Why is The Asphalt Jungle the mack daddy of all caper films? It’s co-written and directed by John Huston, who made the criminally good classics Key Largo and The Maltese Falcon. It’s based on a book by W.R. Burnett, who established his street cred with Little Caesar and High Sierra. It’s packed with underrated actors delivering peak performances: Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, Sam Jaffe, Louis Calhern, and a newbie named Marilyn Monroe, swiping every scene as a shady lawyer’s mistress, three years before she hit it big.
You would expect a gritty pic about a million-dollar jewel heist to come from Warner Bros., where Bogie, Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson shot to fame (pun intended) playing gun-toting punks. But Asphalt was actually produced by MGM, moonlighting from its usual slate of musicals and rom-coms to surf the popular wave of film noir. The script also puts a fresh spin on movie crooks: These thugs aren’t just mugs packing heat, they’re professionals who take pride in their work, whether it’s cracking safes, driving getaway cars, or double-crossing suckers.
Too bad MGM boss Louis B. Mayer loathed the final product: "It's trash. That Asphalt Pavement [sic] thing is full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty things. I wouldn't cross the street to see a picture like that.” One can easily imagine the tantrum Mayer threw when Asphalt turned a measly $40,000 profit, yet this 1950 “flop” scored Oscar nominations for Best Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, and Supporting Actor (Jaffe earned the nod as Doc, the ex-con mastermind behind the crime).
One of my favorite parts of the flick is the dialogue, which snaps, crackles, and pops like a good thriller should. I’ll tease you with several “Wish-I-wrote-em” lines, below. Then, you should stream The Asphalt Jungle asap (available on Amazon Prime or YouTube...don’t make me come to your house!):
Doc: Experience has taught me never to trust a policeman. Just when you think one's all right, he turns legit.
Cobby: How can things go so wrong? One man killed, two others plugged. I'm out 30 grand. We got a load of ‘rocks’ we can't even peddle. Dix: Quit crying and get me some bourbon.
Doc: Finally, sad to say, we need a hooligan. Most of these fellas are drug addicts. They're a no-good lot. Violence is all they know, but they are, unfortunately, necessary.
Emmerich: After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.
Ciavelli: If you want fresh air, don't look for it in this town!
Cobby: He'll take the heat and won't flap his lip. Doc: Get hold of him.
Doc: Take my word for it, Mr. Emmerich. This is a ripe plum ready to fall. Emmerich: I don't want promises, I want cash.
Dr. Swanson: Well, he won't get very far, that's for sure. He hasn't got enough blood left in him to keep a chicken alive.