“The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) starring Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, & Marilyn Monroe

Doc: One way or another, we all work for our vice.

This much-loved and critically-acclaimed crime drama (released June 1st 70 yrs ago) barely broke even at the box-office. MGM only earned $40,000 according to studio records and Louis B. Mayer hated it. Critic Thom Andersen noted it as an example of “film gris,” a sub-category of film noir w/ a left-wing narrative. It was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Director and Screenplay. Since its release, it has been remade three times and its realistic storyline copied in many films. There is an ensemble cast- something rare in the 1950s.

Emmerich: …crime is only… a left-handed form of human endeavor.

Director John Huston first met actor Sterling Hayden in DC, during a protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation of “subversives” in the film. Huston said: “I’ve admired you for a long time, Sterling. They don’t know what to make of a guy like you in this business.” Huston was honest with Hayden about his chance for the lead role. Hayden landed the role of Handley, his first major starring role (over the objection of MGM chief Dore Schary). Hayden’s gritty performance proved naysayers flat wrong. According to Huston, Hayden didn’t have anything to worry about: “The next time somebody says you can’t act, tell them to call Huston.”

Dix: Why don’t you quit cryin’ and get me some bourbon?

When an intelligent criminal, Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), is released from prison, he seeks a $50K investment from bookmaker Cobby (Marc Lawrence) to recruit a gang of specialists for a $1M dollar jewelry heist. Doc is introduced to lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern) who offers to finance the operation and buy the gems immediately after the burglary. Doc hires the safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), and Dix Handley (Hayden) who will serve as the hooligan. Handley’s loyal girlfriend, Doll, is played by Jean Hagen. Marlyn Monroe plays Emmerich’s mistress, Angela; she was unknown when the film was made and plays a small role. Monroe regarded this as one of her best performances.

[1] The multi character interplay sticks in the mind…

[2] The mastermind of the heist is not such a bad guy, the getaway driver loves cats, the safecracker has a wife and young baby, the “hooligan” is a misplaced sentimentalist who only wants the old farm his family lost…

[3] Hayden, with his big body and tough demeanor, was perfect for film noir. He is a legitimate tough guy, nobody to fool with.

[4] Stylishly photographed in stunning black & white by Harold Rosson, The Asphalt Jungle has joined the ranks, alongside “The Killers” (1946) and “Out Of The Past” (1947), as the finest noir ever made.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

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