Sterling Hayden: The Man Who Saw It Coming

By Rob Munday

When Hayden was first signed to Paramount they dubbed him: “The Beautiful Blond Viking God” yet to his admirers those fair locks were grey – captured on black and white film stock. This seems right for a man old before his time.
Like other Noir heroes (Robert Ryan, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum) Hayden had led a life before he broke through on the big screen. He’d sailed around the world, been a marine and then a Special Agent (using the name John Hamilton). He’d seen too much, and in his eyes you could tell.

Like Mitchum, he also had a healthy disdain for his profession, once saying,
“If I had the dough I’d buy up the negative of every film I ever made . . . and start one hell of a fire”
Did he mean it, or was he just getting the punch in first before anyone else did? One thing’s for sure, there is always the sense with Hayden that he knew he was in for it. And he was proved right in the films. When it got to the final reel there was only heartbreak in store or (if he was lucky) perhaps he’d get to watch his money blow away or get a bullet in the throat from some upstart Mafioso.

In Asphalt Jungle and The Killing he was the perfect Noir lead: tough, unknowable, quietly desperate for another life. In reality he always preferred sailing to acting, often taking roles just to buy boats or to cover the mounting costs of his divorce settlements. And these stacked up, as Hayden was married five times. The first time was to his first leading lady Madeline Carol and then he was three times married and three times divorced from Betty Ann de Noon (surely a character name from one of his Westerns).

It seems inevitable that he should team up with director Nicholas Ray, the master of doomed romance and ambition ruined by self-destruction. He played the title part for Ray in Johnny Guitar, his character in love with Joan Crawford’s domineering Vienna. Falling for Crawford is never gonna turn out well.

So here’s to Sterling Hayden, who once spoke these lines:

Johnny: How many men have you forgotten?
Vienna: As many women as you’ve remembered.
Johnny: Don’t go away.
Vienna: I haven’t moved.
Johnny: Tell me something nice.
Vienna: Sure, what do you want to hear?
Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited. Tell me.
Vienna: [without feeling] All those years I’ve waited.
Johnny: Tell me you’d a-died if I hadn’t come back.
Vienna: [without feeling] I woulda died if you hadn’t come back.
Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.
Vienna: [without feeling] I still love you like you love me.
Johnny: [bitterly] Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Dialogue from Johnny Guitar (written by Philip Yordan).

Check out the best of Hayden in: The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, (and as supporting cast in) Johnny Guitar, Dr Strangelove, The Godfather, The Long Goodbye.