“I’ve never known a congenital wise-guy
yet that didn’t outsmart himself.”
Sterling Hayden never quite fit. Primed for stardom at the height of the studio system, he was dubbed “The Beautiful Blond Viking God” by Paramount Pictures and dropped into star-studded dramas like Virginia and Bahama Passage (both 1941). The sales pitch didn’t stick. It was audiences that were reluctant to embrace the “Viking God,” mind you, it was Hayden himself. He felt like a phony, and decided to reestablish his personal standard of authenticity by fighting in World War II.
Hayden was gone for a whopping six years, and when he returned to the states, he had a fresh outlook on Hollywood. “I feel a real obligation to make this a better country,” he told the press. “And I believe the movies are the place to do it.” Hayden made good on his word. During the 1950s, he starred in a series of noir films that rank among the most acclaimed and influential of all time: The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Crime Wave (1954), and The Killing (1956), just to name a few. These films were narrative and stylistic triumphs, but more importantly, they allowed Hayden to craft a screen persona that was authentically him: contemplative, craggy, and deceptively cunning. The “Viking God” was a mortal the whole time. Albeit, a very intimidating one.
The transition from matinee idol to genre icon didn’t happen overnight. Hayden had some years in the wilderness, where he struggled to make sense of what kind of actor he should be, which is what makes 1949’s Manhandled such an interesting watch. It was only his third film back from military service, and it perfectly straddles the line between the actor he was and the actor he would become.
Hayden is actually third-billed in Manhandled, behind Dan Duryea and Dorothy Lamour. The latter two were at the height of their office appeal, and they dominate the first act of the film accordingly. Merl Kramer (Lamour) is a psychiatrist’s secretary who overhears a patient discussing uxoricide. She finds it interesting enough to mention to her boyfriend, private detective Karl Benson (Duryea), not realizing that Karl is desperate enough to do something about it. Karl bumps off the patient’s wife and steals her jewels under the assumption that he can frame the patient. If that doesn’t work, he can pawn the whole thing off on Merl.
It’s a novel premise that quickly gets confusing to follow. It’s unclear who actually committed the murder for most of the film’s runtime, even though we know Karl is hiding the jewels. There’s also the discovery that Merl faked her credentials to get the secretary job, which momentarily casts doubt on her motives, but is quickly walked back when it’s revealed that Karl faked the credentials and sold her on the idea of them being legitimate.
Enter Joe Cooper (Hayden). He arrives at the scene of the murder before the police, but he’s still changing out of his pajamas. He’s technically an insurance investigator, tasked with recovering the stolen jewelry, but he works the crime scene with such conviction that he elbows the police out of the way. Lt. Dawson (Art Smith), the man in charge, has to tell Cooper to take it down. It’s a wonderful introduction for the character, instantly setting him up as a hero who’s thorough without being stiff.
Hayden is much looser than he would go on to be in aforementioned classics like Crime Wave and The Killing. In those films, he projects disdain to such a degree that it’s hard to imagine either character ever being happy. The cop he plays in Crime Wave is trying to quit smoking, and the tightly-wound energy is palpable as he leans on ex-cons for information. In Manhandled, however, the actor is amused by the happenings around him, and takes the opportunity to flaunt his detecting skills in front of his policeman peers. It’s fun to watch because he seems to be having fun.
Eventually, Cooper and Dawson team up, resulting in a broad yet effective scene in which the two men agree to take a pharmaceutical mixture of downers. They’ve determined that the alibi provided to them by the patient may have been falsified thanks to some medication, so they test the concoction for themselves. The only problem is, Cooper took the right combination and Dawson took the wrong one, which means the latter struggles desperately to stay awake while they pursue a lead. This sort of comedy can go awry in a film noir, but the chemistry between the actors and the application of it within the larger story makes it work surprisingly well.
Manhandled is no lost classic, as it loses steam towards the backend, but it does provide ample room for its three stars to shine. Duryea does sleazy better than pretty much anybody, and Lamour, while mostly foreign to the film noir landscape, does a fine job of playing a hard-bitten victim. Still, it’s Hayden that steals the show here. He’s bursting with energy in each scene, most of which open with him haphazardly changing out of his pajamas.
He proves that he still has some romantic chops during the nightclub sequence with Lamour’s character, and he manages to rile Duryea’s crooked detective despite only crossing paths with him a few times. The film is a fun watch in isolation, but it plays even better as a preamble to the legendary run that Hayden would start the following year.
TRIVIA: In her autobiography, Dorothy Lamour, recalls working with the actor who played the insurance investigator. She mistakenly refers to the actor as George Reeves, when it was in fact, Sterling Hayden.
You can find all of Danilo’s Film Noir Review articles here.
Danilo Castro is the managing editor of NOIR CITY Magazine and a Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.