The Movies-To-Watch List: The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

When I first asked noir expert and shuffleboard champion Leonard Pierce for movie recommendations, The Asphalt Jungle was high on his list. Having watched it, I can see why.

This movie is great. Such a simple idea done beautifully. The plot is immediately recognizable: small-time hood with a heart of — well, skip that part, but he has simple dreams of just going back home to the farm — gets involved with a can’t-fail Big Score that of course fails. How the players react to the crumbling plan around them hits every angle: desperation, pathos, hubris, cool, and our protagonist’s bull-headed perseverance. Dix (Sterling Hayden) is a “hoodlum” hired as general lunky muscle for the operation, but the brains, Riedenschneider, takes a liking to him. He recognizes in Dix someone dependable and no-nonsense. Dix is laser-focused on one goal: return to his childhood farm. Whatever will get him there, he’s down for, and Riedenschneider recognizes this determination. Even when things go completely to hell and Riedenschneider himself loses his head some, Dix keeps on his path.

What’s even more interesting than the caper or Dix’s quest are the women who circle around the players. They are the only innocents in this world — to varying degrees. There’s the doting wife, the not-so-doting wife-and-mother, the mistress, the would-be moll, all affected by this plot but not a willing part of it. Not a one of them is listened to by any of the men, who have near-contempt for them. This isn’t unusual for this kind of film, but it seems to be foregrounded here more than I’ve seen before.

Also interesting is how the film’s title fits in. There’s a speech at the end by the Police Commissioner about how much we need the police patrolling this wild environment. He flicks on police radios reporting gunshots, murders, robberies, all happening simultaneously and constantly. However, the caper we just watched involved criminals and criminals acting against criminals and harming criminals. The only innocent victim is the jewelry store that’s robbed, and even then the loss is diminished, as it’s simply a large, well-insured jewelry store. The Asphalt Jungle, the city beneath the city, is presented as its own shadow domain that only occasionally crosses into ours. Presumably only the police can keep it at bay, despite the one we spend the most time with being crooked as hell.

The Asphalt Jungle was a solid movie I could easily re-watch.

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