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.

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As part of my ongoing posts on Elisha Cook Jr., we’re next going to take a look at Cook’s noir films – the genre he is most often associated with. Cook was part of the noir movement from the very beginning, having been cast in Stranger on the Third Floor – the 1940 film most critics point to as the first true noir film and the beginning of the classic noir period. This classic noir period is subsequently said to wrap up with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil film in 1958. While Cook was not in Welles’s film, he was nonetheless a constant face in many noir films on through to the very end, making Baby Face Nelson in December of 1957. In many ways, Cook could be viewed to develop alongside the genre – just as the film noirs during those years were becoming more mature and sophisticated, Cook’s noir roles and what he brought to them likewise expanded.

As important as Stranger on the Third Floor is to film history, it is not available on DVD and I have never had a chance to see it. Regardless, it was not until the next year with the release of the classic The Maltese Falcon that things really began to click, both for Cook and the noir genre. The film was a lot of firsts – John Huston’s directorial debut, Bogie’s first unqualified hit as a leading man (though one might argue that High Sierra fits that bill) – but perhaps its most important was as the first true noir masterpiece. The film set up many of the standard conventions that would be recycled and played with over and over again during the following two decades.

After having seen Cook in so many film roles where he made the most of his flacid, bug-eyed expressions to skillfully portray various ill-fated and in-over-their-heads characters – it’s somewhat difficult trying to picture the man just kicking back and relaxing. cook-wilmer.jpgAnd yet, by the early 1940s, the Hollywood career of Cook, now in his mid-30s, had evolved to the point where the reclusive actor could simply retire to the High Sierra hills between films and fish for trout as he waited for the work to come to him via studio courier. It was in these hills that Huston sent word to Cook that he wanted him for what would become Cook’s best known role – the gun-toting Wilmer. Cook nailed the role. It’s one of those where it’s impossible imagining somebody doing it better. It’s interesting because Cook actually appears “tougher” as Wilmer than he does in most of his subsequent noir roles, despite the homosexual undertones of the role and that he was pushed around throughout the film by Bogie’s Sam Spade and eventually set up as “the fall guy.”

After Falcon, Cook made another noir classic, I Wake Up Screaming. He continued to make films in other genres, but for the most part, he was associated with noirs throughout the 40s. He took a hiatus from Hollywood in late 1942 (apparently for military service – though I’m having trouble locating what branch or any other details), and did not return to the big screen until 1944. His first film upon his return was Phantom Lady, a film that should be included in any discussion about Cook, as it is one of the most frequently cited roles in the literature about him. Unfortunately, this is another one not yet out on DVD and that I have not seen yet. (Seriously, somebody needs to start releasing these. Do I next need to blog about the need for an Elisha Cook Jr. box set? I’ve already devoted more time to him than most people do, so don’t think I won’t do it.) The late 40s brought more noir classics, including Dillinger, The Big Sleep, and Born to Kill. The advent of the 50s brought a shift in Cook’s career, as he started doing more western films and suddenly became active with television. He still did the occasional noir, however, most notably in Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 film, The Killing – another of Cook’s best performances.

The fall guy, the scapegoat, the cuckold, the neurotic, the whipping boy, the pushed-around sidekick. cook-borntokill.jpgWithout fail, Cook appeared throughout these tough guy films in less than tough guy roles. He was too bad to be a good guy but not quite bad enough to play the bad guy (his best known nickname was “Hollywood’s lightest heavy”). And yet, he played these roles so well that they continued coming to him, and his portrayals would set up many of the lasting noir conventions. Cook played an integral part in the noir legacy. In many ways, he helped add humanity and believability to the films. Face it – we all want to identify with the Bogies or Mitchums or Stanwycks of the noirs, who always seem to have the answer or else know how to go about getting it, but finding ourselves in similar situations, we might very well find ourselves over our head and panicking just to stay afloat in treacherous waters. Cook’s roles often remind us of the danger inherent in these situations and the less-than-noble ways people often truly respond to such dangers.

Elisha Cook Jr.

May 15, 2007

I think many old movie fans are probably similar to me and my wife. After watching enough of these old films, some of those faces that were formerly relegated to the background in significant yet limited supporting roles start to come forward as they become more and more familiar. Moving beyond each picture’s one or two big-name stars, one begins to pay increasing attention to these faces behind the faces – all those various character actors and bit players who really round out the cast and add so much to these films.

So many of these people are now largely forgotten by the public, although quite a few of them were well known at the time and their contributions were quite significant. cook2.jpgFor this reason, I thought it would be interesting to do a series of reviews based upon the careers of one of these supporting actors. This should offer a somewhat unique way of looking at a series of films – as opposed to the usual genre-, theme-, or superstar-based series. Besides highlighting the career of an unduly overlooked subject, it can also bring together an interesting cross-section of films that wouldn’t often be grouped together. This is certainly the case with the actor I’ve chosen to look at here – Elisha Cook Jr.

Elisha Cook has been in some great movies and is particularly well known to fans of film noirs due to his roles in films such as Maltese Falcon (probably his best known role – as Wilmer) and The Killing. It is probably his good work in such memorable films that has led Cook to being not quite as “forgotten” as most of old Hollywood’s character actors. And yet, as a simple Google search for Mr. Cook reveals, the majority of the websites and sources discussing the actor simply recycle the same information over and over again. You can look at his page on IMDB or Wikipedia or one of the many others, but they all say more or less the same thing – i.e., known as “Hollywood’s lightest heavy,” the diminutive cook.jpgElisha Cook made a lengthy Hollywood career out of playing fall guys and spineless villains, including his most memorable roles in such films as The Maltese Falcon and Shane. Such descriptions are great at boiling down a career to only the most essential details, but I have to think that there is something more to a man who had as long and successful a film and television career as Cook had (if you haven’t already looked at that Wikipedia page, do so now and check out the list of different directors Cook worked with throughout his career). It is all the information that is left unsaid that always makes me wonder about these lesser known actors and actresses. Surely there is more to a person who has had such a long and varied career that cannot be captured in just a brief paragraph or two. Off and on over the next several weeks, I’ll try to see if we can’t flesh out that description of Cook a little more by taking a more concentrated look at the actor’s films (and maybe even a bit of his extensive TV work) and maybe by seeing if we can’t find out a little more information from some print sources. As always, any suggestions or feedback is welcome.

kissmedeadly.jpgThere are classic film noirs, I suppose, and then there are classic film noirs. I recently re-watched one of my absolute favorites of the genre – Robert Aldrich’s 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly. While on the surface the film contains many of the tried and true genre conventions – the labyrinth-like urban setting, the morally ambiguous protagonist, the unknown but much sought after MacGuffin – it infuses these conventions with vigorous new life and meaning. In fact, there is a depth to the script (owing in no small part, I’m sure, to the original novel by Mickey Spillane) that is often absent in noirs. The resulting film goes well beyond the superficial detective story and raises many questions regarding what it means to live in a world where the lives of individual people actually matter surprisingly little.

The concept of the investigator being involved in a story where he has to figure out exactly what it is that is at stake is by no means rare in the noir genre. On the kissdeadly.jpgcontrary, protagonists are rather commonly thrust unwittingly into mysteries where they must figure out for themselves just what it is they’ve gotten themselves into. Kiss Me Deadly simply takes this quest a step further. When investigator Mike Hammer (played ever so cooly by Ralph Meeker) stumbles upon a girl named Christina (Cloris Leachman) late one night on a deserted highway, he discovers she is harboring secrets that others will stop at nothing to obtain. After she is eventually tortured and killed over these secrets, Mike starts his quest to unravel the mystery. Guessing that he’s on the trail of “something bigger” than his usual small-time divorce cases, Mike begins searching for clues that will eventually lead him to the source of all this intrigue. But the further along he searches, the clearer it becomes he might be biting off more than he can chew. As his assistant, Velda, quips, “First, you find a little thread, the little thread leads you to a string, and the string leads you to a rope, and from the rope you hang by the neck.”

Indeed, as it turns out, the thing Mike is looking for isn’t just “something bigger,” it’s something huge. In a post-WWII, nuclear age, private ambitions and plans of individuals mean little compared to the large ideological and political forces that can result in wholesale destruction and death. By the time Mike realizes this, he is in way over his head, and abandoning his hopes for a big payday, he must struggle just to keep himself and those closest to him alive. The famous closing scene (strangely not shown in the original release in many countries) has Mike and Velda clinging to each other in the water upon the shoreline – a haunting image which from its liminal perspective would seem to indicate the struggle of the couple to maintain its relationship from a rather marginalized position in the world. It’s a stunning visual that really has a tremendous effect. It seems an appopriate ending to a work in which everything good – love, beauty, poetry – struggles to survive in the face of greed and power.

I seem to have rambled into a bit more analysis with this posting than I usually do. Suffice it to say that Aldrich’s direction is excellent and energetic, the acting is good, and the script is top-notch. Owing much to the zeitgeist of the 50s, the film really captures the paranoia and strange sense of discomfort beneath the surface of post-War America. Kiss Me Deadly is one of those entertaining films that has a surprising amount of depth to it and just never seems to get old. I highly recommend it.

The Killers (1946)

April 6, 2007

Even to a big noir fan like myself, some of the early films of the genre, killers1946dvd.gifeven the very good ones, tend to run together, particularly after you’ve seen as many as I have (it’s not until the 50s, when the plots got quite a bit more quirky and creative, that it gets somewhat easier to keep them all straight). On the surface, the 1946 version of The Killers appears to be one of those films that is destined to blend in with others from the time period. The story is more or less a fairly standard noir-style plot involving a double-cross. The acting is excellent from top to bottom but – other than Burt Lancaster in his breakout role – there’s nothing all that extraordinary about it. One can’t even say this is the most notable film noir involving an insurance investigator, since that “honor” would belong to Double Indemnity, with Edward G. Robinson starring as the insurance investigator par excellence. And yet, The Killers nonetheless does rise to the surface and seem to stand out as a very memorable, top-tier film noir. It’s fairly easy to see why. While it might not be exceptional in any single regard, it is certainly above average in many. It also embodies – and embodies well – many of the narrative and stylistic characteristics we associate with the noir genre. Indeed, if there is some ethereal, Platonic ideal of the classic noir film, The Killers doesn’t deviate far from it.

The film is based on a famous Ernest Hemingway story. Hemingway had a theory on fiction writing that, to be effective, it should be like the tip of the iceburg, presenting very little above the surface and leaving hidden the majority of the underlying bulk and foundation. Thus, his writing typically only hints at the complex motives and background of the characters involved and leaves much up to the imagination of the reader. Such is the case with “The Killers,” a short story that describes two men coming into a diner looking for the Swede – killers.jpgan area man they have been hired to kill. While the story gives clues as to why they wish to kill the Swede, it raises more questions than it answers. The film adaptation rather faithfully covers the narrative of Hemingway’s story in about the first 10 or 15 minutes. The remaining hour and a half tries via flashback to provide the background details missing in Hemingway’s take. This might seem like a rather dramatic departure from the original source material, but Hemingway apparently did not mind. In fact, he even advised John Huston – who drafted the script (uncredited due to his being under contract to another studio at the time) – on a few areas. The two became lifelong friends thereafter (this article had a bit more on their collaboration for the film). The presence of Huston certainly clues one in as to why the script is so good. One of the best with noir scripts, Huston had already written and directed such noir classics as The Maltese Falcon and was only a few years away from doing one of my all-time favorite film noirs, The Asphalt Jungle. The fact that many of his noir scripts have a literary bent to them probably helped him in adapting and expanding the Hemingway story.

A good bit has already been written about this film, and I don’t probably have much new to add here. But if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Seriously, it’s a film noir involving the likes of Lancaster, Hemingway, and Huston (and we haven’t even mentioned the quality job Ava Gardner does as the femme fatale). What isn’t there to like?

The Big Heat (1953)

September 11, 2006

Sadly, Glenn Ford passed away the other week on August 30. bigheat.jpgI am not overly familiar with Ford’s body of work. In fact, other than Superman, which I last saw many many years ago, the only film starring Ford that I could remember seeing was Gilda. Ford was certainly memorable in this film, however, giving a splendid performance opposite Rita Hayworth. I read and heard a bit about Ford’s life after his passing. He seemed like a real stand-up guy who maintained a real grounded perspective throughout his life, habitually putting aside his Hollywood career for military service and other worthy causes. It sounds like we have lost a true class act.

Over the weekend, I decided to watch The Big Heat, a film noir starring Ford and directed by the legendary Fritz Lang. Ford plays the role of Dave Bannion, a policeman whose wife is murdered while he is investigating a homicide case. Seeking justice, Bannion must battle a corrupt police force that is in league with the mob. The cast is exceptional, featuring the likes of Ford, Lee Marvin, Gloria Grahame, and several other faces that will be recognizable to fans of the classics. As a self-proclaimed classics fan myself, and considering I’ve already confessed that I have been rather remiss in my Glenn Ford viewing, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that this is also the first Fritz Lang film I’ve seen. Perhaps I can further rectify this deficiency in the coming weeks with my horror film viewings (Lang directed some supposedly great silent-era horrors).

I can find nothing to complain about with this film. It is an engaging story from start to finish with a great script. It is extremely well acted – Lee Marvin, in particular, does a fantastic job as the menancing mobster Vince Stone, as does Gloria Grahame in her role as Stone’s girlfriend. Lang’s direction is also fantastic. Tightly and carefully shot, Lang sustains a threatening tension throughout the film.

Released in 1953, The Big Heat seems in many ways to contain elements of earlier film noirs while also looking forwards towards noirs yet to come. Many of the characters (some of whom, like Grahame’s, can almost be viewed allegorically) seem to be reminiscent of some of the noirs of the 40s. The dark, violent atmosphere, on the other hand, foretells of the noirs that would continue to emerge in the 50s. At any rate, the combination of elements certainly comes out to good effect. I tend to like most film noirs, so the fact that I like this film on its own is not that surprising. Yet, this honestly is one of the better ones I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s up there with The Asphalt Jungle, Kiss Me Deadly, and some of my other favorites.

ford.jpgAs for Glenn Ford, he gave a stellar performance. Even in this single film, he was able to demonstrate his versatility as an actor – portraying loving husband, vengeful cop, and everything in between perfectly. With films like this as testimony, there is no question his legacy as a fine actor will survive for a long, long time.

Key Largo (1948)

August 22, 2006

largo2.jpgOne thing that will become evident as this blog continues is that I am a big Humphrey Bogart fan. I was thus understandably excited the other week when I came across one of his more underrated films – Key Largo – on sale for a very good price. The film is the only one that pairs Bogie with both the costar (Lauren Bacall) and the director (John Huston) with whom he is most closely associated. Not only that, but the rest of the cast is stellar, with Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, and Claire Trevor. The basic story follows Frank McCloud (Bogart) a WWII veteran who travels to a hotel in Key Largo to visit Frank and Nora Temple (Barrymore and Bacall), the surviving father and widow of one of his deceased war buddies. The hotel, however, is overrun by a group of gangsters (led by Johnny Rocco – played by Robinson), and McCloud and the Temples must survive a night trapped in the building threatened by both the gangsters and an approaching hurricane.

Key Largo is one of those great films that makes me nostalgic for a previous era of filmmaking. I always seem to like classic films that are based on plays. Their reliance upon well-written, intelligent scripts usually ensures quality productions. And even though stage origins may limit such films geographically, they also typically give these films a strong sense of place that often seems lacking in today’s efforts. This is certainly the case with Key Largo. Not only does it have a quality script, but it has a top-notch ensemble capable of bringing it to life, with Claire Trevor actually stealing the show from her bigger-name costars. The bottom-line is that this is a well done classic film.

And yet, even having said this, I think there is something that keeps the film an ever-so-slight tier below the truly top-flight classics of the genre. This is odd, considering I can think of very little that is wrong with the film (besides some awkwardly dated Native American scenes). If anything, I would say that, good as it is, the script is thin in certain areas, particularly in that it doesn’t give Bogart ample opportunity to explore the ambiguities of McCloud’s character. Rather than exploring the subtle depths of these ambiguities, the script seems more content to simply note the changes in McCloud’s character and then use them as a way of conveniently moving the plot along. I’m not sure if the character was written this way in Maxwell Anderson’s play or if something was lost in the heavily-modified adaptation, but regardless, I feel Bogart ended up being shortchanged of a potentially rich role that he could have done well with. But I’m nitpicking. Even on a very bad day, John Huston directing a cast like this is worth checking out.

It’s interesting to note that many people view this film against the backdrop of Bogart, Robinson, Huston, and others speaking out against McCarthyism and the House Unamerican Activities Committee. In such an interepretation, Johnny Rocco represents a totalitarian bully who dictates how people should live, and Frank McCloud becomes a man who must overcome his fears and stand up to do what’s right. The hurricane adds another dimension to the drama, demonstrating that one man, no matter how powerful he thinks he is, is no match for the power of nature.

Gun Crazy (1949)

August 10, 2006

200px-guncrazydvd.jpgTo give a fair assement of Gun Crazy, one needs first to get past the initial 10 minutes of the film – not an easy feat considering it starts with all the melodramatic hokeyness of an afterschool special. But be patient: it redeems itself, improving as it goes along and eventually rewarding viewers with a top-tier film noir.

Seen as a forerunner of Bonnie and Clyde, Gun Crazy follows the adventures of married couple Annie Laurie Starr and Bart Tare as they travel crosscountry in an exciting string of robberies. The film makes up for the rather simple storyline through focusing on the moral composition and development of the characters. Is Annie truly the ruthless and unfeeling femme fatale she seems to be, manipulating Bart’s feelings only for financial gain (it’s interesting to note that the film’s original title was Deadly is the Female)? Or is there really depth in her actions, and can we actually believe the excuses she presents for killing innocent people? Bart’s character is even more interesting. Torn between his love for his girl and his desire to go straight, he becomes involved in a game of brinksmanship with Annie, who pushes him to see just how far he will bend his principles in order to prove his love for her. Trying to determine the true nature of these characters is further complicated by the interesting twist given by the film’s surprising ending. The magnetism and fatalistic quality of the couple’s relationship gives it a star-crossed-lover quality that really propels the story forward.

There is a b-movie quality about the production. While in some areas this proves a liability, overall it seems only to enhance (as it often does with the noir genre) the direct and visceral atmosphere of the film. The script and pacing of the film do have some problems, getting bogged down in uninteresting, irrelevant details, while glossing over seemingly pivotal events. Also, the acting is solid but not exceptional. Probably the strongest aspect of the film is Joseph Lewis’s energetic and engaging direction. Many of the shots (including the film’s famous bank-robbery scene that was shot in one extra-long take) are innovative and revealing.

I highly recommend this film to any film noir fans (by the way, fans of the genre might want to check out the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 1, which contains not only this film, but other classics such as The Asphalt Jungle and Out of the Past – looks like a great deal). The film is somewhat unique to the genre in that it relies so heavily upon character development for its substance and is so minimal in the area of plot. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of any other people who have seen this film, so please feel free to post your opinion.