Throughout The Asphalt Jungle, John Huston foreshadows deception through crisscrossing eyelines, often with dissolves that juxtapose two figures so that they’re looking in opposite directions. The visual choice could be seen as an indication of differing moral perspectives, but then it’s clear that none of the men throughout the film operate outside of criminal intent. You’d probably need to look back to Pre-Code Hollywood to find a studio film that so resolutely denies the viewer identification with any of its characters, at least if the criterion is the well-worn marker of “likeable.” None of the figures in The Asphalt Jungle are likeable in any conventional sense; none of them are heroic, at least. On the contrary, all of them are hamstrung by a fulfillment of desire for something beyond the asphalt beneath their feet.
The Asphalt Jungle could be understood as a hardening of Huston’s directorial vision, breaking away from Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and any greater conquest of cool for pathetic men whose minds have gone rotten from being left on the slab for too long. Dix (Sterling Hayden) is first seen woozily stumbling into a diner, which is apt given that his entire life rests upon the wobbly premise that he can go home again, back to the farm where his childhood colt might be resurrected, if only in his mind. He’s known around town as a “hooligan,” and is solicited for a jewel heist by Doc (Sam Jaffe), who’s fresh out of prison on robbery charges. Alonzo (Louis Calhern) backs their operation, though his finances turn out to be more than slightly dubious.
Huston often frames these men in obtuse ways, whether from an unusually low angle or with their faces obscured in darkness for long periods of time, which makes The Asphalt Jungle, in terms of visual style, a somewhat conventional noir for its time period. Yet there’s nothing remotely commonplace about Huston’s handling of space between and within scenes, with objects consistently marking three or even four planes of action. Accordingly, the relative flatness of the characters is given counterpoint through their surroundings, which becomes the film’s actual line of inquiry, and renders the jewel heist more of a structuring plot than an end in itself.
This sort of play with directionality and vision marks a shift toward reflexive filmmaking in American cinema but without even a shred of the self-awareness that plagues conscious attempts at genre revision. Huston finds his characters’ fractured selves through implicit suggestions about their trauma, not fragmentary edits or thesis statements as dialogue. The best indication of this tack is evident in The Asphalt Jungle’s smaller scenes. After Dix lets Doll (Jean Hagen) stay over for the night, she greets him the following morning with a cup of coffee, which leads to a discussion of his dreams from the night before. For Dix, dreams are only nightmares, constant reminders of a childhood that includes sudden poverty, his father’s death, and the shooting of his horse. Doll insists that Dix drink his coffee, then begins cleaning the messy apartment. Huston pulls back, stacking two souls atop one another within the frame, highlighting their irreconcilable pain despite their physical proximity and seeming potential to cure what ails the other.
As in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, desire dictates fate. Perhaps the greatest evocation of this in Huston’s entire oeuvre comes as Doc sits inside a diner near the film’s conclusion, watching a teenage girl dance to swing music. Having made off with the jewels and heading for the border, he seems to lose all sense of time and purpose while seated and observing these gyrations he’s likely never witnessed before. Perversion is in the air, but is it Doc or the culture that’s perverse? Huston homes in on Doc’s eyes, filled with elation and fear in equal measure. It seems like the present moment has overwhelmed him; movement and thought incapacitate him. Police nab him as he exits, and when Doc asks how long they’ve been watching him, an officer responds: “Two, three minutes.” The length of a song, a dance. In other words, an eternity.
Criterion's 2K scan was created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive, meaning that just about every inch of the film has been treated to remove dirt, debris, and scratches. The result is a gorgeously clean and detailed image that highlights both John Huston's use of deep-space composition and preference for littering the mise-en-scène with objects and clutter. Interior daytime shots are especially strong, with instances of the film's high-contrast photography on prominent display. The monaural soundtrack is nothing to write home about, but it gets the job done. There are no moments of audible distortion, as any existing clicks and crackles have been removed.
An excellent assortment of supplements kicks off with an audio commentary by professor Drew Casper. The track is carried over from Warner's 2004 DVD release, and while Casper is certainly informative about the film's production history and MGM's legacy, his loquacious approach, which is filled with asides not directly related to the film at hand, can be a bit grating. The highlight here is a two-hour documentary, "Pharos of Chaos," an immaculate bit of cinema vérité that effectively hangs out with Sterling Hayden as he talks about a variety of topics, including himself. The disc also contains an assortment of archival materials, including both video and audio interviews with Huston and a television program about his films. The only new piece created for this release is an interview with film historian Eddie Muller, who makes an argument for The Asphalt Jungle as one of the most important crime films of all time. A trailer and an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien round out the disc.
Blood and trauma make an irresistible mix in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, which receives a stellar Blu-ray presentation from Criterion.