Sterling Hayden did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Dix Handley in The Asphalt Jungle.
Hayden is very effective in being the opposing force that you can't ignore and his mere presence seems to add to the grimy nature of the film. Hayden might very well have been the only leading man of the time who could have really fit the character as well as Hayden does as there isn't any glamor that Hayden tries to add the part and lets himself be the thug that Dix should be. Hayden no nonsense approach works perfectly for the film as Dix never becomes a hero that we follow but rather another one of the crooks who we observe as they attempt their plan. Hayden really doesn't try to be likable but in a way being straight forward in the portrayal still makes him an easy character to follow and effectively reinforces the style the film is going for.
Although the hoodlums are looked at men without a humanity there is a little bit in Dix which mostly pertains to his memories of his days on a horse farm, and his dream to return there someday. The film nor Hayden dwell on these moments for very long, but they are very nicely handled by Hayden as they are just a short genuine glimpse into his humanity. The fact that he doesn't lighten up in any of the other scenes actually makes these brief gentle moments quite poignant as Hayden gives just a bit of tenderness in an otherwise stony hide. This also sets up the climax in an efficient fashion as Dix is almost forced to dream about a better life it actually comes off as quite moving because of the honesty Hayden gave to those earlier bits that contradicted what seems to be the nature of Dix.
I have to say that this actually is a very good performance by Hayden as his style of not really seeming to care works exceedingly well especially with those sprinkled in moments where he does. I doubt anyone could have been better in this role since Hayden's very unique screen presence seemed practically tailor made for this role, and he makes the atmosphere all the more vivid in the part of Dix who if he had been played in a more romantic manner could have easily upset this facet of the film. I do have to say Hayden is not the most interesting part of the film that is Sam Jaffe without a doubt and I do have to give a great deal of credit to the academy for recognizing that performance. Hayden though does make a very important impact on the film as well and achieves something rather special by finding poignancy in such a hard man.