|The palooka has a dream. Let's watch it crumble.|
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
Dir. John Huston
Nvl. W.R. Burnett
Scr. Ben Maddow, Huston
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe,
Marc Lawrence, Louis Calhern, Anthony Caruso, Marilyn Monroe,
Brad Dexter, John McIntire, Barry Kelley, John Maxwell
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Even a palooka has dreams. If we are to believe the movies - and frankly, why shouldn't we? - post-war America was full of palookas with dreams. Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) is one of those mugs. He dreams of buying back the beautiful family horse farm in Kentucky that was lost during the Great Depression.
This is the fuel that drives him.
John Huston's film noir heist classic The Asphalt Jungle, adapted from the terrific crime novel by W.R. Burnett, is single-mindedly devoted to seeing a man's dream crumble before our very eyes. And why shouldn't it crumble? This is America - post-war America no less.
This was a place and time all about the dreams of sad men turning to dust.
There is so much to admire in this picture: Huston's tersely muscular direction, the gorgeous black and white palette of Harold (The Docks of New York, The Wizard of Oz, Singing' in the Rain) Robson's cinematography, the brash grind and heartache of Miklós (Double Indemnity, Spellbound, The Killers) Rózsa's score and the to-die-for cast, but if there's anything to acclaim above and beyond all this, it's the sheer portent-infused atmosphere, in both the Ben Maddow/Huston screenplay and the tightly-wound evocative mise-en-scene.
In a sense, there's never a moment we believe anyone's dreams are going to come true and this is what drives and dazzles us. God knows we want it all to work out, but how can it? Life is one big despair-ridden disappointment after another, no matter what occasional highs are tossed our way, and we watch The Asphalt Jungle with the perspective its chief palooka is cursed with.
So from the opening scenes of handsome strong-arm ex-con thug Dix dodging a prowling cop car under overcast skies in the empty, early morning Cincinnati warehouse district, though to his involvement in a jewel heist gone horribly wrong and the vicious double crosses guaranteed to gain nothing for nobody and finally, his desperate dash into the open Kentucky meadow with a bullet in his gut, there isn't anything that's going to save him. Not his loyal buddy Gus (James Whitmore), the hunchback owner of a diner and ace getaway driver, not the love of sweet desperate babe Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen) and most certainly not the shifty master criminal Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) who masterminds the whole affair.
All that awaits Dix, and everyone, are lies, desperation, suicide, incarceration and bullets. And those dreams. In post-war America, in the movies and life, those dreams are dangled like carrots in front of old horses. They're so close, but so far.
And we never get the carrot.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-Stars
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray and (if you must) DVD of The Asphalt Jungle is replete with the following added value of: a new 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a 2004 audio commentary by film historian Drew Casper, featuring archival recordings of actor James Whitmore, Pharos of Chaos, a very strange and fascinating 1983 documentary about actor Sterling Hayden, new interviews with film noir historian Eddie Muller and cinematographer John Bailey, archival footage of writer-director John Huston, a 1979 episode of the TV program "City Lights" featuring Huston, audio excerpts of archival interviews with Huston, a trailer, an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and gorgeous new cover art by F. Ron Miller.