The Asphalt Jungle (MGM) is an ambitious attempt by Director John (Treasure of Sierra Madre) Huston to explore a gang of criminals as human beings, while telling the tense story of an intricately planned $1,000,000 jewel burglary. The two-hour result falls somewhat short of the attempt. But thanks to brilliant direction and skillful work by Co-Scripters Huston and Ben Maddow in adapting a W. R. Burnett novel, it comes close enough to make the film well worth seeing.
"Crime," observes one of the characters, "is only a left-handed form of human endeavor." To dramatize the point, the picture sets itself the task of probing half a dozen major characters and offering keen glimpses of as many minor ones. Among those in the rogues' gallery: a ruthless hooligan (Sterling Hayden) with a twisted sense of honor and self-respect; an urbane lawyer (Louis Calhern) who is addicted to high living and low morality; a coldly efficient criminal mastermind (Sam Jaffe); a spineless, greedy bookie (Marc Lawrence); a cop-hating hunchback (James Whitmore); a home-loving safecracker (Anthony Caruso); a pathetic nightclub trollop (Jean Hagen); a cynically corrupt detective (Barry Kelley).
Against the sordid backgrounds of an anonymous big U.S. city, the film deftly introduces its main characters one by one, starts to develop them with quick strokes while linking them together into the burglary plot. It gives a fascinating account of Jaffe's precise planning to burrow underground into a jewelry store at night, and his businesslike recruitment of personnel for the job. With very little dialogue, it pictures the jewel theft in a long, intimately detailed sequence of torturing suspense. Then a doublecross explodes the mastermind's plan.
After that, though Huston's fine hand is almost constantly evident, the movie never builds up again to the same tension. With its criminals plainly doomed, it takes too long to resolve their fate in terms of their individual motivations and foibles.
Some moviegoers, sharing Huston's preoccupation with his characters, may applaud his decision to see them through at any cost. But the characters themselves, while uniformly well acted, are unevenly drawn. Some, e.g., the master criminal and the self-pitying bookie, are excellent. But the safecracker who worries about his sick child is pat and overworked, and the important character of the crooked lawyer is trite. And with the death of the hooligan in a Kentucky meadow, his head nuzzled by the horses he longed to see again, Huston gives a hard-bitten film a surprisingly mawkish ending.
Even with its shortcomings, the picture succeeds to a remarkable extent in understanding its criminals, and creating a kind of perverse sympathy for them without condoning their crimes. To have accomplished that within a story which is also a taut and exciting thriller, lifts The Asphalt Jungle high above the run of melodramas that do not score half so well on targets much easier to hit.
Winchester '73 (Universal-International) is a crisp western in which a handsome repeating rifle ("the gun that won the West") inspires such yearning, fondling and fighting as not even horses, let alone heroines, ordinarily provoke.