Noir Nook: Elisha Cook
I recently appeared on a podcast hosted by Carl over at the Movie Palace; the topic was film noir, and one of the questions focused on actors who frequently appeared in the features from this era. Along with such stars as Robert Ryan, Dan Duryea, and Richard Widmark, I also mentioned Elisha Cook, Jr. After all, what discussion on the actors of film noir would be complete without this veteran?
This month’s Noir Nook shines the spotlight on the life of this fabulous actor and some of his greatest film noir performances.
Known to his friends as “Cookie,” the short-statured actor with the baby face was born on December 16, 1903, in San Francisco, California, but moved with his family to Chicago a few weeks before the famed 1906 earthquake. He was introduced to acting during his teen years, when he did a walk-on in a play at Chicago’s Blackstone Theater, and he honed his craft over the next several years in repertory and stock companies, tent shows, and even vaudeville. He got his big break when he landed a role on Broadway in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness!, earning praise from several critics, including the reviewer for Billboard, who lauded his “sensitive and fine portrayal.” A short time later, Cook turned his sights to Hollywood, racking up some valuable advice from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Owen Davis (father of Cook’s close friend, Owney).
“He said to me, ‘Junior, you’re going to go out there and make a lot of real bad pictures,’” Cook remembered. “’Now, if you want to be intelligent, you play small parts – because then they can never blame you.’ That’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
Tinseltown welcomed Cook like a long-lost friend – he was soon appearing in a series of films that, while they weren’t quite Gone With the Wind, gave the actor some valuable experience in front of the camera. But during the filming of one production – Submarine Patrol (1938), a John Ford-directed sea yarn – Cook experienced a bit more than he bargained for. In a 1985 interview, Cook recalled that he was filming on a mock-up bridge, and the water used for the scene knocked him off the deck.
“I grabbed the piano wire that was holding the bridge up. Sliced the top of my thumb off,” Cook said. “So Ford comes running up to me and says, ‘Jesus, that was a good scene.’ I said, ‘Great, Mr. Ford, but I cut my thumb off.’ He takes one look and passes out. Later, he gave me a made-up Navy Cross and took me out on his yacht – but he never employed me again.”
“Keep on riding me and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.” – Elisha Cook as Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon
Cook entered the world of noir in what I consider to be the very first film from the era – Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) – playing a hapless taxi driver accused of murder. During the next 17 years, Cook would appear in no fewer than 13 films noirs, including such classics as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Big Sleep (1946). In each, he stuck to the advice served up by Owen Davis and played small parts, but he always managed to turn in a performance that made audiences sit up take notice, including great performances in Phantom Lady (1947), where he played a sex-crazed drummer. But I have two favorite Elisha Cook, Jr., performances that are head and shoulders above the rest; Born to Kill (1947) and The Killing (1957).
Described by one critic as a “sexy, suggestive yard of crime with punishment,” Born to Kill tells the story of Sam Wild, a psychopathic killer expertly played by Lawrence Tierney, who inserts himself into the midst of a well-heeled San Francisco family. Forming a dysfunctional triangle, Sam is the fulcrum to Helen Trent (Claire Trevor), who knows that Sam is a murderer and can’t stay away from him, and her sweetly naïve foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long), who winds up marrying Sam. Cook portrayed Sam’s best friend Marty, the kind of pal everybody would like to have, who will cover up all your bad deeds and remain steadfastly by your side, come what may. But Marty was also the sort of buddy who would give it to you straight, and he did with Sam, delivering what has become one of my all-time favorite noir lines: “You can’t just go around killin’ people whenever the notion strikes you,” Marty tells his BFF. “It’s not feasible.”
My second favorite Cook performance comes in The Killing (1957) which, like Born to Kill, is one of my favorite noirs. This film features a motley crew of criminals and would-be criminals who unite to pull off an intricately planned racetrack heist. The group includes an ex-con (Sterling Hayden) who’s the leader of the pack, a bartender (Joe Sawyer) with an invalid wife, and a beat cop (Ted de Corsia) who owes money to the mob.
And then there’s George Peatty, played by Cook, a mild-mannered racetrack cashier whose life is completely ruled (and overruled) by his sexy, mean-spirited, money-loving wife, Sherry (the always-fabulous Marie Windsor). It’s for Sherry that George throws his hat in the criminal ring, desperate to give her the kind of life he promised when they married. Cook turns in an absolutely perfect performance of a man who will do anything to hold on to the woman he loves.
“The Killing was one of the classiest suspense thrillers ever made, and it also had an exceptional cast,” Cook later said. “Parts like that don’t sift down too often.”
If you’ve never seen Born to Kill or The Killing, do yourself a favor and check them out. And then put some icing on the cake with The Big Sleep or Phantom Lady.
You’ll be glad you did!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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