THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. MGM, 1950. Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Marc Lawrence, Anthony Caruso, Marilyn Monroe. Based on the novel by W. R. Burnett. Director: John Huston.

   Directed by John Huston, written by Huston and Ben Maddow, compared to Phil Rosen’s take on Dangerous Crossing [reviewed here ], The Asphalt Jungle mines W. R. Burnett’s novel for dramatic potential that I doubt even Burnett knew was there. It features career-capping performances by Sterling Hayden and Louis Calhern as players at the top and bottom ends of a jewel heist plotted by Sam Jaffe, backed up by a number of memorable cameos from such capable players as James Whitmore, Jean Hagen, Marc Lawrence, Barry Kelley and Marilyn Monroe.

   Huston’s pre-fab defeatism melds very nicely with scenarist Ben (Johnny Guitar) Maddow’s genuinely subversive left-wing sensibilities into a film that has become a well-deserved classic.

   Come to that, if you wanted a good notion of what a subversive screen-play really means, The Asphalt Jungle offers a prime example: To seemingly digress for a moment, novelist and screenwriter Borden (Red River, Winchester ’73, etc.), Chase once said that the secret of writing a good movie was to put in a part for John McIntire. McIntire appears (made up to look just exactly like the young Walter Huston) here as a Police Commissioner whose integrity stands out in sharp contrast to the corrupt tone of the film as a whole.

   Indeed, The Asphalt Jungle makes quite a point of portraying its nominal “criminals” as possessed of more honor than their “respectable” counter-parts. So one could well wonder what-the-hell he’s doing there at all, except that his whole character was probably written in as a sop to the censors.

   Yet even while making this nod to Convention, Maddow and Huston manage to sneak in a nice zinger: Late in the film, McIntire tells a bunch of reporters what a fine lot Policemen are, on the whole. And he’s convincing. For a moment, his speech almost seems to negate the whole tone of the film that preceded it. Then he concludes by characterizing Hayden, the one surviving member of the gang, as a “vicious hoodlum. A Man without human feelings or pity.”

   Cut from there to a shot of Hayden (WARNING!) racing back to his old Kentucky homestead, to die in the clean air (END OF WARNING!) and the perceptive viewer suddenly sees things that were never dreamt of in McIntire and his whole philosophy. A nice touch, just one of many in this film.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #76, March 1996.