’s better than some of Huston’s more underrated films like The Bible or The Man Who Would Be King, it just misses the pantheon.