John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” was one of the first great heist films, paving the way for “Rififi,” “Bob Le Flambeur” and later “Ocean’s 11” and a ton more.
But those viewers used to the fun of a heist movie will be surprised by how melancholy “The Asphalt Jungle,” now out in a new Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, Consider the end of Steven Soderbergh’s “11” remake, where Danny Ocean and his 10 confederates take a moment in front of the fountains at the Bellagio, “Clare de Lune” playing, to wordlessly celebrate a job well done before they smile and part ways.
In “Jungle,” there is no such moment of victory. Each of the conspirators play out their own string separately, ending in quiet failure, alone, the world largely indifferent.
Set in an unnamed Midwestern city (it was filmed in Cincinnati), the caper to steal over a million dollars in jewels is masterminded by Doc (Sam Jaffe), an avuncular German just out of prison. He gets wealthy lawyer Emmerich (Louis Calhern) to agree to fund the robbery and fence the jewels afterwards. The team includes a getaway driver (James Whitmore), a safecracker (Anthony Caruso) and some muscle in the form of Dix (Sterling Hayden), a snarling ex-country boy who hopes to buy his family’s horse farm back with the proceeds.
But what we know even before the heist begins, but the players don’t, is that Emmerich is deep in debt and plans to double cross the team after the heist is over. That foreknowledge adds an air of fatalism to the movie’s crisp 11-minute heist sequence, in which the criminals meticulously and flawlessly steal the jewels. Well, almost meticulously — the safecracker is accidentally gutshot during a skirmish with a policeman.
That one mishap ends up spelling doom for the entire team, and the real tension in “The Asphalt Jungle” is watching how, one by one, they fail. Each man’s fate is like it’s own mordant little short story. Emmerich is found out by the police and ends up taking his own life, but not before writing a tender suicide note to his wife — and then tearing it to bits. A bleeding Dix makes it back to the horse farm, and dies in the pasture, the horses idly sniffing at his corpse.
And, in the ending that haunts me the most, Doc very nearly gets away when he inexplicably gets distracted by a teenage girl dancing in a roadhouse, giving the cops the precious few minutes they need to catch up with him. In the end, law enforcement seems to play a very minor role in the film and in the criminals’ capture — what gets them in the end is their own human nature, the weaknesses and obsessions they can’t get away scot-free from.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray looks exceptional, capturing how Huston and cinematographer Harold Rosson mix empty, expressionistic long shots of the city with tight, claustrophobic shots of the conspirators in small rooms, their faces often looming into the foreground. The Criterion disc also includes a lengthy inteview with film noir historian Eddie Muller and a commentary track from historian Drew Casper, along with archival interviews with Huston.
In the end, what’s so striking about “The Asphalt Jungle” isn’t the clockwork heist at its center, but the tenderness with which the film treats these tough, doomed men. After all, as Emmerich says ruefully, “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”