Sterling Hayden did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Johnny Clay in The Killing.
Sterling Hayden is no stranger to the heist film in fact the last time I review a lead performance by him it was for the Asphalt Jungle where he also played one of the men in a complex heist. In that film though Hayden played the guy who was only there to be the muscle and just was considered to be a thug. Hayden takes almost the opposite role this time playing the brains behind the operation. Hayden makes this considerable leap quite effectively actually. Hayden is of course still the always imposing specimen but Hayden adjust his performance well to no longer being the thug. Hayden honestly just comes off as a lot smarter of a sort here quite naturally. This is even before he says much of anything but instead of carrying the bluntness harshness of the muscle he carries the confidence of the brains. Hayden effortlessly setting up the character of Johnny Clay as he does is quite essential as The Killing is an extremely tightly wound thriller in that it basically goes from one essential point to another essential point with the utmost precision.
Hayden's performance really is all about efficiency here as everything has to be very much to the point. Well is pretty terrific here in playing that style. He's a master of the hard bitten dialogue that Johnny Clay has as he sets up every part of the plot, giving each gang member their duty, and even hiring an extra guy to shoot a horse for an extra bit of distraction. Hayden delivers these well as he shows that above else Johnny's a true professional. Hayden plays it with a certain cool style that's really quite effective while bringing a certain edge to still convey the dark territory his plan involves. Hayden though never makes it feel like simple expository dialogue, even though technically that's what much of it is. Hayden brings a life to it in his whole demeanor. He is the professional but Hayden also brings a life around the words really. A particularly like the scene where he hires the horse assassin as Hayden just brings something a bit extra that's hard to describe, but it makes the whole scene play out in a far more interesting way than simply just getting part of the plot ready to go.
There is even some emotionality to this performance which is also very brief and to the point. Johnny has a girl who we spend a little time with near the beginning of the film. It's not overly emotional but Hayden is convincing in still setting up the relationship, and creates enough of an investment to care about the two of them potentially making it off with the cash. In addition there is a scene just before the eventual heist where he speaks to one of his guys as they are about to go off to perform their individual parts of the mission. There is suddenly a sweet moment where between Johnny and one of the elderly partners in the plot and they have sort of a heart to heart. Well Hayden absolutely delivers in the moment making it a surprisingly poignant scene. In just really a second Hayden realizes the whole surrogate father son type relationship between the two which really was not given much time at all before this point. Hayden makes it feel natural to Johnny and natural to the film, and again it is only a very brief moment.
In terms of the actual heist Hayden certainly knows how to make movement spellbinding as he carries these scenes especially while despite only having some relatively lines to go with him. His best scene though comes at the end of the film when he's trying to leave the country with a very large container of cash. Hayden's great in portraying the stress within the attempt to stay cal as he tries to talk the airport to allowing him to carry the very large suitcase. Then eventually when the misfortune involving the suitcase Hayden is just about in portraying Johnny's reaction of disbelief as well as urgency as he knows he has to get out of there fast. This is only trumped by his brilliant last moment where Johnny, rather than fighting or running, accepts his fate knowing there's no point in escape. Hayden is quietly moving in showing basically the professional Johnny being professional to the bitter end. This is not the easiest performance to review, even though I really liked it, because it seems so simple yet that's kinda the magic in the performance. Hayden hits every note of his character so quickly yet so flawlessly and stays compelling every minute he is on screen.