Elisha Cook Jr

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A crazy-eyed neurotic. A nervous noir thug. A sell-out weasel. These are not exactly the most flattering depictions of a character. But these are just a few of the characters Elisha Cook Jr. was best known. “Cookie” was a true working actor with over 200 credits across stage, film, and television for a career that lasted nearly sixty years.

Starting as young as 14 years old, Elisha began in vaudeville and doing stage work. By the 1930s, Elisha kicked off his film career in Pre-Codes. Here’s a lip-sticked Elisha, along with Frances Underwood, from his first on-screen role in HER UNBORN CHILD (1930). The promotional marketing pitched, “A vividly dramatic all-talker of the Broadway stage hit which rocked the nation with its frankness.” I’m hooked.

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Soon, he transitioned from his squeaky clean, youthful roles into a much darker presence. With a petite stature of 5 foot 5″ he became known as Hollywood’s lightest heavy. He could gain the audience’s sympathy as the timid man with equal vigor as he portrayed the cowardly villains. It can be argued that he was the first emotionally-conflicted gangster heavy.

One of his most notable roles came in 1941 as “Wilmer the gunsel” in John Huston’s THE MALTESE FALCON. He is a vivid stand-out even though surrounded by a stellar cast. Even more impressibly, most of his scenes include very little dialogue. As Sydney Greenstreet’s gun for hire, he is frequently and frustratedly humiliated as sport by Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Unforgettable use of restraint and characterization by Cook’s performance makes him an iconic figure.

A year prior to THE MALTESE FALCON, Cook appeared in STRANGERS ON THE THRD FLOOR, considered by many film scholars as the original Film Noir. Elisha thrived in this style of film, finding a steady stream of work for his ‘type.’ According to a New York Times piece (written upon the occasion of his death 1995), Cook described this era in career…

“I played rats, pimps, informers, hopheads and communists,” he once said, recalling that as a character actor generally assigned to subsidiary roles, he had to take what was offered. “I didn’t have the privilege of reading scripts. Guys called me up and said, ‘You’re going to work tomorrow.”  (“Elisha Cook Jr., Villain in Many Films, Dies at 91” by Robert MCG Thomas Jr/ New York Times/ May 21, 1995)

And he kept working. One of the most memorable Elisha Cook Jr performances is his frenzied, drum solo from the noir classic PHANTOM LADY (1944). After exchanging flirtations with Ella Raines as Carol “Kansas” Richman on the hunt for evidence, Cook as drummer Cliff Milburn with the key to evidence, takes her to his jazz jamming session. There he works up a substance-infused, climatic drumming crescendo that can only be described as orgasmic. The censors must have sweat a few drumsticks of their own. Take a peek for yourself : http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/1324863/Phantom-Lady-Movie-Clip-You-Sure-Know-How-To-Beat-It-Out.html  

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Beyond his work on film noirs and with legendary co-stars and filmmakers, Cook branched out into other genres. One of my favorite classic horrors is a William Castle classic, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) starring Vincent Price. But as in all of his work, Elisha Cook Jr.’s small role leaves a strong impression. Here’s our spooky introduction to his role as Watson Pritchard:

 

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“The ghosts are moving tonight, restless… hungry. May I introduce myself? I’m Watson Pritchard. In just a moment I’ll show you the only really haunted house in the world. Since it was built a century ago, seven people, including my brother, have been murdered in it. Since then, I’ve owned the house. I only spent one night then and when they found me in the morning, I… I was almost dead.” Memorable, eh?

As many actors did, Cook garnered more gigs by moving to television in the 1950s, starting with the popular westerns (“Wagon Train,” “Rawhide,” “Gunsmoke,” “Bonanza”). One of his career highlights includes his bit role as Stonewall Torrey in SHANE (1953). Watch him being gunned down in the muddy streets by Jack Palance:

For the most part, TV is where Cook filled his resume for the decades that followed. From looking at his acting credits in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, I’m not sure if there was a TV show that didn’t include him somewhere. His last acting job was for 13 episodes of “Magnum PI” as ‘Ice Pick’ (1981 – 1988).

Because he worked nearly constantly, I cannot possibly list them all. But here are some fun favorites, in no particular order:

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“The Duo Defy” episode from BATMAN, aired March 30, 1967. Eli Wallach as Mr. Freeze, Leslie Parrish in fur, and Elisha Cook Jr. as Professor Isaacson.

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Ketty Lester sinks her teeth into Elisha Cook Jr. in BLACULA (1972).

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Cook as a hood Frank Lucas, opposite Laurel and Hardy, in A-HAUNTING WE WILL GO (1942).

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Elisha Cook Jr with William Shatner in the “Court Martial” episode of “STAR TREK” (1967).

Born Elisha Van Slyck Cook Jr. in San Francisco on December 26th, 1903, his 115th birthday is approaching soon. The other personal detail that seems very interesting of this reliable, working actor is his love life. Married twice, he married his first wife Mary Lou at the age of 25 and they divorced 13 years later. Mary Lou Cook was an actress as well and died just 3 years after they divorced. Two years after his divorce from Mary Lou, he married his 2nd wife, Elvira Ann “Peggy” McKenna in 1943. Peggy was a huge fan of Carole Landis and her fandom led to a close friendship. Elisha and Peggy divorced in 1968 and divorced. Oddly, they remarried just two tears later and remained married until her death in 1990. It was during the same year of her death that Elisha suffered a stroke that took away his ability to speak. Five years later, he died on May 18, 1995 in Big Pine, CA. Even in real life, he seemed to be pillar of hard work ethic, always sticking to it, no matter what.

Although thought of mostly as the bug-eyed psychotic or as the last surviving member of the MALTESE FALCON cast, Elisha Cook Jr. proved he may come in a small package and take on small roles, but he left a big impact in a variety of lasting work. I found this video tribute to Elisha Cook Jr. Hope you enjoy it, too..

My tribute piece to Elisha Cook Jr. is part of the 7th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON, December 14, 15, 16th, 2018, hosted by Aurora @CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen, Paula @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club, and yours truly. Please enjoy all the fabulous entries from this fun weekend!

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The Black Pools of Noir in MURDER, MY SWEET 1944

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It’s dark. Too dark to see without assistance from a handy flashlight to confirm the time on his watch. Private dick Philip Marlowe is scouting out the meeting place in a densely wooded area, just off the road. He walks cautiously as dense, smoky fog crawls along the ground, in his tipped fedora and buttoned up trench coat. He hears the snap of a twig underfoot, close range, and turns abruptly only to see a deer.

He heads back to his parked car. Leaning against the large, open top convertible and without looking down, he tells the man hiding in the back of his car- the same man who just hired him to go into those dark woods to help him buy back a stolen jade necklace- that they’re likely being watched and tested for obedience, for this mysterious exchange. Unexpectantly, Marlowe is suddenly struck from behind on the head. Hard.

As he slumps to the ground we hear him narrate in a raspy-smooth voice, “I caught the blackjack right behind my ear. A black pool opened up at my feet and I dived in. It had no bottom. I felt pretty good… like an amputated leg.” Visually we see black edges closing in on his unconsciousness body until total darkness fills the screen.

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This is just one scene from Edward Dmytryk’s MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) which perfectly evokes the many hallmarks of a signature film noir. Even before I completed the TCM/Ball State University course in Film Noir last summer, I had seen this film prior and knew this was what film noir is supposed to be.

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All the beautiful shades of shadows and light are glowing on the screen. Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe drops bitter and sarcastic cynacism in descriptive lingo that his profession as a hard-nosed private investigator affords. From time to time, he narrates to us. Often with uniquely descriptive metaphors. He’s no hero charging in wearing a ten gallon white hat, but he’s not exactly the villainous anti-hero either. Ultimately he does the right thing, but not out of conformity to society rules. He’s in business for himself.

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He fully appreciates a pretty dame- good or bad. And speaking of bad dames, a good film noir isn’t complete without a beautiful and cunning femme fatale. Enter Claire Trevor. He doesn’t fool easily, although he sometimes likes to lead on as though he does. And a typical film noir is based on a crime drama. The crime is presented via a missing girlfriend and jade necklace. But were they ever missing/stolen or merely borrowed? And why are so many people interested in hiring Marlowe to find- or bury -the truth? Time will reveal all as Marlowe finds himself a very popular dick for hire.

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And what about those black pools? Another calling card of a film noir is a dream sequence. The more trippier, the better. Marlowe swims in that black pool more than once and it gets saturated wet in trippy.

Now that we’ve laid out all the evidence why MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) qualifies as   a definitive film noir, let’s discuss why it’s also one of my favorites of this genre (and perhaps should be yours too):

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Dick Powell. Dick Powell has always been one of my favorites of the silver screen. But like so many, we were introduced to him through Pre-Codes. In the thirties, he shined as the upbeat, charming crooner of those terrific Busby Berkley musicals and other classics. He was usually the guy singing and smiling his way into the hearts of the sweet girl next door or sassy sidekick (like cuties Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell). But for the first time in his career, MURDER, MY SWEET took a dramatic turn of character for Powell. His role as Philip Marlowe was a major risk that paid off successfully and launched him into the noir world and other dramatic roles. Not all actors can boast such a successful breaking of typecasting and transition so effectively into the changing times of the big screen. He would transition again post-noir as a producer and director.

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Because of his prior roles in the thirties and his natural skills in comedy, I’ll admit there were times in viewing this film for the first time that I expected him to go more campy. Especially considering the dialogue, one could easily play it as dark humor and break character. But he delivers with a five o’clock shave, a heavy-smoky voice and candidly acerbic tone that a gumshoe Marlowe demands.

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Claire Trevor. This role came right between her big roles as Dallas, a woman of ill-repute and good intentions, in STAGECOACH (1939) and Gaye Dawn, the complex mess of a lush in KEY LARGO (1948). The deeper I look into these roles, the more I’m convinced Claire Trevor is a highly underappreciated actor. The variety and nuances across these three roles are a testiment to her range. Here in MURDER, MY SWEET she plays the femme fatale very well, with sophisticated beauty masking her street-wise naughtiness as Helen Grayle.

Anne Shirley is another underrated actor. Her portrayal as Ann Grayle keeps you guessing sometimes to see if she plays the sinner or the saint, but the good girl emerges ultimately to give great contrast to Trevor. The role is not quite as meaty as it could be, so Trevor tends to steal the scenes.

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The love/hate dynamic between Marlowe and Moose Malloy. Mike Mazurki appealingly plays the big thug with a broken heart who possesses more brawn than brains. Malloy is more than a typical hired heavy. He’s an unexpected romantic yet also like a big, dumb animal that can’t figure out if he wants to play with his food. Unfortunately for Marlowe, he’s often on the dinner menu. But I like the way that, no matter how many times he gets hurt, there’s a part of Marlowe that looks upon Moose like a big puppy that somehow just doesn’t know any better.

Dialogue. Oh the writing in this film is priceless!

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In introducing Marlowe, he narrates, setting up a scene with visual artistry and coarse flair, as the camera cuts a path through images of the city at night with all the neon flashing landscape:

“It was seven o’clock. Anyway it was dark. I’m a homing pigeon. I always come back to the stinking coop no matter how late it is. I’d been out peeking under Sunday sections looking for an old barber named Dominic, whose wife wanted him back. I forget why. Only reason I took the job is because my bank account was trying to crawl under a duck. And I never found him.  I just found out all over just how big this city is. My feet hurt and my mind felt like a plumber’s handkerchief. The office bottle hadn’t sparked me up, so I’d taken out my little black book and decided to go grouse hunting. Nothing like soft shoulders to improve my morale. The soft shoulders had a date, thought she could do something about, was going to check right back. There’s something about the dead silence of an office building at night. Not quite real. The traffic down below was something that didn’t have anything to do with me.”  

What a fascinating way to introduce a character. It’s so quintessentially noir. Thanks to the stylistic writings of Raymond Chandler (novel) and John Paxton (screenplay), it strongly influenced an entire genre and style of film. Here are some more lines that make me smile…

On women:

“She was cute as lace pants.” (Moose Mallory)

“She was a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud. I gave her a drink. She was a gal who’d take a drink, if she had to knock you down to get the bottle.”

On love and such romantic notions:

“I tried to picture him in love with somebody, but it didn’t work.” (Marlowe on Malloy)

“He’s in love and in a big hurry. He’ll get over that.” 

Helen Grayle: “I find men *very* attractive.”
Philip Marlowe: “I imagine they meet you halfway.”

On being roughed up or drugged up:

“My throat felt sore, but the fingers feeling it didn’t feel anything. They were just a bunch of bananas that looked like fingers.”

“‘Okay Marlowe,’ I said to myself. ‘You’re a tough guy. You’ve been sapped twice, choked, beaten silly with a gun, shot in the arm until you’re crazy as a couple of waltzing mice. Now let’s see you do something really tough – like putting your pants on.'”

And these lines gave me a chuckle:

“He died in the middle of a glass of beer. His wife Jessie finished it for him.”

“It was a nice little front yard. Cozy, okay for the average family. Only you’d need a compass to go to the mailbox. The house was all right, too, but it wasn’t as big as Buckingham Palace.”


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This post was my contribution to the Film Noir Blogathon, hosted by Quiggy of The Midnite Drive-In, Aug. 12-14. And kudos to Connie of Silver Scenes for the fabulous banners. With a tremendous list of participants, I encourage you to read these noir knock-outs.

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