Greeting, all and sundry!
After taking a step back as the latest addition to The Hunger Games sweeps through theaters near and far, I’ve decided to tidy up some loose ends. With a pinch of Paula’s What A Character Blog-A-Thon. And a subtly expressed desire to learn more of the machinations of director, Stanley Kubrick.
To that end. Allow me to introduce a superb character actor. Who was born poor. Lived large and rich. Was something of a swashbuckler during World War II. And brought that vast experience to countless roles. This offering will cover four of his most popular and memorable characters. Under the assured touch of three historic directors:
Sterling Hayden: Variations On A Theme.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
From the corner diner and soda shop run by a hunchbacked ex convict, James Whitmore. To insurance companies with policies on diamonds and other precious stones. To monied families led by Louis Calhern as Alonzo Emmerich. Who pads his family coffers through bank rolling high end heists. When not spending obnoxious sums to his his pampered girlfriend, Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe).
To keep afloat, Emmerich moves on a diamond heist that requires a master “Yegg”. (Safe cracker). A small crew. And an expendable hooligan in the form of Dix Handley. Who walks into the conspiracy with eyes wide open. Seeing a chance for some quick money and a one way ticket back to Tennessee and his Quarter Horses.
Emmerich stalls. One of Emmerich’s associates draws a pistol. Dix drops him, but catches a shot to the gut. Emmerich gives up what cash he has. Dix goes to see his girlfriend, “Doll” Conovan (Jean Hagen) for a cross country trip home. As “Doc” sedately takes the slow route home in a taxi. With a side stop to a diner and a comely young lady who catches “Doc”‘s eye. Before being recognized and pursued by police.
What Does Mr. Hayden Bring To This Role?
A solid Rock Of Gibraltar upon which to build a wondrously devious tale on the intricacies of high end crime. With Dix bullying his way when necessary. Yet unaware that his benefactor, Emmerich is spending money he doesn’t have for maps, tools and expertise required. And hoping to buy the stones cheap and sell them dearly. To remain solvent for another year.
All this is Greek to Dix. Who is willing to take the risk. For an immediate payoff. And is not really surprised when angers rise and things head south after the heist.
The Killing (1956)
Secrecy is essential. But men will be men. Egos will be egos. And Clay and Peatty have girlfriends. Clay’s girlfriend, Fay (Colleen Gray) is frightened of her man. While Peatty’s wife, Sherry (Acid tongued and cheating, Marie Windsor) has other plans. Courtesy of Val Cannon in a classic double cross.
I’ll leave it right there. Lest I move into spoiler territory.
What Does Mr. Hayden Bring To This Role as Johnny Clay?
An iron fist inside a somewhat clumsy glove. There are members of Clay’s crew whom he knows. And others he does not. Using greed and the allure of big money, he does get them to work together. When a few aren’t busy working their own angles. To claim their prize at the end of the rainbow. Those whom Clay cannot intimidate. He sometimes brow beats as dents and small problems are worked out.
Refreshingly, the ladies, or dames in attendance are often just as greedy and clever as the men. With Marie Windsor’s setting the standard for ruthless molls to come.
In a straightforward, B&W shadow filled and close to Noir heist film. That looks and feels like a procedural. Completely from the criminals’ point of view.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1965)
Which brings in a later, 1964 Kubrick film. A Doomsday, Black Comedy filled with superb, deadpan comedic talent. And a heavt hitting supporting cast much more recognizable for drama. Yet excelling at comedy. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.
Mr. Hayden’s General Ripper is one of the few straight dramatic roles. And gets the ball rolling to an at first nervous, then frightened and near Panicked Pentagon. Its War Room, Big Board. Russian diplomats and dryly funny use of “The Red Phone” as solutions (Outside of the Army overrunning and taking back the SAC base and arresting Ripper) are sought. Cutting between the Pentagon and the lead B-52 piloted by Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) as it dodges missiles and gets ever closer. Then back to the War Room and the besieged Burpleson Air Force Base. And Ripper supplying offensive fire with a .30 caliber Browning Machine Gun pulled from a Golf Bag (Don’t ask!)With cuts getting shorter, tighter and more suspenseful as new courses and targets are selected by Kong for his bomber.
What Does Mr. Hayden Bring To This Role as Gen. Ripper?
One the most accurate physical portrayal of an American Military icon in cinema. Shot from low set cameras angled high to bring forth the full measure of a man feared and respected more than the Presidents of two administrations in the early 1960s.
Mr. Hayden’s and Ripper’s soliloquy to Peter Sellers’ Mandrake regarding Clemenseau. The Military Generals, Politicians and war could easily have been uttered at any time during Kennedy’s embarrassing “Bay of Pigs” invasion and fiasco. Or his later mediocre redemption during The Cuban Missile Crisis. Which, I believe is one of the reason the film works and has aged so well. The possibility of “What if?” taken to first, dramatic and later, comedic extremes.
The Godfather (1972)
Though Mr. Hayden isn’t on the screen very long. He makes more than the most of each scene. Radiating intolerance, arrogance and bullying legal brute force. From the moment McCluskey pushes through the clutch of uniformed cops to confront an equally arrogant and sarcastic Michael Corleone. (Al Pacino). Before breaking a sinus and jaw while clocking him into the next time zone.
Throwing down the gauntlet for all to see. Before inching back as Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall) rolls up and disgorges an equally large group of plain clothed, licensed and armed “investigators” to protected the hospitalized and moved Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). In that fleeting moment there is a palpable hate between the two. Enough to tinge Michael’s later compound strategy with Tom and Sonny. To a bit more “personal” than “business” regarding the expedient demise of Sollozzo and McCluskey.
Sterling Hayden epitomized the Hollywood “Tough Guy” through the 1950s and 60s. Often down and out and with few options. Who could deliver and take punches on the same level as Robert Mitchum. And handled firearms with respect and familiarity. And full knowledge of what they could do.
Overbearing? Sure. When the character required it. Though there were smarts in abundance behind that steely gaze. Either from experience or the school of hard knocks. Very much like Burt Lancaster. Though not nearly as physical. Willing to play unlikeable characters. And never apologizing for it.
Thoughts on Sterling Hayden and/or any of his roles mentioned above?