The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

“Oh, there’s nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only . . . a left-handed form of human endeavor.” My favorite film noir, The Asphalt Jungle, which involves a million-dollar jewelry heist gone sour, was brilliantly directed by the legendary John Huston, boasts a great cast that includes Sam Jaffe, Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen and James Whitmore, and also features Marilyn Monroe in a small but breakout role. Just released from prison, criminal mastermind Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Jaffe) enlists the aid of a low-level bookie, “Cobby” (Marc Lawrence) to help him organize his next caper. Cobby suggests they approach sleazy lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Calhern) to fund the venture, along with a team of small-time crooks that includes “hooligan” Dix Handley (Hayden), safecracker Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) and getaway driver Gus Minissi (Whitmore), the hunchbacked owner of a greasy diner. The meticulously planned scheme soon falls apart from a combination of bad luck and betrayals. Hagen is superb as Handley’s desperately delusional “girlfriend” Doll Conovan, while Monroe is truly delightful as Emmerich’s mistress, Angela Phinlay (she calls Emmerich “Uncle Lon”). Also look for Strother Martin very briefly in the police lineup scene. Memorable scenes (spoiler alerts!) include the jewelry heist itself, Doc transfixed by the young girl dancing at the jukebox and a dying Handley surrounded by horses at the Kentucky farm (ironically, it is Handley, a man described as “without human feeling or human mercy,” who has the most integrity in the entire film). The Asphalt Jungle, which features excellent cinematography by Harold Rosson (The Wizard of Oz), was adapted from a 1949 novel by W. R. Burnett (Little Caesar).Huston was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director but lost out to Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve). In his 1963 autobiography, Wanderer, Hayden writes “We shot the final scene of the picture first, in Lexington, Kentucky, where the loner named Dix died one afternoon, in the prime of life, of wounds received during the holdup of a jewelry store. He came barreling down the wrong side of the road in a stolen car, broke from the arms of his mistress, scaled a fence, then staggered through a blue-green sea of grass to pitch forward dead—ninety yards from his daddy’s old farm.” Monroe was chosen as the first Miss California Artichoke Queen in 1947.

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