It took over 40 years until Goodfellas was made to make a film interesting and realistic about criminals as The Asphalt Jungle. The power in the characters that John Huston brings to life is so vivid and you root for them, yet you never forget they are criminals.
Sam Jaffe, a cool and calculating planner, brings a scheme to big time lawyer Louis Calhern about a jewel robbery. Calhern is a criminal attorney who really does work both sides of the fence. But he's also got some high living expenses and a young mistress in the shape of Marilyn Monroe in the first film that got her notice.
Jaffe needs three to help pull off the job, a safe cracker, a driver, and a strong arm guy, a 'hooligan' as he calls it. Calhern provides them in the persons of Anthony Caruso, James Whitmore, and Sterling Hayden.
You wouldn't think it, but Jaffe and Hayden bond in this. The educated criminal mastermind and a man who might not have finished grade school. Jaffe sees in Hayden a reliable sort.
Sterling Hayden did not think too much of most of the action/adventure stuff he did, but he liked The Asphalt Jungle as well he should. He's a country kid, his nickname is 'Dix' short for Dixie. His family owned a farm and bad luck hit them as it did so many in The Great Depression. Hayden turns to criminal enterprise because his skills for making an honest living are limited. His biggest accomplishment is having a B girl from a clip joint fall hard for him in the person of Jean Hagen. Both of their characterizations ring well and true, dare I say it, sterling performances.
Of course after the job is done, fallible and corrupt human beings like bookmaker Marc Lawrence, corrupt police lieutenant Barry Kelley, strong arm man Brad Dexter, and Calhern himself bring the whole thing crashing down.
One of the reasons you root so hard for the criminals to succeed is the magnificent and unheralded performance of John McIntire as the police commissioner. Imagine if Charles Laughton as Inspector Javert, had not gotten so tangled up in searching for Jean Valjean and rose to become the head of the Surete in France. You've got McIntire. I don't think any honest cop has been made so unpleasant on the screen before or since. At one point he's telling the press that he'll get Hayden and Hayden is a callous brute. The most callous person in the cast is McIntire and we go through 112 minutes of The Asphalt Jungle and know how very human Sterling Hayden is.
Sam Jaffe got an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to George Sanders in All About Eve. The film itself got three other nominations including for Huston as Best Director. It had the bad luck to run up against another classic film in All About Eve, in it's own way as cynical a film as The Asphalt Jungle.
John Huston took a cast and got perfect performances out of the lot of them and The Asphalt Jungle holds up every bit over fifty years later. Should really be seen beside Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas to get a full appreciation for today's generation.