And so, after much delay, I’ve finally come back to wrap up my series of posts on Elisha Cook Jr., one of film’s all-time great character actors. I’m hoping to start contributing more posts (either on this or on a newly revamped blog) sometime in the near future, but time is obviously not as plentiful as it was when I started this blog, so I’m making no promises.

The last post on Elisha Cook looked at his post-noir years in the 50s and 60s, when he began moving into other film genres like westerns and, more importantly, began what would be a long and steady career in television. Cook had already come a long way since breaking into films in the ’30s, but he still had a long ways to go in what would be a long, active acting career. Cook’s most memorable film roles – in films such as Maltese Falcon, Shane, and The Killing – were all behind him, but he continued to appear regularly in films and to do a good job in them until the early ’80s. His final really well known film role came in 1968 as the apartment manager in Rosemary’s Baby. It was a small role, but Cook – still looking baby-faced at nearly 65 years of age – did his usual good work.

cook.jpgCook worked much more frequently in television in his later years and almost all his acting jobs in the 80s were for TV. To a new generation, in fact, Cook was best known for his final role – the recurring part of “Ice Pick” on Magnum P.I., which he portrayed in the series from 1983 to 1988.

His career was cut short around 1990, when the elderly Cook suffered a disabling stroke. He would live for another five years, but his acting career was over. He died in a nursing home in California on May 18, 1995, at the age of 91. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Cook had been married “at least twice” (it always was hard to pin down facts on the reclusive Cook’s personal life) but left no known survivors.

Survivors or no, Cook’s legacy in Hollywood had already been ensured for quite some time. Early in his career, he had been a key component to the success of the noir genre, adding as much to the films in his fall guy roles as the troubled private dicks and femme fatales who headlined them. He was the master of portraying the bullied scapegoat, and he had some of the most memorable death scenes in classic film history. Cook rarely had large roles, but he always seemed able to make a lot from a little. He eventually became one of the more recognizable faces in cinema and one of the greatest character actors of all time.

It’s somewhat interesting to think what Cook might have been able to achieve with all his talent if he had been alive in the current day and age. The post-modern age has certainly shifted the focus of film, and the big screen is no longer the exclusive realm of dashing leading men and ladies. Rather, non-conventional storylines now offer fantastic parts for actors following in Cook’s line, and actors like William H. Macy and Paul Giamatti have garnered tremendous accolades.

Would Cook have been able to achieve similar success? Who knows. . . he certainly seemed talented enough. In the end, however, debating such points is pointless. What we do have is a long film career stretching over 50 years – one marked from beginning to end by professionalism, skill, and class. While Cook may have always been content with his small roles and never seemed to strive for more, he certainly left a mark on cinema that was disprortionately large compared to these small roles.

Yeah. . . so unfortunately, the real world has forcefully interrupted my blogging pattern, and so no new posts have been able to go up in quite some time. It looks like it might be that way for the immediate future as well – at least until things settle down somewhat at work.

In the meantime, I’m using this time to consider potentially regrouping and relaunching this blog in a new format and new location, as some of you have suggested. I’m aiming for a 2008 launch. If so, I will first wrap up the series on Elisha Cook on this site, and then post all the new info about the new site. Any feedback, suggestions, etc., on how I can do things different on my second go-round are appreciated. Stay tuned. . .

Most of my contact with film theory is purely incidental. I try to avoid being saturated with theory and analysis as it completely changes the way you watch films, making it harder just to sit back and enjoy the show. Even so, I am aware that vast amounts of literature have been dedicated to the subject of the meaning of the birds in Hitchcock’s 1963 film. It’s a critical debate somewhat akin to literature’s search for Hamlet’s tragic flaw – e.g., the source material is so rich and open-ended that the matter will probably never be resolved to everyone’s liking. Being rather joyfully ignorant of the criticism, I know only some of the broad, high-level ideas of what the birds supposedly symbolize in the film – the most common arguments saying such things as they represent nature’s unwillingness to be subjugated, the struggle between repression and sexual freedom, etc. (I actually came across a very insightful blog this past year that summarized in one place all the major schools of thought regarding the meaning of the birds, but alas, it looks like said blog has since disappeared from cyberspace, leaving behind no trace.)

Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen it a few times now and have started to notice new things, but I actually found myself with a somewhat critical mindset when I watched the film thebirds2.jpgwith Wifey this past weekend (by the way – it’s getting to be that time of year where more and more creepy films might be showing up on this blog) and was wondering quite a bit about this ever elusive meaning of the birds. In particular, I was pondering what connection, if any, there was between the bird attacks and the personal relationships of the film’s main characters. It was this line of thinking that really got me to thinking about how the concepts of space and boundaries are used in the film. At the risk of beating a dead horse, here are my two bits on the subject, which I’m sure have already been said more eloquently and in more detail elsewhere. . .

Have you ever noticed how much Hitch plays with space and boundaries in the film? The entire film is full of scenes of birds in cages, people hiding in the confines of cars or phone booths, people barricading themselves in houses and reinforcing the windows and doors, etc. From the very get-go, with Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) and Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) in the pet shop, the conversation deals with all the birds trapped in their cages – one of which Melanie accidentally releases, causing a little comedic foreshadowing of what will become a much darker theme throughout the film – i.e., the inability of these manmade boundaries to hold. This impulse of man to set boundaries is evident throughout the film – not only with physical enclosures, but also the psychological and social boundaries people try to set. The subplots involving Melanie and Mitch and his family all deal with variations of this issue. Is Melanie too free in her flirtations and would it be right for her to be more restrained? Is Mitch’s mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy), too protective of Mitch, and is that better or worse than Melanie’s father, who abandoned her while she was still young? Bodega Bay itself is a geographic representation of this need for boundaries. It’s a town physically removed from the business of San Francisco (a city described at one time in the film as “an anthill up the foot of a bridge”), and the small hamlet is full of people highly suspicious of outsiders.

As is often the case in Hitchcock films, the conflicts highlighted in these subplots echo the main action of the film. Much as many of the characters try to enclose themselves within narrow social roles and closely guarded rules of propriety, birds.jpgthey also seal themselves indoors, trying to protect themselves from the viciousness of the bird attacks. In both cases, the film seems to come to the conclusion that such manmade boundaries – whether they be physical enclosures, social roles, or just the metaphysical lines of Linnaean taxonomy – are useless. Despite its self-enclosure and isolation, Bodega Bay is not safe from the chaos of the outside world. The birds do not stay in their little pigeon-hole man created for them in the power structure. The boarded up windows and barricaded doors cannot keep them out. Melanie is not as free-spirited and incapable of being a responsible mother figure as we thought she was. Nor is Lydia as heartless and cold.

At any rate, that’s my little ramble on the subject. I just did a quick browse of some of the existing criticism on the Web (it’s plentiful and not hard to find), and it doesn’t look like I’m that far off from what many others have said. Looking at space and boundaries is just one way of looking at what appears to be a major school of thought on the film – one that argues that the film demonstrates how man’s carefully constructed world is always just teetering on the edge of chaos. At any rate, I apologize for the long-winded analysis today. It’s just that The Birds is one of those films – like so many of the great ones – where it is so thought-provoking that it’s tough not to start forming elaborate opinions about it. It’s an interesting subject, and if anybody else has opinions about it, please feel free to share.

This blog has unfortunately gone on an involuntary hiatus recently, due to real life’s hectic and stressful schedule. Now it looks like this delay has been confounded by technical issues. I finally got around to writing a lengthy post discussing Nightmare Alley – the great Twentieth Century Fox noir from 1947 starring Tyrone Power – and using it as an example to demonstrate the elements of classical tragedy that appear in noir film (a topic that’s actually much more interesting than it sounds). Unfortunately, right when I was about to publish it, I pushed the “Save” button, not realizing the computer had cleverly used this label merely to disguise its “Irreversibly wipe out any trace of this post” button. All subsequent efforts to retrieve the draft have been futile. That’s technology for you.

At any rate, when I have the time and energy again, I’ll post on that or some other matter, but it might be a while before I have the chance. Hang tight, faithful reader.

When last we left Elisha Cook Jr. in our journey through the great character actor’s life, he had just hit it big, becoming one of the most recognizable supporting actors in Hollywood due to his success in the noir boom of the 40s and 50s. killing.jpgThough he was doing noirs with regularity throughout the 40s, he never stopped doing other roles as well, and while he continued to the occasional noir in the 50s (including some of his best work in a role that was his personal favorite – George in Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film, The Killing), he distanced himself somewhat from the genre and began to focus more on other types of film.

While he ventured into other genres, it’s worth noting that his roles stayed more or less the same. Cook still played the small, nervous sort who was more likely than not to get beat up, taken advantage of, or killed. This was demonstrated in two of his better known roles from the early 50s – Don’t Bother to Knock and Shane.

Don’t Bother to Knock is another example of why the legend grew inside Hollywood that appearing early in your career in a film alongside Cook would ensure your future super-stardom (Judy Garland in Pigskin Parade being a case in point). In this film, none other than Marilyn Monroe makes her feature debut (she had previously done only numerous small roles). Cook plays the concerned but rather ineffectual uncle of Monroe, who plays a deeply disturbed teenaged babysitter. In 1987, Cook relayed the following anecdote describing his first meeting with Monroe:

“She came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to play my uncle, right?'” Cook recalled.

“‘That’s right, Miss Monroe.’

“Then she looked at me and said, ‘No incest.'”

(quoted from “The Face is Familar; The Name is Elusive” Dec. 24, 1987, Chicago Tribune)

This may have been just good-natured ribbing, but it didn’t seem Marilyn’s character was taking any chances, and during the course of the film, she ends up knocking her kind-hearted guardian unconscious while his back is turned.

The following year, in 1953, Cook starred in what is probably his best known role of the 50s – Frank “Stonewall” Torrey in Shane. This role and many of his other roles in westerns did not depart drastically from those he had in noirs. He still was typically the sacrificial lamb in the waiting, the would be tough who can’t back up his bravado, the neurotic gunfighter who never sees it coming. As David Thomas describes in his 1995 Film Comment article “Junior,” Cook is in Shane primarily as “a setup, the obvious victim to demonstrate Jack Palance’s lethal authority.” Something that is not frequently noted of Cook’s work here and in several of his other roles, however, is his willingness to fight. Particularly as Torrey, Cook shows a nobility just in the fact that he is brave enough to stand up to a man that everyone else is afraid of. Cook may have always been on the losing end of things, but more often than not, it was not an end that simply rolled over and died.

Shane marked Cook branching off into different territory, and he would begin to do westerns fairly regularly for the next 25 years or so. He also began doing some horror films, including two Vicent Price films – The House on Haunted Hill and The Haunted Palace – although he didn’t do the horror genre quite as much as you might think, considering how well suited his naturally bug-eyed, cowardly face custom-fitted him for such roles (particularly in the melodramatic, somewhat campy Price pictures).

The main change to Cook’s career in the 50s, however, was his move into television. The growth of television attracted many Hollywood veterans, so this certainly wasn’t an uncommon move. But the new medium seemed a good fit for Cook. For one thing, the end of the studio system in Hollywood had a profound effect on supporting actors like Cook. In an interesting LA Times article from December 22, 2000, Stephen Farber explains that the studios of the 30s and 40s had not only stars under contract, but numerous supporting actors as well, which is why there were such terrific ensemble pieces during those years. Unfortunately, the end of the studio system led to increased power to the stars unwilling to share the limelight, and as a result, “secondary roles were smashed to smithereens.” Honestly, such a shift probably had only a minimal effect on an actor like Cook, who even in this new Hollywood environment, was talented and recognizable enough to continue to still find good supporting roles. And yet, Cook’s workmanlike approach to acting (he was often quoted as saying he didnt’ have the “privilege” of reading scripts; rather, guys would just call him up and tell him “You’re working tomorrow”) seemed very well suited for the quicker, cheaper production values of television. Other than an appearance on a 1955 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, I have not seen any of Cook’s earliest TV roles. Yet, it’s clear from the shows he was doing that he was still working in very much the same vein as he had done before (he was primarily taking roles in westerns and noir/detective type shows) just in a different medium.

And with these changes, the stage was set, more or less, for the remainder of Cook’s career. cookstartrek.jpgHe continued to regularly do movies – including many quite good ones – but he would soon be doing much more work in television and would appear in many classic television shows, including Gunsmoke, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, Batman, etc., etc. When we return to Cook in the final post in our series, we’ll take one last look at this Hollywood legend, reviewing some of his later acting roles and his lasting legacy.

Apprehensive. . . I suppose that is the best way to describe my immediate reaction to the recent announcement that the Weinstein Brothers have launched a $285 million fund to invest in Asian film. (Here’s a link to the announcement for more details.)

Undoubtedly, it is thanks to folks like the Weinsteins and Quentin Tarentino (who is also heavily involved with this project) that Western audiences have had access to so many of the great Asian films that have come out in recent years. I have loved these films and should just be happy that several new similarly-themed films will be making their way into the pipeline.

On the other hand, a very large part of why I like foreign films – beyond the rather obvious reason that they offer a glimpse at other cultures – is that they are so not Hollywood, for lack of a better way to express it.  Much as people flock to indie films for the same reason, these films offer different perspectives than those normally offered in the mainstream American releases. Thus, it must give one pause when an annoucement like this one comes out, particularly when they’re saying that part of the intent of the new venture will be to add a “Western sensibility” to these Asian-themed films. Even though so much of the Weinsteins’ work with Miramax over the years demonstrated that they are not afraid of taking chances and going against the norm, it still makes one nervous to see that the rumored film possibilities being explored include a remake of the Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai and a live action version of Mulan, and that many actors being rumored to be involved include several notable non-Asian actors (I saw George Clooney’s name floating around in one article).

And so, while happy to see Asian cinema getting some of its much deserved recognition and that some more great films in the same vein might soon be coming out, this whole project does somewhat resemble mere exploitation of existing ideas by a Hollywood struggling to come up with its own original thoughts. With the talented names involved in these films, hopefully the results will be good. I just think it’s too early to tell and that there are certainly some reasons for concern. 

High Sierra (1941)

August 3, 2007

highsierra.jpgHigh Sierra is best known for being a pivotal film in Humphrey Bogart’s career. It was the last of his films where he received second billing (co-star Ida Lupino actually had top billing, as Warner Brothers was trying to capitalize on her popularity resulting from the previous year’s hit They Drive by Night), and it was the first film where he demonstrated to studio execs that he had real potential for success as a leading man. This film really captured Bogie on the cusp of super-stardom. In the next year, he would star in The Maltese Falcon, and the rest, as they say, is history.

And yet, High Sierra had so much else going for it as well. The credits for the film reads like a who’s who of studio-era Warner Bros. Legendary director Raoul Walsh was in the midst of perhaps the greatest span of his long career, being in the middle of a run with Warner that included such films as The Roaring Twenties, They Died With their Boots On, and Gentleman Jim. Executive producer Hal Wallis – one of the all-time greats – had already overseen many great films and was about to lead Warner to even greater heights in the early 40s. And as if having these men on board wasn’t enough, the script was written by a versatile and emerging film talent who was about to burst on the scene in a major way, John Huston.

The film itself follows a basic enough plot. Some strings are pulled to get notorious bank robber Roy Earle (Bogart) pardoned and released from jail. An operation is in place to have Earle head west, where he will lead a couple of younger thugs in one last big heist. In the company of his cohorts is a young lady named Marie (Lupino) who winds up being similarly minded to Earle in her yearning for freedom and independence. Such freedom finally looks like it might be attainable for both Roy and Marie, but will it be possible once their big job goes awry?

I often see the film described as an early film noir, but I’m not convinced of that. It certainly has a few noiresque elements and definitely would influence later noirs (consider the parallels between it and Huston’s later masterpiece, The Asphalt Jungle, for example), but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a noir. In fact, to a fan of the hardboiled, tense atmospheres of the noirs to come, High Sierra probably seems somewhat over-sentimental and melodramatic.

I tend to like this film more than your average viewer – it’s one of my favorite Bogie films, in fact – and I think this difference of opinion is likely based upon the first two-thirds of the film. This part of the film is admittedly rather uneven and clunky, owing from a major subplot where Roy befriends a country family (headed up by Pa, played by Henry Travers) and, longing for the simpler life they represent, tries unsuccessfully to woo their daughter Velma (Joan Leslie). These scenes seem somewhat dated and a bit sappy. But to me, it’s this rather awkward subplot that makes the final third of the film that much more effective. Roy’s inability to start over with Velma not only clears the way for a romance to bloom between he and Marie, but it also is just another notch in a long row of disappointments. It symbolizes the rut that both of them feel they are forever stuck in. As a result, when Roy and Marie finally begin their ill-fated run from the police highsierra2.jpg(not to mention from their past lives), there’s a certain desperate happiness to them, as if they understand that all their past attempts at legitimacy were failures and that this is their last shot at freedom. It’s like a breath of fresh air – not only for the characters, but oddly enough, for the viewers too, who are finally free of all those painful sitting room scenes with Pa and family and able to see Bogie and Lupino on their mad dash, which is what they’ve been wanting to see all along anyway.

Looking at Bogie’s screen romances, one might think of the various films he did with Bacall and think about their spark and style, or one might think of Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca and think of the couple’s nobility. Well, Roy and Marie’s romance is notable for quite another reason – its sincerity. The couple’s relationship seems honest and heartfelt and down to earth. You can’t help but start pulling for them. I won’t give away the ending, which Walsh filmed on location in the High Sierra mountains and contains some fantastic shots, but I will say that it’s a powerful ending that gets me no matter how many times I watch it. If you haven’t already, give High Sierra a chance, and you’ll understand how Warner Bros. knew that they had a new leading man on their hands.

It barely took a month before corporate America caved to the pressure of my blog. It was June 15 when I posted this blog, inquiring as to the whereabouts of a Barbara Stanwyck box set. While the relative lack of reaction to my post left me to think that my crack reporting skills on this critical topic had shocked all my readers into silence, it turns out that I had actually inspired them to go out and picket the studios and get some petitions signed. Now, barely a month later, Warner has issued this press release from July 23, announcing a Stanwyck signature collection coming out this October. The films to be included released are:

  • Annie Oakley (1935)
  • East Side, West Side (1949)
  • Executive Suite (1954)
  • My Reputation (1946)
  • To Please a Lady (1950)
  • Jeopardy (1953)

Barbara Stanwyck is probably my favorite classic actress, but I must confess that I have not seen any of these films. That is not to say that they’re bad. There’s a representative mix of genres here, including a sample of Stanwyck’s work in westerns (Annie Oakley) and film noirs (Jeopardy). Also, you have some real star power in here, with stars such as Clark Gable, William Holden, Van Heflin, Ava Gardner, and James Mason appearing in these films. In particular, Executive Suite looks like it might be a real winner, as it’s difficult to go wrong when you have Robert Wise directing a Ernest Lehman script. Certainly, a quick perusal of some of the bulletin boards from around the Net show that many people are euphoric over the news of this release.

I must admit, however, that I’m not completely sold. While I trust the word of other Stanwyck fans that these are good films, I can’t shake the feeling that this signature collection lacks some of the punch of some of its predecessors. Unfortunately, Warner’s more recent releases in the signature line have been veering in this somewhat watered-down direction. Nonetheless, at least Warner has tried to cater to classics fans the ways certain other ones have not (e.g., Paramount seems to care very little about its classics list).

All the same, this is good news to know that a Stanwyck collection is coming out. As I mentioned in my other blog, the rights to her films are scattered across numerous studios. On the one hand, this is bad, since it makes it so difficult to assemble a nice looking set. On the other, perhaps that means other studios will soon be following suit, which means that this Warner set coming out in October might be just the beginning. . .

Over on the Noir of the Week blog, there’s an interesting article by Glenn Erikson about the history of the alternate endings of Kiss Me Deadly. It’s a little long, but if you’re a fan of that particular film or noirs in general or of film preservation, it’s a good read.

I did not see the film until a few years ago, after the long-lost ending had already been restored. However, my DVD has the other, alternate ending, so I was able to see the mutilated version as well. kmd3.jpgNot only is Kiss Me Deadly one of my favorite films, but the ending on the beach as Aldrich originally filmed it is one of my favorite scenes in classic film, so I was shocked to find that it had been so butchered. Yet, as Erikson’s article describes, this alternate version was the ending that for decades critics assumed was the correct one, and consequently, there is a great deal of criticism incorrectly discussing the “deconstructed” nature of Kiss Me Deadly‘s ending. At any rate, read it if you’re interested.

When Giuseppe Tornatore’s 1988 film Cinema Paradiso came out, it was one of those foreign films that comes along every now and then that actually manages to get some attention from those audience members usually scared off by subtitles. The attention was well warranted. In my opinion, it’s one of the most moving and heartfelt films to come out in the last 20 years.

A few years ago, I was given the DVD version of the film for Christmas.  It contains not only the well-known theatrical release of the film, but also the newly mastered “New Version,” incorporating about 50 minutes of additional footage that Tornatore originally intended to be included in the film. As is often the case, studio execs had balked at the idea of a nearly three-hour long film and thus the footage had been cut for theatres.

I am not really a fan of director’s cuts. While I respect the director’s view and think they can rightfully claim some provenance over their films, I also respect good film editors and think they usually tend to make good choices in their cuts. cinema2.jpgOn the other hand, I do think the commercial pressure put on film-makers can often lead to questionable compromises. The lack of faith in an audience’s attention span definitely can lead to some poor decisions – the classic example being the excessive editing of Orson Welles’s Magnificent Ambersons, which took place while the director was off filming in Brazil. To his dying day, Welles insists that these cuts ruined his vision for the film, and finding the director’s cut of this film remains the elusive – and rather unlikely – holy grail of the film world.

Being a big fan of Giuseppe Tornatore’s film, I held out for some time on watching the new version, suspecting that all that extra footage would just water down the film’s undeniable emotional punch. Fast forward to the past week, however, when I finally decided it was time to give this new version a shot, thinking that maybe a scene or two of the deleted footage might at least be interesting. I wasn’t trying to be pessimistic – just realistic. I mean, why mess with a film that’s already that good? Imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only did the extra footage not ruin the film, it actually made a great film even better.

Both versions of the film are more or less the same for the majority of the film. The film begins showing film-maker Salvatore di Vita returning to his apartment in Rome one night to discover that his mother had called during his abscence. Her message informs him that his boyhood mentor and friend Alfredo (played in the film by Philipe Noiret in one of his most famous roles) had just passed away in his hometown and the funeral would be held the next day. Most of the film is subsequently a flashback to Salvatore’s boyhood and his growing up under Alfredo’s tutelage and learning about life, love, and film. The biggest difference in the two versions comes when Salvatore arrives in his hometown for the funeral. At this point, the theatrical version closes relatively quickly, only lasting another 15 or 20 minutes or so. It focuses almost exclusively on Salvatore’s coming to terms with the loss of Alfredo and the old movie theatre, which is torn down while he is there. In the new version, on the other hand, Salvatore’s return last nearly a third of the film’s total running time, and the additional footage shows him facing additional aspects of his past, including his first true love, his family, and his changing hometown. This broadened view, in my opinion, makes much more sense with the rest of the film and makes it more cohesive as a whole. cinema.jpgFor one thing, it resolves many of the questions the theatrical version left unanswered concerning Salvatore’s romance with Elena (and believe me, if you were a fan of the couple’s moving romance in the original version, you will want to see how it gets wrapped up in the extended version). Further, the additional footage extends some of the wider themes introduced earlier in the film, and as a result, the film is not just a memorial for Salvatore’s lost friendship (as it more or less is in the theatrical version), it’s an elegy for his entire past – an eloquent portrait of why some of us can never stop being haunted and influenced by our childhood.

I suppose you can say it is a very rare experience indeed to get to see a film twice for the first time. And yet, thanks to this new version, I feel like I had just such an experience with Cinema Paradiso. I was blown away by the sincerity and artistry of the film the first time through. Then, seeing it again with all the new footage, I was blown away once again. If you’re like me – reluctant to see director’s cuts and skeptical that the additional footage is actually worth salvaging – you should check out the extended version of Cinema Paradiso. It just might change your mind.