Elisha Cook, Jr. was usually cast as the as the weak, put down, neurotic, wanna be tough guy. Had his character a philosophical bent it would been along the line of Robert Browning’s quote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” Whether it was confronting Jack Palance, Lawrence Tierney or Humphrey Bogart or trying to make it with women like Ella Raines or Marie Windsor, his character never knew when he was out of his league. Often Cook had so little screen time his character was only given a nickname, ”Sweeper,” “Inky,” “Banjo,” “Shorty,” or he’d be referred to by the role he played like ‘piano player,’ ‘crazed drummer,’ or ‘taxi driver. His high water mark in screen credits was in Magnum P.I. (where he had twelve appearances) where not only was he given a first and last name but also a nick-name any tough guy would be proud to have: Francis(Ice-Pick)Hofstetler.
With over 215 screen credits it is tough to pin down his best performance. A lot of people remember him from, “Phantom Lady,” “House on Haunted Hill,” “Electraglide in Blue,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” ”A Kiss Before Dying,” and scores of television appearance. And of course there are, “The Maltese Falcon,” “Shane,” and “The Killing.”
Perhaps his most memorable role was as Wilmer the gunsel in The Maltese Falcon. Gunsel has two meanings, a small time hood carrying a gun and it is also a Yiddish slang for a young man kept by an older man. The relationship is evident in the film, and Elisha’s performance carries it to a higher level. He’s comes across as much a maladjusted kid trying to prove to his boss he’s more than a sexual distraction, as he does a killer. “I can always get another son,” the Fat Man says when choosing to give up Wilmer for the Bird.
The poor gunsel even has to wear an oversized overcoat with sleeves that reach down to his wrists! Don’t tell me wardrobe couldn’t find a better fitting coat if they tried. Makes you wonder if Wilmer was wearing the hand me down of a previous ‘son’ of the Fat Man. Cook brings a sensitivity to the role that almost makes us feel sorry for the guy. There’s a great scene where Bogart’s verbally chastising elicts tears from Wilmer. In a film replete with great performances, Cook’s is right up there with them.
My favorite film of his is, The Killing. He plays a race track clerk who is married to Marie Windsor the film’s femme fatale. It is their relationship that elevates a good movie about a heist job gone awry to a truly memorable film. It is Elisha Cook Jr, along with Marie Windsor that puts the film-noir into The Killing.
He’s the chump who will do anything for the femme fatale of his dreams, but he is no bigger a chump than Tom Neal in Detour, or Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.
And give Elisha credit: he gets to passionately kiss Marie Windsor, watches her parade around their apartment in her slip, gets to kill those who wronged him, and despite his face being riddled with buck shot, drives to his apartment, confronts his wife and kills her before he dies.
This film, just like Night and the City, benefits greatly from a wonderfully scripted sub-plot, interwoven throughout the entire movie. It is the interplay between Cook and Windsor that make The Killing a film-noir classic.
Although he has a minor role in Shane, as Stonewall Torrey, an honest, hard working family man with a fierce duty to principle and a refusal to be bullied, Cook gives us one of the filmdom’s most memorable scenes. When accompanying another homesteader to the blacksmith he is accosted by Wilson(Jack Palance). We see the poor guy walking tentatively through the mud towards the saloon where Wilson is waiting. The poor guy almost slips in the mud at one time. There is no drama in this scene, we know what is going to happen and Cook does a great performance as a sheep being led to slaughter. Through a previous encounter Wilson knows how easily it is to rouse Stonewall’s temper and does it by insulting Torrey’s Southern heritage . Cook responds by calling him, “…a low down lying Yankee.” “Prove it,” Wilson says and pulls his gun before Torrey can barely get it out of his holster, then kills him. This scene is a precursor to to the film's finale; the shootout between Wilson and Shane.
This was a different role for Elisha Cook in that his character is accepted by his community and is respected, he a peer, not some joke, or loser, but an important part of the homesteading community. Joe Starret(Van Heflin)convinces a family not to leave until Torrey has had a decent Christian burial, and Shane, in his own way honors him, by calling out Wilson with the same words that Torrey used.,
It is no coincidence that the three films I’ve chosen are widely recognized as classics. And it’s no coincidence that Elisha Cook, Jr. had a part in them. Elisha Cook was a fine actor, not just a bit role player but a fine actor in his own right. And I want to give a shout out to the FBook group that prompted me to write this.