Blu-ray Review: THE ASPHALT JUNGLE Is Near Perfect

Criterion adds a classic noir to its collection with John Huston's THE ASPHALT JUNGLE.

Associate Editor; New England
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Blu-ray Review: THE ASPHALT JUNGLE Is Near Perfect

John Huston was one of the greatest mid-century (or ever) American directors. He directed The Maltese FalconThe African QueenKey LargoPrizzi's HonorThe Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Annie, and The Misfits, among others. Huston had previously been an opera singer, and enjoyed a healthy acting career as well when he choose to venture to the other side of the camera, with stints in ChinatownBattle for the Planet of the ApesWise Blood, and voice overs and narration for animated films such as The Black Cauldron and The Return of the King. And of course, he fathered actors Anjelica and Danny Huston.

Today, we're going to delve into the Criterion Collection's recent blu-ray release of one of Huston's finest noirs, The Asphalt Jungle. Starring the manly Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen (so good here), Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, and of course, Marilyn Monroe in her breakthrough role as the atypically warm moll Angela Phinlay.

Adapted from W.R. Burnett's novel The Asphalt Jungle is the proto heist-gone-wrong film. It's influenced countless other crime dramas and has been remade three times. It's also not your typical noir film; there are no femme fatales, no constantly wise-cracking wise guys, and every character in the story is fully fleshed out, no matter the gender or the size of the role within the plot. Similarly, The Asphalt Jungle is a film that doesn't judge its characters in regards to morales, but presents them as they are --- a refreshing point of view that still stands out in modern times.

As for the story,  Erwin "Doc" Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) gets out of jail, a model prisoner. The intelligent con man and criminal goes right back to it with a hefty investment from a nervous bookie friend (Marc Lawrence), and in no time at all, a small group forms for the heist. What's the pay dirt? Millions of dollars in jewelry!  

Crooked lawyer Alonzo D. Emmerich (Louis Calhern) is there for financing and fencing, in addition to gunman Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), and getaway driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore). And with most heist films and stories worth watching and reading, the double-crosses and betrayals ensue.

The picture is great, but there is flickering here and there --- a minor issue. It looks and sounds as good as it ever will --- just fantastic. The supplements are informative and full of info. I quite enjoy Eddie Mueller's interview on what makes The Asphalt Jungle such a well-made film, and why it's not your usual noir or crime drama. There's also a two-hour Sterling Hayden documentary which makes the grizzled actor out to be a seafaring Yoda of sorts, an essay, trailer, interview with cinematographer John Bailey, and more. I highly recommend this blu-ray to fans of Huston, film noir, or students of film history of any level.

Special features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Audio commentary from 2004 by film historian Drew Casper, featuring archival recordings of actor James Whitmore
  • Pharos of Chaos, a 1983 documentary about actor Sterling Hayden
  • New interviews with film noir historian Eddie Muller and cinematographer John Bailey
  • Archival footage of writer-director John Huston discussing the film
  • Episode of the television program City Lights from 1979 featuring Huston
  • Audio excerpts of archival interviews with Huston
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien

The Asphalt Jungle is out now. Check out the trailer below and read up on Criterion's release here.

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Jean HagenJohn HustonLouis CalhernMarilyn MonroeSam JaffeSterling HaydenThe Asphalt Jungle