Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Heath Holland On...Sterling Hayden and The Asphalt Jungle

by Heath Holland
If you only know Sterling Hayden from his role in The Godfather, then you don’t know Dix.

If you’re a movie fan, chances are you know Sterling Hayden’s face from one of the most famous scenes in cinema. In a pivotal scene during 1972’s The Godfather, a young Michael Corleone is taken to a seemingly-safe, public location—a restaurant—for a meeting with the head of a rival gang, Sollozzo, and a corrupt police captain, McCluskey (Hayden). What goes down in that restaurant is a benchmark in movie storytelling, and it also let the world know that Al Pacino had arrived on the scene. Everyone is at the top of their game, including Sterling Hayden as the police captain who doesn’t realize what he’s stumbled into.

In actuality, Sterling Hayden has a long history of fantastic performances. The other easy one to call out is as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. However, while rarely uttered in the same breath as Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, Hayden was at the forefront of a wave of significant films that helped define and redefine several genres during the 1950s. His work in a handful of 1950s westerns such as Hellgate, The Iron Sheriff, and Arrow in the Dust brought a new level of character depth and questionable morality to what had previously been a fairly one-dimensional affair. He’s one of the many great heroes of those fifties westerns who stood for what was right, but had to get his hands dirty to do so, calling into question whether or not the means justified the ends.
More indispensable than even those important westerns, though, is his work in film noir. Starting in the late 1940s and continuing until the end of the 1950s when post-World-War-II-paranoia gave way to new atomic-age optimism, Hayden appeared in a handful of outstanding noir films, including his first collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in the 1956 classic The Killing. Yet none of these movies are as important as 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle.

The Asphalt Jungle holds the distinction of being the first heist film to really show how it’s done. There had been heist movies before, but none had bothered to go into such gritty detail as this film, directed by noir legend John Huston. What The Asphalt Jungle offers viewers is something had had never been seen before at the movies: a focus on the entire breadth of a crime from conception to execution, and finally aftermath. Audiences had seen crimes of passion, murders, robberies, and dastardly deeds before, but Huston’s film (based on W.R. Burnett’s novel) gives us the nuts and bolts and shows us how a crime is pre-meditated and carefully planned well in advance. It assembles a team of specialists, each with their own unique skill, to pull of the perfect caper.

Of course, it’s not a perfect caper; that would be much less interesting. The real appeal of the film is watching the ensemble cast react to the challenges that occur along the way. Huston made a deliberate choice to populate his film with lesser-known actors to lend the story a feeling of authenticity. In addition to Sterling Hayden as gunman Dix Handley we get Sam Jaffe (Gunga Din, The Day the Earth Stood Still) as the mastermind of the heist, Anthony Caruso (Watch on the Rhine) as a safecracker, James Whitmore (The Shawshank Redemption) as the driver, and Louis Calhern (Notorious, Duck Soup) as a wealthy lawyer willing to take the stolen jewels once the whole operation has been completed. Jean Hagen (Singing in the Rain) plays a woman who is in love with Hayden’s Dix Handley and gets caught up in the web. There’s also a police chief (John McIntire, Psycho) and a private detective (Brad Dexter (The Magnificent Seven, Run Silent Run Deep) on the trail. Just about everyone in this film went on to significant work in the years after its release. In a minor role is a very young Marilyn Monroe as the wealthy lawyer’s mistress. Though she had appeared in a handful of movies as small or uncredited parts, this is her first real role, and it’s a fitting introduction. Later she became so famous that a new film poster was commissioned for The Asphalt Jungle (seen at the top) using her star power as a major marketing ploy for this film.
All of this is directed with masterful skill by John Huston. When we think of great directors, we tend to associate certain genres or kinds of films with certain people. John Ford was the king of the big-budget western who told epic stories with human characters. Frank Capra was the master of optimistic stories about regular men overcoming overwhelming circumstances. Alfred Hitchcock knew how to scare us. John Huston worked in several genres during his career, but THIS is the kind of movie he excelled at making. His work with Humphrey Bogart is legendary, and together they gave us The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (a hybrid of noir and western), Beat the Devil, and The African Queen. In a lot of ways, Huston was one of the directors who helped to create the noir style in the first place. His talents are on full display in The Asphalt Jungle, and his cinematographer here is Harold Rosson, the man who filmed The Wizard of Oz. This movie looks like a million bucks.

It’s impossible to over-estimate the importance of The Asphalt Jungle. It came along at such a pivotal time, and you can spot little pieces of it in hundreds of movies that have been made in the years since 1950. It stands to reason that without The Asphalt Jungle, you don’t get Kubrick’s The Killing six years later with Sterling Hayden taking the lead in another heist. You don’t get Reservoir Dogs, a film that wears the influence on its sleeve. You don’t get The Italian Job (either the 1969 film or the 2003 remake with Marky Mark) and you definitely don’t get Ocean’s Eleven.
Sometimes older films, especially those made during the classic era of Hollywood, can feel a little dated; like they’re a part of a bygone era and have little to offer a modern audience aside from a look at how things used to be. This is not the case with The Asphalt Jungle. It’s as fresh and thrilling as it was in 1950, and holds its own in a now-crowded sandbox that’s shared by the likes of Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. I believe this is because of excellent direction and an outstanding cast, led first and foremost by Sterling Hayden. If you aren’t familiar with Hayden outside of that fantastic scene in The Godfather, then I can’t think of a better place to start your own investigation than with The Asphalt Jungle.


  1. It's interesting how you mention some classics can still work just as well today. I remember introducing The Killing to a couple of friends. When I told them it's from 1956 and it's in black and white they almost immediately dismissed it. But they watched it and both loved it!

    1. I get it because I used to be like that. Now I dismiss current movies. Just kidding! But not really.

    2. Yet, somehow I can understand your friends. I also have it, that it's harder to convince me to watch an older film over a newer one, because they are sometimes rougher, more challenging... pulling me out of my comfort-zone I'm used to be in, because of the modern hollywood films. And still, most of the times they deliver something special and I'm almost always glad that I've seen the classic...

  2. The Asphalt Jungle is the film that made me a Sterling Hayden fan; but it also confused me to realize that he's more of an esoteric film fan's favorite rather than considered one of the elite of his time. The steely and dry expression of emotion he offers has always clicked with me personally. And his role as Ripper in Dr. Strangelove is an all-time great. I always accuse my wife of trying to steal my "essence" every time she wants to get amorous.