10 Essential Movies to Watch by Marc Eliot 9.The Asphalt Jungle (1950) by John Huston

This is the film that started a genre, the “one final heist” film. What is most extraordinary about it is how the invisible hand of God moves to disrupt an otherwise “perfect” crime, and all the shocking consequences that follow. I have never seen a performance in any film that attempts to do what the great actor Jaffe does in his portrayal of a middle-aged European man whose lust for teenage girls ultimately becomes his undoing.

9. The Asphalt Jungle, directed by John Huston, USA (1950).

There is nothing overtly salacious, just a scene in a diner, with a jukebox, a roll of nickels and a couple of innocent teens, but it is enough to make the film’s brutally illusory point that every leading character in this film is either too old, to jaded, too poor or too morally bereft to enjoy the physical pleasures of life they believe they are risking everything for.

There is a suggestion in The Asphalt Jungle that fate follows high moral guidelines, and that the grass and trees of the farm we see in the last shot of the film (in contrast to the urban setting in the rest of it) may be a form of heaven.

Remarkably, every performance in the film is the best of that actor’s or actress’s career. To wit: Louis Calhern as the crooked lawyer keeping a young blonde on the side who ultimately leads to his downfall (to say the least). The blonde is played by a still-unknown Marilyn Monroe, in all her luminous youth minus all the nervous tics and facial distortions that marred so much of her later work. Jean Hagen is an actress whose all-too-brief career peaked with this portrayal of a woman in love with a man who cannot love her back, doomed by his own desperation.

And again, Jaffe, who created several memorable characters in his long and illustrious body of work, including the High Llama in Frank Capra’s 1937 Los Horizon, here brilliant as the aging European looking for the fountain of youth he believes he can buy with stolen diamonds, only to see it all taken away by his uncontrollable and, tragically unrealizable, lust.

Last, but not at all least, is the spectacular performance by Sterling Hayden, one of my favorite actors, whose strengths and weaknesses in The Asphalt Jungle are interchangeable; his acting is the glue that holds the film together. Hayden’s final, desperate, doomed run for daylight that ends with him wounded and dying as he crawls back to the land he loved and abandoned for a life of crime, is one of the most heartbreaking moments in all of cinema.

Every great break-in, or “heist” picture that followed owes a huge debt to Asphalt Jungle.

They include Jules Dassin’s classic Rififi, Stanley Kubrick’s explicit homage to Huston’s film, The Killing (that, pointed, starred Hayden), and dozens upon dozens of others. Absorbing, powerful, beautifully cinematic, filled with surprise plot twists and bravura performances, this is a film not easily forgotten. On my top-ten list of all-time greats.

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