Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The 5 Best: Sterling Hayden

Sterling Hayden is my personal favorite old school silver screen brooding brute. At 6 foot 5 inches and with that ruggedly handsome face he must have been an imposing figure to behold in person. His screen personas always had the benefit of his magnificent stature. He mostly played tough guys, cut from that certain mid-20th century American cloth, though unlike some actors of the era who were pussycats off-screen, Hayden (at least according to his IMDB bio) was an out-an-out badass; a man’s man to be sure. He was at one time or another: an accomplished seaman and ship’s captain, an OSS agent, a trained commando, a U.S. Marine and a gun-runner during WWII.

By all accounts Sterling seems to have hated acting, doing it to pick up a paycheck here and there, but harboring great personal contempt for the profession. He would rather have been out adventuring. Still, despite this fact, Sterling Hayden has left an indelible mark on our cinematic past, turning in a slew of standout performances in what have come to be heralded as some of America’s finest films. And yes, OK, I can already hear you giving me sh*t for not including Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) on my list. Duly noted.

Crime Wave (1954) / dir. André De Toth

Hayden’s dogged, straighter-than-an-arrow Dt. Lt. Sims helped inspire the character of Bud White in James Ellroy’s masterpiece crime novel, L.A. Confidential. Admittedly it’s a bit of a stiff performance, but Hayden chews the scenery with near reckless abandon, delivering his lines with the ferocity of a pit bull and speed of a Tommy Gun, which makes for great pulp noir viewing. A must for fans of the genre!

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) /

dir. John Houston

Dix Handley serves as “the muscle” component in Doc Riedenschneider’s (Oscar® nominee Sam Jaffe) ragtag group of doomed thieves. Dix is a good ole country boy gone rotten, suffocating on the fumes and oppression of the big city, taken to a life of petty crime, eking out his living on the fringes trying to earn enough dough to buy back his family’s farm. Hayden plays him with a cool front of down-to-business stoicism and just-under-the-surface vulnerability; his most tragic role.

The Killing (1956) / dir. Stanley Kubrick

Hayden anchors Kubrick’s precision clockwork caper film as Johnny Clay, mastermind of a breathless race track heist and a desperate pawn caught by the rip currents of fate in its unraveling aftermath.

The Godfather (1972) /

dir. Francis Ford Coppola

In what amounts to little more than an extended cameo, Hayden doles out a memorable bit of gruff masculinity with his deeply corrupt McCluskey, the New York City police Captain in Sollozzo’s pocket. After breaking Michael Corleone’s jaw, Sterling graciously takes one in the neck and one in the forehead in the most famous scene from one of the most famous and beloved movies in American film history.

The Long Goodbye (1973) / dir. Robert Altman

Hayden, bearded and bloated, growls, barks and boozes his way through Altman’s hazy L.A. noir (adapted from the Raymond Chandler novel) as Hemmingway-esque author, Roger Wade. He’s a hollowed out giant at the end of his rope whose trophy wife (played as a sultry, slightly hippie, blonde beach chic by Nina Van Pallandt) just may be the film’s femme fatale. I love the way Wade, even after being corrected several times, affectionately refers to Elliot Gould’s mostly clueless private dick, Philip Marlowe, as the Marlboro man. It’s a glorious grand-standing performance, but one that’s filled with heart, soul and deep empathy for the character’s painfully careening out of control desperation. It might be Sterling Hayden’s finest hour – he’s certainly all-in.


Brent said...

great list. He did have some truly fine performances. I'll always think of him first for Asphalt Jungle, but he was reat in many films. Nice to see him get some appreciation here!

Amir said...

great list.
but for me, his best performance is hands down, in Johnny Guitar.
i love the film, and it mostly revolves around joan crawford, but Hayden gives a terrific performance.

Pete said...

Thanks Brent and Amir! Sadly, I've never had the opportunity to see Johnny Guitar and Netflix doesn't carry it. I'll have to find some other way to track it down. Perhaps Turner Classic Movies...


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