Sunday, August 15, 2010

Take Three: Sterling Hayden

Craig here with today's Take Three

Take One & Take Two:... for Mr. Kubrick or: how I learned to stop worrying and love The Killing

Kubrick didn’t often cast actors more than once in major roles in his films. Apart from Kirk Douglas (Paths of Glory, Spartacus) and Peter Sellers (Lolita, Dr. Strangelove) I can’t think of a great many others who received a repeat Kubrick experience. That is, other than Sterling Hayden, who nabbed two great roles in The Killing (1956) and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Hayden was the stern leader of Kubrick’s crime gang in the former, and an integral part of his military circus in the latter.

For Dr. Strangelove he was drawn out of early retirement by Kubrick to play General Jack Ripper, an ever-so-slightly insane, uber-patriotic USAF Brigadier (bizarrely obsessed with his own ‘precious bodily fluids’) who issues orders to launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union due to his paranoid fear of “the Commies” and “their plan” involving water fluoridation. (This is somewhat ironic as Hayden had a brief dalliance with the Communist Party, although he subsequently repudiated his membership.) Ripper holes up in his office with Capt. Mandrake (Sellers), who attempts to - sometimes literally - wrestle the three-digit attack recall code from him. (Ripper’s the only one who knows the code.)

The grim Ripper: Hayden burning a hole through the screen in Dr. Strangelove

Hayden plays the General as a psychotic, controlling brute force - but perceptibly daft and “mad as a bloody March hare” with it. He’s called on to play it straight, but with enough of a knowing wink to indicate that he’s well aware of the preposterousness inherent in the premise; he gamely plays along with it. When Ripper’s got Mandrake in a tight grip (see below), spouting forth about his ‘bodily fluids’, he barely blinks - watching closely, it's noticable that Hayden just about manages not to crack up with laughter at the absurdity of the situation; his gradually softening eyes almost betray the comedy buried in him, struggling to get out. Minor moments such as this make Hayden a joy to watch in the film.

Peter Sellers doesn't want to know about Hayden's bodily fluids in Dr. Strangelove

Elsewhere, Hayden aptly commands the screen, often assisted by Kubrick’s trademark severe close-ups: one in particular, in which he’s shot just under the chin, with his ever-present cigar jutting out imposingly, makes him look almost monolithic, statue-like; Hayden’s stony-faced disposition fills the film frame, dominating the scene. The camera fixates on Hayden’s chiseled features; Kubrick’s exquisite framing captures his half-comical-half-scary-as-hell antics with a precise tension.

Heist wide shut: Hayden plans a Killing

For crime-noir The Killing Hayden was top-billed, but as with all movie heists we know it’s teamwork; every desperate rat supports and relies on the others. Hayden puts his granite-like good looks to great use as ex-con Johnny Clay, the smooth, duplicitous leader of a gang of no-hope chancers hedging their bets on a stolen $2 million racetrack payout. Hayden was just as dashing and debonair as Cary Grant in his day; but he was, by turns, more weathered and tender in his expressiveness (especially here in The Killing), and not, I guess, as bankable or definable as Grant - though he was an infinitely more intriguing screen presence.

Hayden with Marie Windsor in The Killing

Clay needed to be played by someone with a commanding allure. Hayden, at 6ft-5-in, towers over his co-stars, expounding Jim Thompson’s salty dialogue with the right level of casual spite; he lays it out with quick-wit and barely a pause for breath: “I know you like a book. You’d sell your mother for a piece of fudge... you’ve got a great big dollar sign, there, where most women have a heart.” Hayden’s cool, full-throated line delivery and persuasive way with words could convince God to do the devil’s work.

Johnny come lately: Hayden stashes the gun in The Killing

Johnny knows the heist plan inside out. He’d beat The A-Team’s Hannibal in a loving-it-when-a-plan-comes-together-competition any day. We, the audience, aren’t privy its every step, so we rely on the omnipotent narration and Hayden’s controlled verve to carry it out for us. (The non-chronological, out-of-place scenes are doled to us like disjointed puzzle pieces - a narrative device revolutionary at the time, and one Tarantino milked for Reservoir Dogs; ostensibly making Hayden’s Johnny the original Joe Cabot.)

Hayden has many lone scenes in the film - particularly where he's zipping around town, organising the finer details of heist and making sure every last arrangement goes according to plan. Of course it doesn't - do movie heists ever go according to plan? - but Hayden strives hard to carry it off till the end. (Despite the fact he's a brutal criminal, it's crushing to think that a pesky dog and an airport's luggage policy are the simple things to fudge it all up, after everything Johnny's gone through; it's solely to Hayden's credit that he makes us care so much what happens to him.) It's possibly his best role - one that requires him to often wordlessly convey much of his character's inner complexities. He's as compelling to watch alone on screen as he is interacting with co-stars. And for my money, The Killing is probably Kubrick's best film.

Take Three: Johnny, He Good

"The name, sir, is Johnny Guitar... anybody care to change it?"

Between two strong-willed women of the west, Joan Crawford’s Vienna and Mercedes McCambridge’s Emma Small, Hayden was almost sidelined as Johnny Guitar (1954), Nicholas Ray’s oddment (non-)western. But then everyone who works with Crawford has a supporting role - whether they’re named after the title character or not. (Apparently both Hayden and McCambridge hated working with Crawford so much they openly declared it after shooting wrapped, vowing never to work with her ever again; undoubtedly Crawford reciprocated.) In retrospect, the ladies’ off-screen animosity added an extra venomous volatility to the scenes between Vienna and Emma; but it’s to both Hayden’s and Crawford’s credit that they convincingly made pretty with one another on screen. There is chemistry between them - and, luckily, due to their character's situations, it needed to be awkward.

Joan Crawford's none too impressed with Hayden's instrument in Johnny Guitar

As with The Killing, Hayden excelled at playing lone men with shady histories. He’s Johnny again here (real name Logan), a figure from Vienna's past; he struts into her Arizona barroom armed with an ounce of charm and, of course, his guitar. His screen virility is near quashed by Crawford’s domineering saloon owner; she’s more man than he is; he’s the mild west to her wild west. The almost role-reversal schematic was certainly strange for the genre at that time, but integrally progressive and fascinating to watch. (The beef and resulting showdown, the crux of the narrative, is between the women - making this an almost feminist take on the western.)

The unusual west: Crawford and Hayden search the open range in Johnny Guitar

Johnny's a sing-song character, placid and lightly played to begin with, but Hayden gradually allows Johnny a glint of darkness as the film goes on - so that heading into the final reel he can down the guitar and become Johnny Gun. He’s not the cowboy hero though; it’s Crawford’s show. The most intriguing aspect to Hayden’s performance is in watching how such a statuesque, brusque hunk of an actor manoeuvres through a secondary role. He’s never quite a Desperate Dan in distress, but he passively sits back and lets the McCambridge and Crawford double-act to dominate - something grouchy old John Wayne would never have done. It’s applaudable that Hayden was man enough to play second fiddle, or, ahem, second guitar, to the women. He played it all with a relaxed, rugged style.


Tim B. said...

I think I'll get a kick out of Johnny Guitar if I get around to seeing it. When Crawford is in an interesting movie it's usually a win for me.

Edward Copeland said...

Hayden is one of my favorites. He's also great in Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, as the sheriff in Suddenly, as the crooked police captain in The Godfather, in a small role in the underrated Winter Kills and even his brief cameo in 9 to 5.

Anonymous said...

I love The Killing as much as the next guy ... but with films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Dr. Strangelove in one oeuvre, can we really call it Kubrick's best?

The list goes on, actually. The guy made nothing but masterpieces!

Kyle said...

I was literally JUST watching "The Killing" yesterday on Netflix Instant Stream as a part of my Kubrick education. Pretty good film overall, that voiceover narration throughout might have been a bit much, but Hayden really knocked my socks off.


I feel so bad that i STILL haven't seen Johnny Guitar. I can't imagine what my holdup is given the Crawford and the abundant love it gets from people i like.


Amir said...

just watched johnny guitar two weeks ago.
one of the best westerns i've ever seen actually.

Mirko said...

I think JOHNNY GUITAR should have been his shot to Oscars. Maybe to edge for them, but still a cult movie ande anyway I'm quite sorry that a such brillant actor never received a single nomination

Volvagia said...

In my opinion, the big miss was The Long Goodbye. And, might I suggest Eli Wallach for a future installment. The talking points: Baby Doll, The Misfits + (of course) The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Craig Bloomfield said...

Badmofo - I was simply putting across my preference of The Killing within his career - which is why I said 'for my money it's his probably best'. It's possibly the last time one of his films was loose, funky and altogether snappier, whilst still being an overall great film. And also not weighed down with over-extensive detail, like many after it.

A lot of Kubrick's films are indeed great, and most are seen as masterpieces, but I've never really backed the 'genius' tag some folk slap on him.

Edward Copeland/Volvagia - I nearly chose Long Goodbye and/or Suddenly, but liked the idea of the Kubrick comparison. He was great in both though.

Nat - Johnny Guitar is on SkyGreats tonight! (Not sure what channels the US get though).

cal roth said...

Johnny Guitar was too much for Oscars. It's a Fassbinder movie, if you look closer. And it's not only the colors.