There are a variety of things that set The Asphalt Jungle apart from the common run of mid-century crime films. In the first place, this is directed by John Huston. He may have missed the ball from time to time, but since he’s always swinging for the fences his hits are hits indeed. Here Huston crafts a fine noir-adjacent film out of a large cast without the characters becoming confused and keeps a heist simple and cracking along so that you’re riding the edge of your seat waiting to see what comes next and brings the whole thing in under two hours. Modern directors would be well-served to take notes. The black and white cinematography makes for some good effects of light and shadow, though not as dramatically as some other directors. But the framing and blocking is competent and in a few places, excellent.
In the second place the cast is stacked. They’re not all big stars, or weren’t at the time the movie was made, but the acting talent is top-notch. Sterling Hayden tops the bill with Louis Calhern and Jean Hagen, but there are impressive talents the rest of the way down. Hayden would go on after starring here to the lead in Kubrick’s The Killing and then as the insane General Ripper in Kubrick’s Cold War black farce Dr. Strangelove. (Or, if you’re not a Kubrick fan, maybe you’ll remember him as the corrupt police captain in The Godfather.) Calhern smarms his way across the screen as a crooked, oily shyster of a lawyer, but he also played the foil to the Marx Bros. antics in Duck Soup, appeared in Hitchcock’s Notorious, and even appeared in The Prisoner of Zenda.
Jean Hagen plays Doll, though she doesn’t make as much money as Calvin Coolidge, put together or separately, she did as Lina Lamont in Singin’ In the Rain. There’s even a small part for a young Marilyn Monroe as Emmerich’s mistress and she seductively slinks her way across the screen as kittenish as all get-out. There’s James Whitmore (Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption), Sam Jaffe (title role in Gunga Din and Simonides in Ben-Hur), Marc Lawrence (Diamonds Are Forever, From Dusk Till Dawn), and Brad Dexter (The Magnificent Seven, Run Silent, Run Deep). Which leads on to the third and final big strength of the film: the wide array of differing and well-realized characters.
Hayden’s Handley is strong, tough, has a code of honor which he keeps to, but is maybe not so bright. Hagen’s Doll is lost, beat down by life, and desperately trying to hold on to Handley both out of (unrequited) affection and fear. She’s clever enough to know she has to stick around without seeming to cling or he’ll kick her to the curb. Calhern’s Emmerich is a man used to wealth grown desperate by losing it and Dexter is a man who thinks himself tougher than he is willing to turn to crime if the price is right. Whitmore’s Gus is the competent, intelligent, dangerous criminal. Mike Ehrmantraut for the 1950s. Jaffe’s Doc is just as smart, though less personally dangerous. Fastidious and careful, the only things that might be his undoing are bad luck and pretty, young women.
There are too many of these sharp character studies to list: cops, doctors, cabbies, and crooks. The only one that seems off is the police commissioner. Huston seems to do everything he can to make all the crooks and criminals sympathetic and the cops…less so; with the commissioner taking the bulk of the heat. In accordance with the Hays Code, the criminals all get their comeuppance, the commissioner gets a little homily to the press in near the end, but the sympathy is all with Hayden and his comrades in arms. I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say it’s a “leftist” noir, but Huston certainly pushes the boundaries of what is permissible by putting the perspective of the movie behind those on the outside of the law. It’s not noir, but it’s darn good.