If you’re a movie fan, chances are you know Sterling Hayden’s face from one of the most famous scenes in cinema. In a pivotal scene during 1972’s The Godfather, a young Michael Corleone is taken to a seemingly-safe, public location—a restaurant—for a meeting with the head of a rival gang, Sollozzo, and a corrupt police captain, McCluskey (Hayden). What goes down in that restaurant is a benchmark in movie storytelling, and it also let the world know that Al Pacino had arrived on the scene. Everyone is at the top of their game, including Sterling Hayden as the police captain who doesn’t realize what he’s stumbled into.
In actuality, Sterling Hayden has a long history of fantastic performances. The other easy one to call out is as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. However, while rarely uttered in the same breath as Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, Hayden was at the forefront of a wave of significant films that helped define and redefine several genres during the 1950s. His work in a handful of 1950s westerns such as Hellgate, The Iron Sheriff, and Arrow in the Dust brought a new level of character depth and questionable morality to what had previously been a fairly one-dimensional affair. He’s one of the many great heroes of those fifties westerns who stood for what was right, but had to get his hands dirty to do so, calling into question whether or not the means justified the ends.
The Killing. Yet none of these movies are as important as 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle.
The Asphalt Jungle holds the distinction of being the first heist film to really show how it’s done. There had been heist movies before, but none had bothered to go into such gritty detail as this film, directed by noir legend John Huston. What The Asphalt Jungle offers viewers is something had had never been seen before at the movies: a focus on the entire breadth of a crime from conception to execution, and finally aftermath. Audiences had seen crimes of passion, murders, robberies, and dastardly deeds before, but Huston’s film (based on W.R. Burnett’s novel) gives us the nuts and bolts and shows us how a crime is pre-meditated and carefully planned well in advance. It assembles a team of specialists, each with their own unique skill, to pull of the perfect caper.
Of course, it’s not a perfect caper; that would be much less interesting. The real appeal of the film is watching the ensemble cast react to the challenges that occur along the way. Huston made a deliberate choice to populate his film with lesser-known actors to lend the story a feeling of authenticity. In addition to Sterling Hayden as gunman Dix Handley we get Sam Jaffe (Gunga Din, The Day the Earth Stood Still) as the mastermind of the heist, Anthony Caruso (Watch on the Rhine) as a safecracker, James Whitmore (The Shawshank Redemption) as the driver, and Louis Calhern (Notorious, Duck Soup) as a wealthy lawyer willing to take the stolen jewels once the whole operation has been completed. Jean Hagen (Singing in the Rain) plays a woman who is in love with Hayden’s Dix Handley and gets caught up in the web. There’s also a police chief (John McIntire, Psycho) and a private detective (Brad Dexter (The Magnificent Seven, Run Silent Run Deep) on the trail. Just about everyone in this film went on to significant work in the years after its release. In a minor role is a very young Marilyn Monroe as the wealthy lawyer’s mistress. Though she had appeared in a handful of movies as small or uncredited parts, this is her first real role, and it’s a fitting introduction. Later she became so famous that a new film poster was commissioned for The Asphalt Jungle (seen at the top) using her star power as a major marketing ploy for this film.
The Wizard of Oz. This movie looks like a million bucks.
It’s impossible to over-estimate the importance of The Asphalt Jungle. It came along at such a pivotal time, and you can spot little pieces of it in hundreds of movies that have been made in the years since 1950. It stands to reason that without The Asphalt Jungle, you don’t get Kubrick’s The Killing six years later with Sterling Hayden taking the lead in another heist. You don’t get Reservoir Dogs, a film that wears the influence on its sleeve. You don’t get The Italian Job (either the 1969 film or the 2003 remake with Marky Mark) and you definitely don’t get Ocean’s Eleven.