John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) might seem an unprepossessing film for the modern viewer, but this noir classic sets the template for virtually every heist movie that has followed in its wake. It involves an elaborate jewelry theft plotted by Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe), a master criminal just released from the big house and looking to make one last score before retiring to Mexico. But in order to pull it off, he needs funding, and a team—and in so doing, entangles himself with several shady midwestern characters, including money-men Emmerich (Louis Calhern) and Cobby (Marc Lawrence), expert safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), wheelman Gus Minelli (James Whitmore), and humorless hooligan Dix Hanley (Sterling Hayden). Unfortunately for all of them, their professionalism and determination doesn’t save them when competing motives and random chance get in the way of their clockwork plan.
The Asphalt Jungle is slickly crafted noir about professional criminals trying to make a buck, and it unfolds with a compelling narrative confidence that would go on to inspire decades worth of “competence porn” capers in film and television. Its angling, double-crossing players are well defined and relatable, without ever losing their reprehensible edge. Like most noir of this era, it’s a fairly dismal showcase for female characters, despite a sympathetic turn from Jean Hagen as Dix’s misguided girlfriend, and a scene-stealing turn from Marilyn Monroe in an early role. But fans of the genre it influenced should go out of their way to see this one.