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The Films of John Huston: The Asphalt Jungle

August 23, 2010

This is one of those films that makes me happy about doing a retrospective on John Huston. Just when I think it’s going to get boring, I stumble on a movie like The Asphalt Jungle, and it blows me away.

The Asphalt Jungle, for a cinemaphile today, is a study in influence—not what it was influenced by, rather what it influenced later and still influences now. I can’t think of any other Huston film I’ve seen that so readily ignites callbacks (call-forwards?) to so many films I’ve seen before seeing this.

If I were pitching it to a studio today, I’d say, “It’s like Reservoir Dogs meets The Seven Samurai meets David Mamet.” You can’t watch it without hitting your head and saying, “So that’s where that’s from.”

And to say this is Huston at the height of his powers” isn’t enough. You must say, “This is Huston at the height of his powers in the 1950s.”

And it is. Structurally, Jungle is air tight. It takes chances, but they’re carefully controlled to provide maximum shock, at least retrospectively—I can’t know how shocking they were in 1950, but I do know that in the context of the film they’re surprising and clearly deliberate—the gun falling on the floor and nailing one of the gang members, the abrupt execution of the double-crosser, the delightful close-up of teenage boobies…

Is this the same guy who made The Maltese Falcon? It doesn’t quite feel that way. Falcon seemed a little tighter, more rigid. Here Huston feels more relaxed—the dialogue isn’t a rapid-fire barrage of quips and one-liners. The characters aren’t as grotesque—they seem a little more human.

Here’s a quick recap: Several men of various means and personalities join together to pull off one big score that will set them for life.

Sound familiar? I remember several reviews of Reservoir Dogs mentioning this movie, and it makes sense, you can see so many of the characters here: Mr. White, Joe, Nice Guy Eddie, and most of all Mr. Pink.

Each culprit has a story to tell, and Huston explores every one, in sequences reminiscent of the samurai “tryouts” from Seven Samurai—made several years later—Huston sets up the wandering lives of his culprits: Sterling Hayden, the cop from The Godfather, James Whitmore, Brooks from Shawshank Redemption, and many others, including tbe master cracksman; Sam Jaffe, the planner, the…Each character provides their own introduction. And as we meet them we get an insight to their personal lives. So when the heist comes, we know what’s at stake with each member.

Apparently this was the first movie to depict the sequence of a heist, but while it’s a great action scene, it works even better as a character study of how each man reacts under pressure, and what he does when the plan is derailed. Some make surprisingly noble gestures, some not so noble, but it works and is fascinating to watch. I could go on detailing scenes and spoiling surprises, but half the fun in seeing a movie the practically invents its own genre is discovering the sources yourself, and watching a great story along the way.

Oh yes, and the thing Jungle is most known for nowadays is the first big appearance of a young Marilyn Monroe.


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