A film noir buff celebrates an underrated star of the genre: Sterling Hayden

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated March 04, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: The Killing: Everett Collection
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One tough guy you need to know

I’m an absolute sap for anything film noir. If I come across a black-and-white movie late at night with a tough guy in a fedora and a femme fatale with luscious gams, bowling pins, or getaway sticks, I’m as good as hooked. I’m not particularly discerning, either. Any old movie with a heist scene, double cross, or volley of hardboiled patter is a masterpiece in my book.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few indisputable classics of the genre: Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep come to mind. But noir doesn’t need A-list star power to push my buttons. After all, one man’s Alan Ladd is another man’s Humphrey Bogart. Which brings me to my newest favorite noir tough guy, Sterling Hayden.

Hayden, if he’s remembered at all these days, is probably best known as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove, or Captain McCluskey in The Godfather (he was the big, beefy corrupt Irish cop who got whacked by Michael Corleone while eating linguine). But Hayden, a gruff giant with a face like a side of roast beef, also starred in two of the best film noirs ever made. He had a hell of a life off screen, too.

Before coming to Hollywood in the ’40s, Hayden was a seaman. After a childhood like something out of Oliver Twist, he hit the high seas in his teens — first as a fisherman on the Grand Banks, and then as a captain who sailed around the world more than once. During WWII, he enlisted in the Marines and helped run guns to Yugoslav partisans, slipping past German blockades. On one mission, he parachuted into Croatia. But his life outside of Hollywood wasn’t all heroism. In the ’50s, he ratted to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He kicked himself over it for the rest of his life.

On screen, Hayden was just as complex. Beneath his imposing, blond façade (more often than not, he looked like a pissed-off Viking), Hayden was a mesmerizing character actor whose casual brutality made him a natural for noir. Take Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 heist flick, The Killing. While ’56 may be a little late in the game for it to be considered a true noir, Hayden’s brooding performance in this fractured-storyline prototype for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs is spot-on. Like all great noir characters, his race-track thief Johnny Clay is desperate, defiant, and deadly. If you haven’t seen The Killing, do yourself a favor and Netflix it, stat.

Hayden’s other great noir — and one of the greatest performances by anyone in the genre ever, including Bogie — is 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle. It’s as perfect a film noir as was ever made. Directed by John Huston (whose first film behind the camera was 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, by the way), Jungle chronicles a jewelry store heist from the point of view of the criminals — a pretty radical gambit at the time.

Hayden plays Dix Handley, the designated muscle in a band of thieves that includes Sam Jaffe’s elderly German ringleader, James Whitmore’s hunchback-with-a-heart-of-gold getaway driver, Anthony Caruso’s family-man safecracker, and Marc Lawrence as the gang’s sweaty weasel bankroller. None of those names ring a bell? Well, that’s exactly what makes the film so fantastic. Each character is perfectly cast. And none more so than Hayden’s hired goon, Dix.

Huston gives Dix a heart-tugging backstory about how he grew up on a horse ranch in the South that was foreclosed when his father fell on hard times. Dix wants this score — needs it — to finally leave his life of crime behind, wash away his sins, and buy that farm back. Even if he gets his wish and the job goes off without a hitch, Huston hints, Dix will never really be able to recapture his idyllic childhood, which is all part of the film’s wonderfully grim fatalism.

Aside from featuring a pre-icon Marilyn Monroe as the breathy mistress of a blue-blooded criminal big wig, Asphalt Jungle is probably best remembered for its climactic heist sequence. Huston devotes 11 nearly-silent minutes to tracking the minutiae of the job: how the getaway car is parked, how the criminals shimmy under an electric-eye sensor, how much nitroglycerin is needed to blow the safe, and how many cigarettes can be nervously sucked down on the job.

Needless to say, the gig doesn’t go quite as planned. But if you want to know more than that, you’re going to have to read about it elsewhere. I couldn’t live with my conscience if I ruined it for you. And as you watch Hayden grumble and throw punches, think about this: Steven Spielberg originally offered Hayden Robert Shaw’s role of Quint in Jaws. Would that movie have been better with Hayden? Impossible. But it’s fun to imagine how it would have been different. Hell, he might’ve knocked out the damn Great White with a haymaker and tugged the Orca back to shore with his teeth.

Agree? Disagree? What are some of your favorite film noirs?

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