PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


The Working Man's Heist in 'The Asphalt Jungle'

Sterling Hayden and Jean Hagen in The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The heist film finds its genesis in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, a top-notch and unglamorous depiction of criminal life in the city.

The Asphalt Jungle

Director: John Huston
Cast: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore, Jean Hagen, Marilyn Monroe
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: NR
Release date: 2016-12-13
If you can't do what you want to then you do the things you can. -- The ensemble cast of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, in the song "Another National Anthem"

When it was initially released in 1950, John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle had the tagline "The City Under the City!" on its posters. The 2016 Criterion Collection edition of the film describes it as "an uncommonly naturalistic view of a seamy underworld." The notion that the leading characters in the movie are occupying an "underworld" is curious. One can make the argument that, if one is a criminal, he by extension participates in the "underworld" of society, where social norms and laws have no import. But the characters of The Asphalt Jungle don't look like the usual residents of society's dregs. Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) looks like any other normal guy. Ace safecracker Louie Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) is a family man, whose criminal identity exists only due to the illegal application of his skill set. In every other way, he's a father and husband.

The opening sequence of The Asphalt Jungle challenges the notion of a criminal "underworld". The film opens on what looks like the outskirts of town. (The city is never named, though it's somewhere in the Midwest.) The landscape is barren, and the sky is murky. Later, Dix walks through rubble-lined alleys. When the Great Depression is mentioned later in the film, one cannot help but wonder if this city ever fully recovered from it.

The eponymous Asphalt Jungle does not need an underworld. We rarely see anyone work throughout the story; Gus (James Whitmore) works at a diner, but the only thing we ever see eat there is a cat. Some people, such as Dix's tentative flame Doll (Jean Hagen), announce that they are looking for work. The Asphalt Jungle has long been lauded for its unsentimental, working-class depiction of its thieves, and it's precisely the ruined city at the heart of the narrative that produces an environment ripe for criminal activity. Dix, Louie, and Gus get roped into a heist not because they are inherently malevolent; to them, it's just another "job". That word is now commonplace in the lexicon of heist films, and its origin derives not from underworld slang but rather the practical motivations of thieves like Dix. In a city where opportunity is slim and poverty is a given, one is left up to his own devices. It's called The Asphalt Jungle, after all, not The Asphalt City.

Please don't ad block PopMatters.

We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.

We can't survive without your support.

It's no wonder that Criterion is releasing The Asphalt Jungle, in a characteristically stunning digital restoration, to boot. The Criterion Collection is home to many classics of the noir and heist genre, nearly all of which borrow from Huston's crime classic. The most obvious inheritor of The Asphalt Jungle's legacy is Jean-Pierre Melville, whose films Le Doulos and Le Samourai quote liberally from Huston. Geoffrey O'Brien quotes from Melville in his essay included in the Criterion edition: "Melville once declared that, by his reckoning, there were precisely nineteen possible dramatic variants on the relations between cops and crooks, and that all nineteen were to be found in 'that masterpiece of John Huston.'" Those who have stocked up on the Collection's excellent noir releases would do well to add The Asphalt Jungle to the pile; like other early heist classics, such as Jules Dassin's Rififi and Basil Dearden's The League of Gentlemen (both available from Criterion), Huston's inimitable picture helps explain the enduring appeal of the heist flick. Fans of the film should seek out this edition for the high quality of the restoration print, which beats out any other edition on the market.

Film noir historian Eddie Muller, who features in a 20-minute interview with Criterion in the Blu-ray bonus features, notes that Huston does not "condone" the criminal activity in the film. He simply "accepts" it. Dix and his colleagues do not revel in thievery in the way that Gaston and Lily do in Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932), nor do they stake their identities on being thieves like Danny Ocean and his merry band of 11 do in Steven Soderbergh's remake of Ocean's Eleven. It's not hard to imagine Dix punching a time card at a local manufacturing plant. He, like Louie and Gus, is a working man; his line of work just happens to be one that makes him a "hooligan", an outsider to the city. When Dix is called up by the quirky, recently released convict "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) to pull off a jewel heist bankrolled by the wealthy Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), he steps up because he needs work -- and, most importantly, a way out of the asphalt jungle.

In a steel-jawed monologue delivered to Doll, Dix announces his desire to return back to the horse farm his father owned. Here Dix's true intentions are revealed: what he wants is a return to rural, agrarian life, in contrast to the "city dirt" he comes home wearing every day. He's frequently hampered by his infelicities -- especially his love for betting on horses -- but his passion is clear. All too familiar with the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" narrative that permeates American working life, Dix believes he can work his way out, through crime or any other means. As many filmic thieves since Dix have said, "A job is a job." Put another way, crime is, as Emmerich tells his wife, "a left-handed form of human endeavor."

Dix's desires are doomed the moment one notices the film traditions from which Huston is drawing inspiration. Film noir is the most obvious of these, and rarely in noir are down-on-their-luck heroes or antiheroes given a happy ending. Muller notes that Huston, a highly literate filmmaker, drew inspiration from the Italian neorealist movement, particularly the films of Roberto Rossellini (Paisà, Rome, Open City). The crumbled cityscapes and economic destitution of The Asphalt Jungle foreground the Rossellini influence, which makes it no surprise that in the end the city offers no escape for Dix. In the tragic final moment of the film, a barely alive Dix makes it to his father's horse farm, only to die just before he can reach the horses. Dix has escaped, but he has no escape.

The criminogenic modern city is the true villain of The Asphalt Jungle. Like Nick Carraway at the end of The Great Gatsby, Dix realizes that there's no return to the idyllic pastoral in the age of the metropolis. When Dix returns to the horse farm there's no clear indication, beyond the presence of the horses, that things are what they once were. The dichotomy of the bare rural landscape and the economically bare jungle of cities in The Asphalt Jungle is a pure representation of the divide between the rural and the metropolitan that continues to play out in the United States today. In that way, Huston's film is both a blueprint for the modern heist movie and a prophetic account of the rise of urbanization.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.