“I started at the top and worked my way down.” (Sterling Hayden)
Sterling Hayden was something of a rarity in the world of the Western, a fair-haired hero. Blonds were usually the bad guys. But he was six foot five (1.96m), a bit of a beefcake (he had been a male model and Paramount plugged him as “The Most Beautiful Man in the Movies”) and he had a deep voice. He was well suited to the oater. Unfortunately, he disliked the genre, calling his films “wretched”, and he appeared in Westerns only for the money – or so he said. A lifelong lover of the sea, he had an expensive sailboat, The Wanderer, and a ladies’ man, he was a serial divorcer and father of six with big alimony bills. He was also a free (and free-spending) spirit who loved booze and dope, which predilections were prone to get him into hot water. Contemptuous of ‘Hollywood’ and its priorities, with a tendency to sleepwalk through his pictures on a kind of autopilot, he reminds us quite a bit of Robert Mitchum. The fact remains that he was durned good in our beloved genre and excelled as the tough man who’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. Furthermore, some of his Westerns were a bit different, and not the usual fare – interesting, even.
He was in 19 (depending on your definition of Western) from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s: sixteen features, two TV show episodes and a spaghetti.
The first was El Paso in 1949. It starred John Payne (it was Payne’s first Western too). On the one hand, it’s is a pretty cheesy low-budget Western with predictable plot and only so-so acting. On the other, though, it has certain interesting features that make it worth a watch. It’s in color, with some nice photography of New Mexico and El Paso locations. Hayden is the crooked town boss, chief opponent of Payne’s character. He wears a gray townsman’s suit and crossed gunbelts and is entirely credible as the fellow no one at all would want to antagonize.
Three years later Hayden returned to the saddle in Paramount’s Flaming Feather, and this time in the lead. Independent producer Nat Holt did some good Western work between 1949 and 1955 for various studios. No one would pretend that his films were great works of art but they were mostly well-made good fun Westerns. Actually, Flaming Feather is an old-fashioned picture in some ways and aside from the Technicolor could have been made at any time in the 1930s with any number of programmer/serial cowboys in the lead. The plot is the old one about a mysterious bandit, The Sidewinder (excellent Western bad guy Victor Jory), who is marauding through Arizona, but is eventually unmasked by the hero and turns out to be the leading townsman. This story was done to death in endless kids’ matinée oaters but here it is carried out with gusto, some excellent actors and nice location scenery again, this time shot by Ray Rennahan, and if you are prepared to suspend your credibility (you have to be or you wouldn’t watch Western movies at all) you’ll enjoy this horse opera romp. I thought it was great. The director was good old Ray Enright, he of the 1942 The Spoilers who also did four other Randolph Scott Westerns, including the fine Coroner Creek. It was Ray’s last foray into the West, sadly. Sterling is Tex McCloud, a rancher whose stock is driven off by The Sidewinder’s fifty renegade Utes. Sterling vows to get the evil bandit chief, and of course duly does.
Later the same year Hayden appeared for the last time on his Paramount contract, again as the bad guy, in the studio’s superb Denver and Rio Grande, one of my all-time favorite Westerns and an overlooked gem. Railroads have always played a key part in Westerns. Usually, railway companies were the villains, cheating honest settlers out of their land and being resisted by the likes of Jesse James, the Daltons or whoever (all fiction, of course). But in this one, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad are the good guys. In reality two companies, the DRG and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (ATSF) fought each other for right of way up the narrow Royal Gorge to Leadville in 1879, and both were ruthless, but in this movie it’s the ATSF who are the villains. They must be because they have a bearded Sterling Hayden as their boss and slimy, smiling Lyle Bettger as his sidekick. Of particular note is the spectacular crash, filmed without special effects, as it happened, with two locomotives smashing at full speed into each other on the single track. In these days when even railroad Westerns like the recent 3:10 to Yuma remake can barely afford a train and have to fudge one with two inches of track and some fake smoke behind a saloon, to crash two for a mid-budgetWestern seems incredible profligacy. But it’s great. The movie had Rennahan behind the camera again and Paul Sawtell once more jotting down the crotchets. It’s a must-see.
Hayden’s third Western in ’52, for minor studio Lippert (a major budgetary step down), was however probably director/writer Charles Marquis Warren’s best film, Hellgate, really more of a tough prison drama that happens to be set in the West rather than a normal Western. It’s Kansas, 1867. Hayden is a decent ex-Confederate officer who treats an injured ex-guerrilla fighter turned bandit and for his pains is sentenced to hard labor in a hellish prison. Sadistic boss of the jail is Ward(en) Bond and his chief henchman is perennial bad-guy Robert J Wilke. A loathsome cell mate is James Arness (even taller than Hayden!) Hayden’s performance packs a real punch and the whole movie is dark, gritty and violent – a low-budget Western maybe but none the worse for that.
The following year, that wonderful Western-movie vintage of 1953, Hayden was back on the railroad, this time in Allied Artists’ Kansas Pacific. This creaky oater is a classic 73-minute, unpretentious Monogram-style horse opera of the old school. The plot and dialogue are played dead straight, the acting is one-dimensional and it all moves to its utterly predictable dénouement. But it’s fun. You like this cowboy film in the same way that you might like an old pair of slippers or a runty dog. No one’s claiming greatness or beauty but well, you just feel comfortable with them. Sterling is the macho-muscular US Army captain undercover as railroad engineer, determined to build the Kansas Pacific line out to the West to provision forts for the coming Civil War. So it’s not one of those great Manifest Destiny continent-spanning railroad-building pictures. The railway isn’t being built to bring civilization to the West, unite the nation or tame the far frontier or anything; it’s more a necessity to beat the South. So in this one Hayden is not the baddy. Good old Reed Hadley is eternal Western villain Quantrill, out to stop Hayden. As if.
Later that year Hayden did a semi-comedy/semi-musical Western, more a folksy ‘slice-of-Americana’ picture really, Universal’s Take Me to Town. It’s really an Ann Sheridan vehicle and Hayden hardly appears in the first part of the movie but when he does finally take part in the action he seems to be going through the motions: one of those pictures he did on autopilot. It’s not a very good film. The New York Times remarked on its “ponderous dullness” and Brian Garfield dismissed it as “sentimental nonsense”.
Other genres now got a go. On the set of Warners’ non-Western So Big Hayden was heard to say to another actor, “Let’s get this crap over with”, but in 1954 it was back to sagebrush sagas with Allied Artists’ Arrow in the Dust, and indeed in the first reel of that Lesley Selander-directed, Don Martin-written picture the ‘let’s get this crap over with’ attitude seemed to be evident in Hayden’s performance. Luckily Selander went for an action-packed approach (as he often did). It’s a wagon train v Indians tale. Hayden is a “gambler, gunfighter, now a deserter” who comes across his cousin, a major (Carleton Young) who has received a mortal wound in an Indian attack, and out of conscience he dons the major’s uniform and takes over command of a detachment guarding a wagon train. Hayden seemed to have woken up as the reels progressed. There’s a burial which is almost moving as Hayden recites Psalm 23 over the graves.
But of course ’54 wasn’t just the year of Arrow in the Dust, a forgettable AA B-Western, but of Republic’s Johnny Guitar. Much has been written about this extraordinary picture and I have had my two cents’ worth but here suffice it to say that Hayden, second-billed as the former lover of Joan Crawford’s Vienna now rekindling their affair (she had wanted Robert Mitchum) had to put up with a lot. Crawford (who was a hard drinker) was vicious, autocratic, sarcastic and she threw tantrums. Hayden later said, “There is not enough money in Hollywood to lure me into making another picture with Joan Crawford. And I like money.” The New York Times said Hayden was “morose” in the film, and no wonder. In the plot he has to save Crawford from being lynched. He may have hesitated. The fact remains that it is a stunning movie, regarded by many now as one of the greatest in American cinematic history. And Hayden has a key role in it, as the titular guitarist.
In 1955 Hayden did no fewer than four Westerns. The first, Republic’s Timberjack, was one of those many logging Westerns with the brave hero (Sterling) seeking to dominate the mighty trees while at the same time beating out the bad guys (in this case led by David Brian). Actually, he’d also been felling timber in Take Me to Town so he was probably getting the hang of it by now. Hayden took it for the fat paycheck, though to get it he had to act with Vera Ralston, studio boss Herb Yates’s wife, and he looked pretty bored throughout.
Next was Allied Artists’ Shotgun, a much better Western, tough, gritty, with almost a Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher vibe. It was Selander at the helm again but this one was vastly better than Arrow in the Dust. Rory Calhoun contributed to the script. It was violent for the mid-1950s, with Hayden this time superb as a deputy (“He’s still more killer then lawman”) on a vengeance mission, rough on the woman he is with (Yvonne De Carlo) – mind, she deserves it, her character being a pain. He is well worth watching. And De Carlo, deprived of her usual glam dresses and fancy coiffure, clad in unflattering men’s clothes and forced to rough it in the desert, acts well. The picture has a good cast and fine location scenery, and it’s an excellent example of the mid-budget mid-50s Western.
The third oater of ’55 was back at Republic. Hayden accepted the lead role of Jim Bowie in The Last Command. This plugged into the Crockett-mania then raging because of Disney’s Fess Parker shows. It was a rather reprehensible move by Yates to rip off the project John Wayne had pitched him for a major-budget Alamo story. Yates took it, reworked the script and gave it a low-budget treatment (typically) with lesser stars (Richard Carlson as Travis and Arthur Hunnicutt as Davy Crockett). Wayne called Yates a son of a bitch who knew nothing about making films, and Duke never talked to him again. Myself, though, I actually think The Last Command a better film than the lumbering, elephantine The Alamo that Wayne finally got to the screen five years later. At least the famously tall Bowie was played by a tall man (Wayne’s Bowie would be the 5′ 10″ or 1.78m Richard Widmark) and I like Hayden’s down-to-earth characterization.
Hayden’s last Western of 1955 (oh noble year) was Top Gun, produced by Edward Small and released by United Artists, a trim, tough, pared down little oater more than competently directed by Ray Nazarro. It was so good, in fact, that both Republic and Columbia would remake it later, the first with Jim Davis as Noose for a Gunman, and the other with Audie Murphy, The Quick Gun. There’s excellent dialogue (by experienced hands Steve Fisher and Richard Schayer) and familiar tropes which don’t descend into clichés (such as the young squirt gunman who wants to out-draw the famed gunfighter). The cast is excellent and includes John Dehner, Rod Taylor and James Millican, but Hayden wins the laurels in the lead part, another excellent effort by him. Why did he despise these Westerns so? He could be so good in them!
After this flurry of ’55 Westerns there was a pause for Hayden while he concentrated on other genres (notably as Johnny Clay in Stanley Kubrick’s noir The Killing, probably, along with John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Hayden’s best ever acting) but 1957 was another three-Western year (actually three Western features and two TV shows). It opened for Sterling with another UA release, The Iron Sheriff, a noirish whodunit-cum-courtroom drama. As in Arrow in the Dust, this was Hayden in two moods, sometimes lackadaisical/uninterested, at other moments engaged/steely. John Dehner puts in another excellent performance, as the alcoholic, cynical defense attorney. The Iron Sheriff is not exactly from the very top drawer of Western movies – far from it – but it’s still worth a watch, and Hayden especially.
The Iron Sheriff was followed by another courtroom drama, in fact only barely verging on the Western at all, Valerie. The other actors are not at all known for Westerns and seem a bit at sea with this one. The director too, Gerd Oswald, had only directed one before, The Brass Legend, in the previous year, and the writer of the screenplay also had only worked on one. The whole thing doesn’t ring true as a Western at all. It just doesn’t look like one. Westerns and courtroom dramas don’t usually mix because trials are static affairs with everyone sitting down, and no guns, horses or Western scenery. Good Western courtroom dramas are few and far between and when they do occur, as with Sergeant Rutledge, for example, they depend on action flashbacks. Valerie has a vaguely Rashomon – or The Outrage – plot. Different characters tell different versions of the same story. Is Sterling Hayden the decent innocent party or the manipulative bad guy? Ah, that would be telling.
Hayden’s last Western of ’57, Gun Battle at Monterey, another AA offering, was a bit of a dud, sadly. It was a producer-director Carl Hittleman effort, with Sidney Franklin Jr co-directing – his only ever film. If you make a movie called Gun Battle at Monterey you really ought to have a gun battle. And in Monterey, not setting the plot in a town named Del Ray. Oh well. Hayden plays a robber who is double-crossed and shot in the back in a cave on the California coast by his accomplice (Ted de Corsia as crooked town boss, unusually weak). But he is nursed back to health by sultry Pamela Duncan and sets off for revenge. Not exactly original, is it? Never mind. At least Lee Van Cleef is de Corsia’s henchperson. Westerns shouldn’t really be set on Malibu beach, as One-Eyed Jacks proved. They look out of place. There’s a rabbit-out-of-the-hat ending that doesn’t convince. Pretty low-grade stuff, I’m afraid, and Sterling just going through the motions again. For hard-core fans only. Oh, you too?
Also in ’57 Hayden made guest appearances in a couple of Western TV shows. The first was The Necessary Breed, a 30-minute black & white piece screened as part of its Zane Grey Theatre series by CBS on February 16, 1957. Then on October 16, the very same day that Gun Battle at Monterey was released in theaters, NBC screened an episode of Wagon Train titled The Les Rand Story (in fact only the fifth ever episode of the series) with Hayden as “Special Guest Star”.
The Necessary Breed, a 30-minute black & white piece screened as part of its Zane Grey Theatre series by CBS on February 16, 1957. The Necessary Breed, as Dick Powell explains in his usual rather flippant prologue, refers to the profession of bounty-hunter in a lawless land. Hayden is Link Stevens, whose family was killed so that he now hunts down malefactors ruthlessly in a pursuit of revenge/justice. He is despised by everyone, including his woman Kate (Jean Willes) but he is unapologetic. He guns down a wanted man in the saloon. But the boot will soon be on the other foot. Warned by fellow bounty-hunter James Griffith (cadaverously excellent as ever) that the dead man’s brother is coming, he mistakenly shoots an innocent traveler. Now there’s a bounty on his head. What will he do? Face the music? Run for Mexico? Fight it out? Strother Martin is a clerk and Roy Barcroft is the sheriff. It was directed by Christian Nyby, who edited Red River for Howard Hawks and later directed Young Fury.
In Wagon Train we see a bearded Hayden in a prologue before the titles, being released after a seven-year stretch for killing a man. He won’t appear again till a quarter of an hour in, when he turns up in a one-horse town which is deserted, the inhabitants having made themselves scarce because they know Hayden wants revenge on them. Deserted, that is, except for Flint McCullough, who has ridden there to find a doctor, a man having been badly injured on the wagon train, in Kansas. Among the white-trash townsfolk are, oh good, Ray Teal and John Dierkes. They are a bad lot. A woman and boy come back into town and it gradually transpires that the lad is Hayden’s young son, whom, however, he blames for the death of the boy’s mother, Hayden’s Pawnee wife. He also blames Doc Rand (another old stager, Eduard Franz), who was drunk at the time and couldn’t save the woman. For we now learn that Hayden is Doc Rand’s son, Les. And he is ready to kill his father too. It’s quite well handled, the plot gradually being revealed piece by piece, so full marks to writer Berne Giler (Gunfight in Abilene, Showdown at Abilene, etc.) and to director Robert Florey (San Antonio). And Hayden is great, tough as all get out, toweringly tall, and quite frightening.
Hayden probably did these shows only for the money. It was his wont. But that didn’t stop him being good in them. Both are up on YouTube (the Wagon Train one in bad quality, though) if you want to have a look.
In August 1958 United Artists released the alliteratively titled Terror in a Texas Town, a quirky and visually fine Western written by Dalton Trumbo, possessor of the one of the best names in world history (for anyone would give their eye-teeth to be named Dalton Trumbo) and directed by Joseph H Lewis, his last movie before he devoted himself exclusively to TV. Lewis has his admirers and he managed to turn out ultra-low-budget pictures with a certain flair. Martin Scorsese has called one of his films (the noir Gun Crazy) “a tone poem of camera movement” but that seems arty talk to me, I’m afraid. In Terror in a Texas Town a Swedish seaman comes back to visit his daddy on the farm, only to find that his daddy has been murdered on the orders of fat and crooked town boss Sebastian Cabot. The Swede is Sterling Hayden, actually a seaman, with a master’s license, who therefore brought some realism to the part, though he was not from quite as far north as Sweden: New Jersey, in fact. Still, he makes a brave stab at the Swedish accent with its rising intonation. The seaman is in a town suit and derby, with what I thought at first was a casket on his shoulder but it turned out to be his sea-chest. It was shot in glowing black & white by Ray Rennahan and is therefore visually very classy despite the minimal budget. The climactic Main Street showdown is fascinating: in no other Western does the hero face the black-clad gunslinger with a harpoon.
And that, as far as proper Westerns is concerned, was all she wrote. Hayden yet had miles to go (he was still appearing in the early 1980s) but he would devote himself to other matters, notably Dr Strangelove, The Long Goodbye and The Godfather, and be superb in them but he was lost to the Western genre. He was one of those considered for the knife-thrower part in The Magnificent Seven but that went to James Coburn.
I say ‘proper’ Westerns. In 1975, deeply in hock to the IRS, Hayden went off to Spain to star with Franco Nero in a perfectly dreadful spaghetti/paella effort, the bizarrely named Cipolla Colt, screened in the US (when screened at all) as Cry Onion (the hero munches onions and drinks onion juice). I wasn’t prepared to actually buy this film, disbursing real hard-earned $$$ for it, so I watched it on YouTube where it is only available dubbed into Spanish. It was a trial, I can tell you. It’s supposed (I think) to be a ‘comedy’. I hope Nero is properly ashamed of his mugging. It was doubtless deemed hilarious by five-year-olds (especially the farting horse) but for us, dear e-readers, it is most definitely best avoided. I’m sure Hayden never watched it (like Mitchum he rarely watched his own movies) and in this case he was wise. It was a sad farewell, but I prefer to think of Terror in a Texas Town as his last Western, and in that he went out on a high.
Of his films Hayden said, “Bastards, most of them, conceived in contempt of life and spewn out onto screens across the world with noxious ballyhoo; saying nothing, contemptuous of the truth, sullen and lecherous.” Right then.
Well, Sterling Hayden finally expired of prostate cancer in May 1986. He had always been happier riding the waves than riding a horse and indeed he was in a few pretty average Westerns (to be polite) but still, now and then he fired up and several of his oaters are well worth a watch – malgré lui.