I posted the piece on The Maltese Falcon last week. Today I rewatched a few minutes of They Won’t Forget and thought, let’s have a little remembrance for an indispensable man. This was written as an obit fifteen years ago.
If they gave career Oscars to character actors, nobody would have had a better claim to one than Elisha Cook Jr. Character actors were the life-blood of the classical American cinema, and there were dozens of redoubtable players whom audiences never knew by name but still took pleasure in reencountering – “There’s that guy again, he’s always good” – as they filled up the sides and backgrounds of scenes, the spaces between the stars, contributing a vital, credibility-enhancing texture that contemporary films largely lack. Cook was one of the few members of the breed that moviegoers learned to greet by name. And the “he’s always good” definitely applied.
He started in vaudeville at age 14 (Elisha Sr. had been a respected, multitalented theater man), and his features remained babyface even when his hair had gone gray. After an isolated film experience in 1929 (Her Unborn Child, an adaptation of a stage success), Cook took up steady film work in 1936. He played juveniles – toughs and dweebs – through the end of the decade (Lana Turner’s boyfriend in They Won’t Forget, 1937; a sailor in John Ford’s Submarine Patrol, 1938) and etched vivid urban characters in two early examples of what would come to be called film noir, The Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and I Wake Up Screaming (1941). But he made his name holding his ground among the legendary ensemble of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941); as Wilmer the “gunsel,” he was “the son [Sydney Greenstreet’s Casper Gutman] never had” (yet had, we were in no doubt), and his tears of rage at his climactic unmanning by Bogart’s Sam Spade made for one of the 1940s’ most shocking closeups.
He was a walking noir archetype, and you can – and should – track him through the half-light worlds of Dark Waters (’44), Dillinger (’45), Born to Kill (’47), and The Gangster (’47). But two others demand special mention: Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (’44), with Cook beating out an orgiastic trap-drum solo while Ella Raines mimes sexual excitement (and loathes him); and Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (’46), wherein his tough-talking little guy Harry Jones dies the saddest of film noir deaths, swallowing poison while Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe waits helplessly on the other side of a translucent office door.
Cook left his mark on the Fifties, too: unsavory hotel duty in Don’t Bother to Knock (’52), on the same shift with psychotic babysitter Marilyn Monroe; noirish in 3-D in I the Jury (’53); George Peattie, the fatal weak link in the racetrack-heist plot in Kubrick’s The Killing (’56), screwed over by wife Marie Windsor (“Keep ridin’ me, Sherry. Just keep ridin’ me”). Even in the epic spaces of the Western he was doomed – the outsized boom of Jack Palance’s gun sends him skidding on his back across the mud street of Shane (George Stevens, ’53).
The parts got smaller as the decades rolled on. Anyone might have played the one-scene role, in Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks (’61), of the bank teller who – dying, always dying – nevertheless manages to put a fatal slug into badman Ben Johnson; but who else could have been entrusted with the additional coup of blowing away an innocent-little-blond-girl bystander? He worked at The Dakota in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (’68), was a bindlestiff in Aldrich’s Emperor of the North [Pole] (’73), got cut out of the theatrical-release version of Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (’73). It was his last great film. By the mid-Seventies he was officially an icon, and began to be deployed as an in-joke: acting in The Black Bird (’75), the feeble comic sendup of The Maltese Falcon, and driving a hack in his and the Falcon‘s native San Francisco in Wim Wenders’s Hammett (’80-’83).
Cook’s last role has been little seen – a part in the Harold Pinter-David Jones version of The Trial. The film is by all accounts a disaster, but as a career footnote the titular assignment seems appropriate. Franz Kafka had nothing to tell Elisha Cook Jr. about marking time in an absurdist universe.
[An obituary written for Microsoft Cinemania in 1995.]