So I have to confess to feeling a bit tricked by this film. Some of its posters floating around prominently feature Marilyn Monroe but in fact she only has a very minor role here. I also thought that this was a noir but it’s really more of a heist film. It was directed by John Huston whose most famous work is probably The Maltese Falcon that we watched only recently.
A notorious criminal mastermind Riedenschneider is released from prison and wastes no time in setting up his next big job. He approaches a bookie named Cobby in order to raise the needed funds. Cobby is uncomfortable with the large amount of money needed and pulls in Emmerich, a lawyer, to provide the financing and fence the goods. Together they hire the rest of the crew: Louie the safecracker, Gus the getaway driver and Dix, the muscle. Unknown to the rest of the team is that Emmerich is actually broke, having spent his money on a young mistress. He brings in muscle of his own to snatch the stolen goods, which turn out to be precious metals and jewellery from a famous jewelers shop. During the night of the heist, despite Riedenschneider’s carefully laid plans, they are discovered earlier than expected and Louie is shot. Things only get worse when they confront Emmerich who doesn’t have the money he promised.
All this makes The Asphalt Jungle sound like a fairly standard heist film and not a noir at all. There is after all no mystery involved at all and the focus is squarely on the criminals and not a private investigator or the police. The thing to remember about heist films however is that since the criminals are the protagonists, the audience is expected to sympathize with them and so the director does just that. Dix turns out to be farm-boy who just wants to earn enough money to buy back his family farm. Louie is a devoted family man. Gus is loyal to his friends. Riedenschneider is genuinely brilliant and actively avoids bloodshed, even refusing to carry a gun when one is offered to him. The dynamics between them are great, especially the mutual admiration that develops between Riedenschneider and Dix as fellow professionals despite the fact that their personalities are polar opposites. The closest thing this film has to a villain is Emmerich who is unlike the rest in that while they are all blue collar types, he is visibly rich with expensive tastes and speaks in a refined, polite fashion.
Of course filmmakers of that era weren’t allowed to portray criminals as being good guys, nor could they be shown to get away with crimes. So there’s a morally upright police commissioner who is both competent and absolutely incorruptible. The film even ends with a scene that is tonally at odds with everything else in the film, as it is a speech by the commissioner about how the police vigilantly upholds justice. I found this more amusing than annoying especially as the moral flaws they assign to some of the characters actually humanizes them. Riedenschneider admits to having a weakness for pretty girls though he is never shown to actually be abusive to women. I found it actually endearing that he is shown as a rational thinker and is himself aware of his own flaw.
Overall I found The Asphalt Jungle to be a very enjoyable heist film. It’s also a bit unusual in that the crime itself takes place not towards the end of the film but around the middle. The second half of the film consists mostly of the crew being hunted by the police and provides plenty of tension. It wasn’t at all what I expected going in and Monroe’s role in it is so minor as to be non-existent but it’s still a very fun watch.