The great French director Jean-Pierre Melville once calculated that there are 19 variations in crime movies. He’d used every one of them, he said; but the only person to ever use them all in a single film was John Huston in The Asphalt Jungle.
Adapted from WR Burnett’s hardboiled novel, Huston’s seminal 1950 thriller stars Sterling Hayden, a haunted mask as Dix Handley, a lost Kentucky country boy working as a hoodlum in the dirty big city.
Dreaming of the score that will let him escape and buy back the old family horse ranch, Dix is picked up to provide muscle on a sensational jewellery robbery masterminded by recently paroled genius Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), and bankrolled by an unctuous, crooked lawyer, Alonzo D Emmerich (Louis Calhern).
A team is assembled – alongside Dix, his hunchbacked getaway driver buddy, Gus (James Whitmore), and Louis (Anthony Caruso), a dynamite safecracker with a family to feed – and drilled in every detail of Doc’s watertight plan. But there are some things you just can’t plan for.
When the big night comes, the safe is blown, but things go wrong. The gang lie low in the dark parts of the city, waiting for the heat to cool. Everyone involved in the job has a weakness, however: Emmerich’s comes in the shape of Angela (a young Marilyn Monroe), the mistress who keeps him dangling, offering a teasing taste of a kiss before pulling away, breathing an excruciatingly erotic “Uncle Lon.” Despite his clockwork mind, Doc, too, has a taste for young flesh, a peccadillo that seals his own fate. But Huston, filming with the cruel detachment and detailed eye of a bored god, saves the most painfully drawn-out downfall for his most innocent character, Dix. He does finally buy the farm, just in the wrong way, in a scene as beautiful as it is cruel.
Huston here laid down rules every subsequent heist film has either played with or against. Even Stanley Kubrick’s radical breakthrough, The Killing (1955), again starring Hayden, resembles a stripped-down custom job on Huston’s model. Still, if often imitated, it’s never been bettered. Portraying the criminal gang as a group of humanised, individualised working men, rather than drooling thugs, it’s the film that posited the notion that, as Calhern comments, “Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavour.” Noir, with heart and soul.