Friday, January 1, 2016

Before I Die #561: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

This is the 561st that I've watched of the 1,172 films on the "Before You Die" List that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: John Huston

A decent enough noir flick, but one that I'm a bit surprised is held in such high esteem.

The basic tale focuses on a bank heist, masterminded by a recently paroled master thief, Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe). Doc arrives in a new city, where he quickly gets to work assembling a small crew who will help him pull off his long-planned score. The gang he gathers includes the safe-cracker Louis Ciavelli, the gunman Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), and the driver Gus Minissi. Doc has his plot bankrolled by a shady lawyer, Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern). The heist begins well enough, but multiple complication start to arise, between one crew member being shot by police, and the entire gang being double-crossed by Emmerich.

In terms of noir crime plots, The Asphalt Jungle is solid, if not completely novel. It seems a sort of hybrid between 1946's The Killers and 1948's The Killing (noir films weren't noted for originality in their titles). In fact, the latter film also starred Sterling Hayden, who is also the key player in Jungle. The familiarity of the story and tone robbed the movie of some of its edge for me. Still, the suspense as the heist unfolds is on par with some of the very best crime movies.

Dix (far left) and Riedenschneider (far right) display their
spoils to their ostensible patron, the oily Emmerich.
I found the characters varyingly engaging. Doc Riedenschneider is certainly the most unique and entertaining of the lot. A quirky and brilliant old thief with a weakness for young ladies is bound to be entertaining, and he is. The primary character Dix, however, I found rather dull compared to other classic noir protagonists. There is some complexity beneath his gruff exterior, but he's still rather simple. Sterling Hayden is an all-time great stoic, but it robbed the character of some intrigue. Most others in the film are fairly shallow, though acted well enough.

The classic noir era of the 1940s and '50s provided me with some of my absolute favorite movies. I still watch Double Indemnity and Out of the Past every few years with growing love and appreciation. Checking out another touted film from the era like The Asphalt Jungle was enjoyable, but I can't put it in the same class as those other masterpieces.