In praise of Sterling Hayden – cinema’s nicest tough guy

With Johnny Guitar returning to cinemas, we tip our hat to one of the most towering acting talents of his generation.


Stephen Puddicombe

“There’s something about a tall man that makes people sit up and take notice.” So says a bystander shortly after Sterling Hayden’s introduction in the classic alt-western Johnny Guitar. He’s not wrong – the first thing you notice about Hayden is his remarkable height. Measuring 6’5”, he literally towers over his co-stars, carrying himself with an effortless authority.

There is, however, much more to Hayden than just his imposing stature. That opening scene in Johnny Guitar showcases his tough guy gravitas, as he measures up the building’s clientele with all the swagger of the great western heroes from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, with a deep, booming drawl to round off his hard man status.

But it’s later on in the film, when the focus shifts to his relationship with Joan Crawford’s subversive saloon owner, that his multifaceted acting ability shines through. With the subtlest change in facial expression he transforms his hardened, menacing look of a wild west gunslinger into the soft, handsome features of a sensitive romantic lead. He was, after all, once billed by Paramount as ‘The most beautiful man in movies.’

It’s this winning combination that made him such a great choice for the morally nuanced characters he played in a pair of noir heist films: John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. In each he plays criminals fluent in wise-guy slang who carry out robberies on a jewellery store and a bookies at a horse racing track respectively – with all the self-assured competence of a hardened criminal. But a more vulnerable, unhinged side comes to the fore in The Asphalt Jungle’s final scene, when, fleeing the police and bleeding to death, Hayden’s character drives towards the idyllic farm of his childhood while incoherently rambling about making everything okay again. He reaches it only to collapse and die.

Despite mastering an acting style that was very much of its time, as he grew older and the film industry moved on from the Classical era to New Hollywood, Hayden managed to establish himself as a successful character actor, further entrenching his place in film history by appearing in yet more classics. (You may well recognise him as the cop who becomes Al Pacino’s first victim in The Godfather).

Further evidence of his versatility came in Dr Strangelove, for which he teamed up with Kubrick again to play the cigar-smoking, warmongering general who carries out the order for his men to nuke Russia. Jack D Ripper (the name is a give away) is clearly deranged, preaching about the need to protect US citizens’ “precious bodily fluids” from communist sabotage, but it’s the way Hayden savours every line without ever hamming it up that makes the character truly menacing. All while he displays a hilariously deadpan aptitude for comedy – holding his own opposite Peter Sellers, no less.

Hayden’s career came full circle in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, where he returned to murky world of crime and double-crossing that characterised his early film noirs. Hollywood had changed – the old generic tropes deconstructed and revised. But Hayden had changed with it. Playing an alcoholic author suspected of murder, he delivers his lines in the naturalistic, improv style Altman demanded, and departs from his reticent, steely take on the macho criminal to portray a flailing mess of a character who winds up drowning himself in the sea. Hayden’s good looks faded with age and he became more hunched in posture, but this great actor still brought depth and pathos to his roles late into his career.

Johnny Guitar is getting a limited theatrical re-release on 6 May courtesy of Park Circus.

Published 26 Apr 2016

Tags: Joan Crawford Sterling Hayden

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