The Asphalt Jungle is filled with clichés: a criminal with a moral code, a double crossing millionaire with a blonde bombshell mistress, a crooked cop, and a heist that goes wrong. In the hand’s of another director, all of this would add up to an unmemorable waste of two hours, but John Huston, known for his alcohol guzzling, gives The Asphalt Jungle the existentialist kick it needs to become one of the greats.
The movie was made during Huston’s existentialist period right after World War II. Two years before, he partnered his father Walter Huston and Humphrey Bogart on an ill-fated treasure hunt in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Huston signed up for war along with John Ford, Frank Capra and other famed directors and actors immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Huston came back home battle scarred and directed Let There Be Light (1946) a documentary following soldiers who had suffered emotional or mental trauma from the war. For Huston questions needed to be asked, but surely never answered. He could’ve made a movie on Sartre, but he put his doubts and fears into the minds of his characters that lived in the alleyways and bars where the sun don’t shine and everyone is a suspect. I guess the police can never tell who is a criminal because, if the movie is to be believed, every male wears a fedora and trench coat.
We meet our not so illustrious hero, Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) as he is arrested by two cops who shove him into a line up. Handley’s dream is to return to his idyllic farm in Kentucky that was sold during the Great Depression. He is honest as honest as a criminal can be. He pays back his debts and takes care of his friends. He lets Doll (Jean Hagen) stay in his apartment one night when she has nowhere to go. Doll is crazy about Dix, you can see it in her eyes every time she looks at him. Unfortunately Dix is either too narcissistic or impotent to act on Doll’s affection.
Dix joins Doctor Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) the criminal mastermind to rob diamonds. The cut would give him the financial autonomy to return to his beloved farm. The robbery is financed by a secretly bankrupt millionaire who plans to run away from his debts. Everyone in the film is looking to escape from the urban cage in which they are trapped.The burglars and bimbos depicted in Huston’s film try to cut through the vines that imprison them to their present existence to return or escape to a paradise that awaits them just beyond the murky depths of the Hudson River.
P.S.: look for Marilyn Monroe as Emmerich’s mistress