Was John Huston one of the great Hollywood auteurs, along with Ford, Hawks, Capra, Wellman, Welles, deMille, Chaplin, Hitchcock etc? His virtues include the fact that you know you will get a good script, such as the one for this film – 112 minutes of deft plotting, and good character development where no one does something stupid or out of character just to advance the action. The direction is fairly functional, without the visual grandeur of a Ford or the penetrating camera moves of Welles or Hitchcock; in fact the few showy camera angles, such as the those high-angle shots on the stair landing of Emmerich’s house looking down to the ground-floor hall, look a bit garish.
You also tend to get fine performances and in “the Asphalt Jungle”, without any major stars, the acting and casting is superb. Louis Calhern is outwardly a pillar of the community but you can sense that he is not quite as solid or assured as he appears. Of course, he makes the fatal error that leads to the unravelling of the heist because he does not remove the identifying objects from Brannom’s corpse – such as his wallet, client list etc – and he dumps it in a place where it washes ashore very quickly.
Sam Jaffe is stiff and pernickety as Doc, astute, wary and careful about every move he makes. The major honours go to Sterling Hayden, an intense coiled spring of a man, burning with a sense of injustice at the world. Huston captures all this. Perhaps it fed into Hayden’s perception of who he was: the loner, the outsider trapped in the system, longing to roam free and get back to his horses. In real life, Hayden was always itching to get back sailing. He oozes danger and yet, as Doc perceives, he is honourable and trustworthy. His relationship with Jean Hagen is at the core of the film. She is in love with him but, at the same time, scared to death of him and he does not appear to notice it. It is good to see that her range was somewhat broader than the caricature of a role she gets in “Singing in the Rain”: it is a marvellous performance. Marilyn Monroe gives a charming early glimpse of her acting ability as Calhern’s floozy – a charming naif.
The only moment that really jars is the way that Louis, the safe-cracker, is fatally wounded when a gun misfires in a very brief fight as they make their way out of the heist. It seems too random. However, the film does end on a note of tragic poetry. Miklos Rozsa’s score rises to a romantic climax as Dix finally makes it to Kentucky and his childhood home despite not having enough blood left to keep a chicken alive and then expires in the meadow, with a horse nuzzling his head.