The development of film noir, the not-quite-a-genre that wouldn't be named until after the fact, but which dominated American genre filmmaking in the 15 years after World War II, snakes this way and that, constantly churning and turning out new variations on a theme. But it's still possible to pin it down on a map and be somewhat comfortable in having identified which moments and which films specifically guided the overall shape of noir. And if you've gone ahead and done that, you will find, I think, that two of the movies which most clearly serve as flashpoints were both directed by the same man, John Huston. The earlier of these, his debut, was 1941's The Maltese Falcon, the single motion picture that did more than anything else to cement "the detective film" as a sustainable sub-genre of the crime picture. It is not hard to find accounts that (inaccurately) describe it as the genesis of noir itself; certainly, Falcon clones persist in a number of iterations for the next several years. Meanwhile, as the decade wore on and men returned home after years seeing God knows what kinds of hell in the European and Pacific theaters of war, film noir abandoned gangster and detective fiction trappings to take up shop in the new landscapes of post-war America: banal suburbs, often located in the new population destinations of California and the Southwest, where untold rancidity lurked; and the old cities from which those suburbanites fled, decaying canyons of glass and steel and a constant sense of damp filth.

By the end of the decade, noir was ready for a shift from the standard tale of everyday Joes being broken down by economic desperation, untrustworthy women, or both. And it came in the form of another Huston picture, 1950's The Asphalt Jungle, with a screenplay co-written by Huston and Ben Maddow after the 1949 novel by W.R. Burnett. This film would prove to be one of the most transformative in noir, though even that's selling it short: this is among the most generally influential American films of the 1950s. Two entire narrative traditions are to some degree indebted to this one film: it is the wellspring from which the entire caper/heist movie tradition emerges, from Rififi on down to Ant-Man, and it's the movie that revived the dormant tradition of crime stories with actual bad guys as the protagonists. Gangster films in both the United States and France, and doubtlessly other countries I don't know so well, had flourished in the '30s, but the war years largely killed off the genre. Noir thrived on criminals, of course, but it was all about normal citizens being swept away by callous fate. With The Asphalt Jungle, we step foot into the underworld of career criminals, a sordid experience of watching objectively bad people doing objectively bad things for reasons that could never be defended as noble, and enthusiastically rooting for them. At least, rooting for the "good" bad guys to win out over the "bad" bad guys.

The film's contemporary reception was gleefully distressed about this sordidness, receiving the film as something slimy and nihilistic, and finding that to be captivating and exciting (except for a handful of moralising spoilsports - to the surprise of nobody, stuffy ol' Bosley Crowther of The New York Times found the film terribly well-made and "repulsive", ending his review by bemoaning "If only it all weren't so corrupt!"). Time, alas, has robbed The Asphalt Jungle of some of its grottiness: you couldn't pluck a random set of five '50s noirs off the shelf without three of them trafficking in the same casual criminality that made this such an event. It simply doesn't seem dangerous now in the way that, to judge from contemporary critics, it must have done when it was new.

Time has not, however, robbed The Asphalt Jungle of any of its excellence as a piece of cinematic craftsmanship: this is top-level Huston, marrying all of his strengths and avoiding all of his weaknesses. The actors are handled with military precision - there's not a weak spot in the cast, and at least a couple of "all-time best work" candidates - Harold Rosson's camera movies with muscular poetry, such as a great pan to the left during a shootout, the camera lunging along with the characters; the pace is agonisingly methodical up until it's suddenly terrifyingly fast. It's the most sinewy of noirs, with a wired feeling that's perfectly matched by its two best characters and performers, Sterling Hayden's Dix Handley and Sam Jaffe's Oscar-nominated turn as Doc Riedenschneider.

Riedenschneider is the prime mover in the plot, at least to begin with. In some mid-sized city in the Midwest, he's just been released from prison, with a perfect idea for a jewel heist. In order to carry it off, he needs some help: first comes low-rent bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence), who helps reconnect Ridenschneider to the local criminal element; then comes crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), with the money to hire the team. That being safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso), getaway driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore), and gunman Dix, a gambling addict whose desire to buy back the family horse ranch, lost in the '30s, runs afoul of his more recent love of betting on horses. Add in Dix's lover, Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen), and corrupt cop Ditrich (Barry Kelley), and you have all of the ingredients for a story that will not, by any means, come as much of a surprise. Perhaps that was even true in 1950. It doesn't matter: The Asphalt Jungle is driven by Huston's close attention to the mechanics of crime, both in setting up the crime and then executing it, in an 11-minute sequence that set the standard for heist movies forever after. It's not as groundbreaking as it might have been in the short window of years before Rififi came and blew it away, but it's still immaculate filmmaking: tightly edited by George Boemler so that every shift feels like a firecracker going off in the viewer's brain, nervily mixing close-ups and medium shots to keep things claustrophobic and sweaty.

The obvious fascination the filmmakers feel for their characters gives the film a stately procedural aura that keeps it set apart from the dozens of movies to riff on it in the following years, and the willingness by all the actors to play their roles without any sentiment or pulling to convince us that they're somehow nice provides it with a guttural meanness that still hits hard even as the film lacks the sense of fatalism of the bleakest noirs (the characters suffer from bad luck, but there's no sense that the universe itself is trying to conspire about them; it even manages to provide a sense of moral uplift, or something not totally unlike that, when Riedenschneider allows himself to be caught while being nice to teenagers). In its depiction of Calhern's utter slimeball of a character - his mistress, played by Marilyn Monroe in what functionally amounts to her debut, calls him "Uncle" in one of the creepiest touches in all of noir - and even in Hayden's star-making turn as the sturdy but distinctly unkind Dix (Rosson gives him some terrific eyelights that are basically the only touches of humanity he receives), The Asphalt Jungle doesn't shy away from the central reality that people who do these things might be consummate professionals, but they're also amoral at best. It's a film that explores crime without celebrating it, an enormously impressive balancing act right up till it spoils it in a banal "cops are unsung heroes" monologue that feels like an unwilling sop to the censors.

But let's not hold a crummy penultimate scene against a great study of the criminal in his native habitat. The Asphalt Jungle, earning its title, is one of the great films about '50s urban moral turpitude, beautifully harsh in its black-and-white cinematography, unsentimentally flat in its characterisations. It is not a nice film, but it is a gripping one, and one of the exemplars of its great genre.