The Asphalt Jungle

Sterling Hayden and some horses in The Asphalt Jungle (dir. John Huston, 1950).

Marilyn Monroe and Louis Calhern.

What The Asphalt Jungle shares with the two other greatest heist films of the fifties, Dassin's Rififi and Kubrick's The Killing, is its refusal to flatten its criminals out into thugs or caricatures, even the supporting criminals. The characters are sometimes treated comically--for example, Sam Jaffe as Doc Riedenschneider flipping through a girlie calendar and stopping guiltily as he realizes Sterling Hayden is in the room--but every single one of them is permitted some private core of self-respect. Even Marc Lawrence's "Cobby" Cobbs, for all his weakness, is presented sympathetically when he must face an overwhelming ethical decision. The least likeable of them is Louis Calhern as Alonzo Emmerich, a floundering industrialist driven to double-crossing, but he too emerges finally as a little more than the sum of his venalities.

Sterling Hayden's performance as Dix Handley is almost purely physical: he's a lump of human granite who occasionally flutters into a preconscious state of agitation brought on either by anger or affection and looking not much different in either case. He speaks in a slow drawl, like a punchy boxer, and he has a bad betting habit. And yet he is the center of dignity in the film. He's not as dumb as he looks (though he's no genius either), and finding this out is part of what allows the movie to maintain a powerful hold on the viewer. Jean Hagen as Doll Conovan is his perfect complement, all barely restrained emotion and empathy, a nervous bundle of unconditional love.

And then there's Marilyn Monroe, in her small part as Emmerich's young mistress Angela. Say, did anyone ever notice that this woman was sexy? She acts with her whole upper torso. Brilliantly. It's like watching a unicorn giving birth.

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