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The Asphalt Jungle

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Title: The Asphalt Jungle  
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Subject: John Huston, Dorothy Tree, Film noir, Anthony Caruso (actor), National Film Registry
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The Asphalt Jungle

The Asphalt Jungle
Theatrical release poster
Directed by John Huston
Produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr.
Screenplay by Ben Maddow
John Huston
Based on The Asphalt Jungle by W. R. Burnett
Starring Sterling Hayden
Louis Calhern
Jean Hagen
James Whitmore
Sam Jaffe
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography Harold Rosson
Edited by George Boemler
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • May 23, 1950 (1950-05-23) (United States)
Running time 112 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,232,000[1][2]

The Asphalt Jungle is a 1950 film noir directed by John Huston. The caper film is based on the 1949 novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett and stars an ensemble cast including Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen, Sam Jaffe, Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, and, in a minor but key role, Marilyn Monroe, an unknown at the time who was pictured but not mentioned on the posters.

The film tells the story of a group of men planning and executing a jewel robbery. It was nominated for four Academy Awards.

In 2008, The Asphalt Jungle was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Plot summary

When criminal mastermind Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is released from prison after seven years, he immediately goes to see a bookie named Cobby (Marc Lawrence) in an unnamed Midwest river city (almost certainly Cincinnati, Ohio), who arranges a meeting with Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a high-profile lawyer. Emmerich listens with interest to Doc's plan to steal jewelry worth a million dollars or more. Doc needs $50,000 to hire three men—a "box man", a driver and a "hooligan"—to help him pull off the caper. Emmerich agrees to provide the money, then suggests that he (not one or more fences) assume the responsibility for disposing of the loot.

Doc first hires Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), a professional safecracker. Ciavelli only trusts Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), a hunchbacked diner owner, as the getaway driver. The final member of the gang is Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a friend of Gus's. Dix explains his ultimate goal to Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen), who is in love with him. His dream is to buy back the horse farm that his father lost during the Great Depression. Dix, however, just keeps losing his ill-gotten gains betting on the horses via Cobby. This job would pay him the amount he needs.

During the meticulously planned crime (an 11-minute sequence in the film), the criminals carry out their work in a calm, professional manner. Ciavelli hammers through a brick wall to get into the jewelry store, deactivates a door alarm and lets in Doc and Dix, then opens the main safe in minutes using an explosive liquid ("the soup"). Unfortunately, the explosion somehow sets off the alarms of nearby businesses and brings the police to the scene more quickly than expected. On their way out, Dix has to slug an arriving security guard, who drops his gun, which discharges and wounds Ciavelli in the belly. The men get away unseen, but a police manhunt quickly begins.

Ciavelli insists on being taken home by Gus. Dix and Doc take the loot to Emmerich, who confesses he needs some more time to raise the cash they had expected. In reality, he is broke. He had sent a private detective named Bob Brannom (Brad Dexter) to collect sums owed to him, but Brannom returned only with excuses. Emmerich then plotted to double cross the others with Brannom's help (for an equal share). Emmerich suggests to Doc that he leave the jewelry with him, but Doc and Dix become suspicious. Brannom then pulls out his gun. Dix is able to kill Brannom, but not without being wounded himself. Dix wants to shoot Emmerich as well, but Doc persuades him not to. Doc tells the lawyer to contact the insurance companies and offer to return the valuables for 25% of their value.

Emmerich disposes of Brannom's body in the river, but the police find the corpse, along with the list of people who owe Emmerich money, and question him. He lies about his whereabouts, and after they leave, hurriedly calls Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe in her first important role), his beautiful young mistress, to set up an alibi.

Under increasing pressure from Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire), a police lieutenant named Ditrich (Barry Kelley) (who had previously protected Cobby for money) beats the bookie into confessing everything in a vain attempt to save himself (he is later arrested for corruption).

With the confession, Hardy personally arrests Emmerich, who manages to commit suicide. Gus is soon picked up, but when the police break down Ciavelli's door, they find they have interrupted his funeral.

That leaves only Doc and Dix, who separate. Doc asks a taxi driver to drive him to Cleveland, but is spotted at a roadside cafe (where he has spent some time watching an attractive young woman dance) by two policemen. He offers no resistance. Doll gets Dix a car, then insists on going along. When he passes out from loss of blood, Doll takes him to a doctor, who phones the police to report the gunshot wound. Dix regains consciousness after a plasma transfusion and escapes before they arrive. With Doll, he makes it all the way back to his beloved Kentucky horse farm across the Ohio river from Cincinnati. He stumbles into the pasture and collapses, probably dead.


Background and production

The film was an adaptation by director John Huston and screenwriter Ben Maddow of the 1949 novel by W. R. Burnett. It was backed by the major film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which allowed the production a relatively free hand.

Both Huston and war hero star Sterling Hayden were members of the Committee for the First Amendment, which opposed the blacklisting of alleged communists active in the film industry during the Red Scare.[3]

The PCA's main concerns with the script were the detailed depiction of the heist and the fact that the character of the fence Emmerich seemed to cheat justice by killing himself.[3] Neither the studio nor the censors interfered significantly with the script, however, and both the heist and the suicide featured in the final cut.[3]


Box office

According to MGM records the film made $1,077,000 in the US and Canada and $1,060,000 overseas resulting in a profit of only $40,000.[1][2]

Critical response

When the film first opened, the staff at Variety liked the film, and wrote, "The Asphalt Jungle is a study in crime, hard-hitting in its expose of the underworld. Ironic realism is striven for and achieved in the writing, production and direction. An audience will quite easily pull for the crooks in their execution of the million-dollar jewelry theft around which the plot is built."[4]

Bosley Crowther, the film critic for The New York Times, also liked the film, yet with a few caveats, writing, "This film, derived by Ben Maddow and John Huston from Mr. Burnett's book and directed by Mr. Huston in brilliantly naturalistic style, gives such an electrifying picture of the whole vicious circle of a crime...that one finds it hard to tag the item of repulsive exhibition in itself. Yet that is our inevitable judgment of this film, now on the Capitol's screen...But, in that meager interest, we've got to hand it to the boys, particularly to Mr. Huston: they've done a terrific job! From the very first shot, in which the camera picks up a prowling thug, sliding along between buildings to avoid a police car in the gray and liquid dawn, there is ruthless authority in this picture, the hardness and clarity of steel, and remarkably subtle suggestion that conveys a whole involvement of distorted personality and inveterate crime."[5]

Film writer David M. Meyer noted, "The robbery is among the best-staged heists in noir. The simple visual treatment, the precise movements of the actors, and the absence of music on the sound track raise the tension to a boiling point."[6]

The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 96% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on twenty-five reviews.[7]


Year Organization Award category Recipients and nominees Result
1950 Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup for Best Actor Sam Jaffe Won
Golden Lion for Best Film The Asphalt Jungle Nominated
National Board of Review Best Director John Huston Won
Directors Guild of America Award Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film John Huston Nominated
1951 Edgar Allan Poe Awards Best Motion Picture Screenplay Ben Maddow and John Huston Won
Academy Awards Best Actor in a Supporting Role Sam Jaffe Nominated
Best Cinematography - Black-and-white Harold Rosson Nominated
Best Director John Huston Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Ben Maddow and John Huston Nominated
British Academy of Film and Television Arts Best Film from any Source The Asphalt Jungle Nominated
Golden Globe Award Best Cinematography Harold Rosson Nominated
Best Director John Huston Nominated
Best Screenplay Ben Maddow and John Huston Nominated
Writers Guild of America Award Best Written Drama Ben Maddow and John Huston Nominated
The Robert Meltzer Award (Best Written Film Concerning Problems with the American Scene) Ben Maddow and John Huston Nominated


The Asphalt Jungle was one of the most influential crime films of the 1950s.[8]

The film spawned a television series, The Asphalt Jungle, starring Jack Warden, Arch Johnson, and William Smith (billed as "Bill Smith"), which ran for thirteen episodes in the spring and summer of 1961 on ABC. The series, though, resembled the film in name only, except for one episode, "The Professor," which was constructed as a sequel to the feature. Aside from this one-shot, however, none of the characters in the film appeared in the television scripts, and the plots were devoted to the exploits of the major case squad of the New York Police Department. One of the most notable features of the series is the theme song written by Duke Ellington.[9]

Burnett's novel The Asphalt Jungle was the basis of the western film The Badlanders (1958) directed by Delmer Daves, as well as the blaxploitation film Cool Breeze (1972), directed by Barry Pollack.

The Asphalt Jungle instigated the crime thriller subgenre of caper films.[3] The 1955 French film Rififi, which critics such as Leonard Maltin have labeled as the best heist film ever, drew much inspiration from The Asphalt Jungle.[8]

In 2008, The Asphalt Jungle was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


  1. ^ a b The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study .
  2. ^ a b Scott Eyman, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Robson, 2005 p 427
  3. ^ a b c d Naremore, James (2008). More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 128–129.  
  4. ^ Variety. Film review, May 23, 1950. Last accessed: February 11, 2010.
  5. ^ Crowther, Bosley. The New York Times, film review, June 9, 1950. Last accessed: February 11, 2010.
  6. ^ Meyer, David N. (1998). A Girl and a Gun: The Complete Guide to Film Noir on Video. Avon Books.  
  7. ^ The Asphalt Jungle at Rotten Tomatoes. Last accessed: February 11, 2010.
  8. ^ a b Schwartz, Ronald (2001). "The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Badlanders (1958), Cairo (1963), and Cool Breeze (1972)". Noir, Now and Then. Westport: Greenwood Press. p. 85.  
  9. ^ The Asphalt Jungle at The Classic TV Archive. Last accessed: July 2, 2008.

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