What a Character! Blogathon–Elisha Cook Jr.

WILMER COOK: Keep on riding me and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.

SAM SPADE: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.

Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer Cook and Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon.”

HELEN: I must warn you though, liquor makes me nosy. I’ve been known to ask all sorts of personal questions after four cocktails.

MARTY: ‘s alright. I’ve been known to tell people to mind their own business. Cold sober too.

Claire Trevor as Helen and Elisha Cook Jr. as Marty in “Born to Kill.”

GEORGE PEATTY: This couple, sittin’ in front of me, oh, they weren’t young, exactly. I guess the woman was about your age.

SHERRY PEATTY: A little senile, you mean? With one foot and a big toe in the grave?

GEORGE PEATTY: You want to hear this or not? Do you or not, Sherry?

SHERRY PEATTY: I can’t wait. Go ahead and thrill me George.

Elisha Cook Jr. as George Peatty and Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty in “The Killing.”
“Well Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you. But I want you to know I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Elisha Cook Jr. carved out a very unique niche for himself in Hollywood. He often played a villain, but never a outwardly scary villain. He was no Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in Kiss of Death or Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) in Cape Fear. Cook Jr.’s portrayal was much different. He was mild-mannered, timid even, but was still able to make the action of the film seem uncomfortable. To me, he comes across as someone who seems like they could crack any time now. In The Maltese Falcon, he trails Sam Spade all over San Francisco and makes threats along the way, but Spade never takes him seriously. Even at the end of the film, Cook Jr.’s boss, Kasper Gutman, sells him out and makes him the fall guy. Kasper does this to save his own neck.

When I first learned about Elisha Cook Jr., I did what I always do for every new film and new actor I discover: I looked up his Imdb and Wikipedia pages. I was astonished to learn that Cook Jr. was born in 1903! 1903! In ‘Falcon,’ he looks like a kid compared to Bogart and company. However, he was only four years younger than Bogart! Save for Sydney Greenstreet, Cook Jr., was older than the other members of his gang: Mary Astor and Peter Lorre. This was insane to me. He had such a baby face that it was astonishing that he was almost 40 when he appeared in ‘Falcon.’

It is partially Cook Jr.’s baby face that lends to his ability to play these meek, timid characters who provide a duplicitous nature to his characters. He didn’t always play the villain, but he often played someone who was pretty much on the up-and-up, but got in over his head due to his naiveté and inability to stand up against a stronger personality. In The Killing, Cook Jr., works at a large horse track as a cashier. He is married to the very domineering (physically and personality-wise) Marie Windsor, who treats him like garbage because he hasn’t provided her with the lifestyle to which she feels accustomed. To make his wife like him better, Cook Jr., gets involved with criminal Sterling Hayden who wants to pull off one last heist. Cook Jr., offers to use his position as an employee of the horse track to help Hayden pull off the heist. In exchange, he is supposed to receive a large sum of money. Unfortunately, Cook Jr. ends up paying for his involvement with his life.

Probably the most action Elisha Cook Jr. ever got in one of his films–Phantom Lady.

In contrast to his wimpy weaklings, Elisha Cook Jr., did turn in a very uncharacteristic (yet entirely typical) performance in Phantom Lady. In this film, Ella Raines is trying to prove the innocence of her boss who is sitting on death row for murdering his wife. He has an alibi, but the alibi cannot be located. Raines is trying to follow the clues to find the alibi and exonerate her boss before it’s too late. Nightclub drummer Cook Jr., is one of the people who can help lead her to the alibi. To convince him to give her the details, Raines tries to emulate the type of woman that a musician would be interested in. Donning fishnet stockings, a slinky dress, and stilettos, hepcat Raines’ ruse works. Cook Jr., invites her to this seedy private club away from the nightclub.

Here’s where Cook Jr.’s uncharacteristic performance comes in. Obviously wanting to seduce Raines and “make it” (as they say in old movies back then) with her, he presents the most erotic, sexually charged drum solo ever committed to celluloid. This is as close as filmmakers could get in having characters have sex on screen in 1944. Cook Jr.’s drumsticks hit the drumheads with such an intense, rhythmic beat. Close-ups of his sweaty face, eyes widening, smile tightening are juxtaposed with shots of the drumsticks. As the beat intensifies, so does the intensity in Cook Jr.’s face until the scene climaxes, and he and Raines slink out the door when she offers a come hither look. Like in most of his films, Cook Jr., doesn’t survive Phantom Lady, but at least he had some fun before his murder.

Elisha Cook Jr. is one of my favorite character actors. He brings such a unique presence to screen and you never know what you’re going to get, while knowing exactly what you’re going to get when he’s on screen.

My favorite Elisha Cook Jr. performances:

  • The Maltese Falcon
  • The Killing
  • Born to Kill
  • Phantom Lady
  • House on Haunted Hill
  • The Big Sleep
  • The Gangster
  • Don’t Bother to Knock
  • Love Crazy
  • I Wake Up Screaming
  • Ball of Fire

WATSON PRITCHARD: They’re coming for me now… and then they’ll come for you.

Elisha Cook Jr. as Watson Pritchard in House on Haunted Hill

The Distraction Blogathon- “Casablanca” (1942)

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.”

“We’ll always have Paris.”

“Play it Sam, play ‘As Time Goes By.'”

“I’m shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on here.”

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“Everybody comes to Rick’s.”

Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Claude Rains (Louis), Paul Henreid (Victor) and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) in “Casablanca.”

These are just some of the amazing quotes from Casablanca. Casablanca is considered one of the greatest films of all time, and for good reason–it is a fantastic movie. Almost every line of dialogue is quotable. The characters (especially Rick, Ilsa, and Louis) are iconic. The last scene between Rick and Ilsa at the airport and later, the ending scene with Rick and Louis walking off into the fog are forever symbolic of Classic Hollywood. Between the quotes, the scenes, the music, Rick and Ilsa’s romance, Louis’ corruption… there is so much to remember about Casablanca. However, does anyone remember the object that plays a central role in the film? 1

1 Obviously a rhetorical question, because duh, we’re all Classic Hollywood film fans, OF COURSE we know the answer to this question; but roll with it.

Answer? The letters of transit. The letters of transit are introduced in the film as a piece of crucial documentation that refugees must present to leave Casablanca, Morocco. These refugees are hoping to obtain a letter of transit so that they can travel through German-occupied Europe to Lisbon, Portugal (which is neutral), then board a ship/plane to head to their new life in the United States. These documents are the objects that motivate the main characters’ actions in the film. The audience is first introduced to Peter Lorre’s character in the film, Ugarte, as he races through town and into Rick’s (Humphrey Bogart) club, Rick’s Cafe American. Ugarte boasts that he murdered two German couriers to obtain these precious letters of transit. He wants to sell them in Rick’s club. In the meantime however, Ugarte asks Rick to keep the letters of transit safe.

Later, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) arrive in Casablanca and head over to Rick’s. Victor is the leader of the Czech Resistance movement. Because of his activity, Victor ranks high on the Germans’ list of persons to not allow to leave Casablanca. Thanks to Rick’s business rival, Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), Rick is suspected of having the letters of transit in his possession. This suspicion is what leads Ilsa and Victor to Rick’s. Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), the corrupt prefect of police, also suspects Rick has the letters of transit. He is a subject of the German-controlled France and is supposed to be preventing Ilsa and Victor’s escape.

Dooley Wilson (Sam) attempts to comfort Humphrey Bogart (Rick) as he laments Ilsa walking into his gin joint.

But does the audience care about the letters of transit? No. Not really. As the audience, we are immediately captivated by Rick’s sour reaction to Ilsa’s showing up at his club. What’s the story there? That’s what we want to know. Judging from Ilsa’s acquaintance with Sam (Dooley Wilson), Rick’s pianist and friend, and her asking him to play “it,” we know that there’s a story there. Sam knows what “it” is and reluctantly agrees to play the song when Ilsa persists. When Sam acquiesces to Ilsa’s request and begins playing “As Time Goes By,” (i.e. “it”), Rick angrily emerges from his office, demanding to know why Sam is playing *that* song. He spots Ilsa and oof. If looks could kill. Rick’s reaction, combined with Sam quickly grabbing his piano bench and scurrying out of the way, is what we need to know about. What is the story behind Rick and Ilsa?

The story of Rick and Ilsa provides the main framework of the story and the main conflict. Add in the fact that Ilsa is married to Victor, and a love triangle develops. Rick and Ilsa’s romance is re-kindled and soon it’s up in the air as to whether Ilsa will want a letter of transit to leave Casablanca. A different side of Rick emerges. He was a cynical, world weary ex-pat living in Casablanca, seemingly impervious to everything. Then Ilsa shows up (unexpectedly) and the romantic side of him emerges. Louis is there, kind of playing both sides, both as an ally of Rick’s but also wanting to follow through on his “duty” and prevent Victor’s escape. He knows Rick knows where the letters of transit are, but he doesn’t really work too hard to look for them. Louis, a French police officer, is stuck in the middle between duty to his country and duty to the corrupt Nazi regime who had taken over Vichy France. At the end of the film, Louis tosses the full bottle of Vichy water into the trash, symbolically showing that he is severing his ties with the Nazis. Louis, like Rick, becomes a patriot.

At the end of the film, Rick makes the ultimate sacrifice and sends Ilsa off with Victor. He hands over the letters of transit very casually. There is no big fanfare, no big build up when Rick hands off the coveted documents. Instead, we are treated to Rick’s very self-sacrificing monologue, the monologue in which he finally severs ties with Ilsa and closes this chapter of his life. This is closure to the romance that we’ve been captivated by since the beginning of the film. We’re finally finding out the resolution of the love triangle. Which man will Ilsa end up with? The man she fell in love with after her husband was thought to be dead? Or her husband, whom she reunited with (and abandoned Rick in the process) after learning that he was still alive? Does she stay with the man who escaped the war to live in Casablanca? Or does she stay with the man who is conducting very important, but also dangerous work on behalf of the Resistance? The letters of transit are essentially irrelevant in the context of the real crux of the film.

Humphrey Bogart (Rick) and Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) in the iconic airport scene from “Casablanca.”

RICK: “Last night, we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I’ve done a lot of it since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you’re getting on that plane with Victor where you belong.”

ILSA: “But Richard, no… I… I…”

RICK: “Now you’ve got to listen to me! You have any idea what you’d have to look forward to if you stayed here? Nine chances out of ten we’d both wind up in a Concentration Camp. Isn’t that true, Louis?”

LOUIS: “I’m afraid Major Strasser would insist.”

ILSA: “You’re only saying this to make me go.”

RICK: “I’m saying it because it’s true. Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”

ILSA: “But what about us?”

RICK: “We’ll always have Paris. What we didn’t have, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.”

ILSA: “When I said I would never leave you.”

RICK: “And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t have any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.”

(ILSA lowers her head and begins to cry)

RICK: “Now…now…”

(RICK gently grabs Ilsa’s chin and raises it, so they can look into each other’s eyes.)

RICK: “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa), and Claude Rains (Louis) in one of the most iconic scenes in Classic Hollywood.

The final scene between Rick and Ilsa is one of my absolute favorite scenes in any film. Who knew that a scene where two people are breaking up could be so romantic and heartbreaking. It was beautifully written and acted. After taking in the emotional gravitas of this scene and the absolutely heart-wrenching ending to this romance, who is still thinking about the letters of transit?

Rick, hide me! Do something! You must help me, Rick!”

Noirvember 2020

My “Noirvember” picks will be continually updated as the month wears on and I make my next choice!

Maxine Cooper & Ralph Meeker in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Noirvember is upon us. I love film noir, so every month is “Noirvember” for me, but I thought I’d try to actively participate in the event this year. Previously, I lurked in conversations and posts and read about it, but didn’t actually contribute.

For those who are unfamiliar with “Noirvember,” it is simply a portmanteau of the words “Noir” and “November.” It is a term used to describe what is essentially a month-long celebration of film noir. Noirvember was invented by a poster (@oldfilmsflicker on Twitter) who just wanted an excuse to catch-up on film noir. It has since evolved and become a full-fledged event.

I have seen a lot of film noir and have a lot of favorite films and performers. While I definitely want to revisit some old favorites, I also want to watch some “new to me” film noir. I don’t have a particular list of 30 film noir to watch, as I wanted my list to flow organically. However, so that I had some semblance of organization and didn’t spend my entire evening trying to decide what to watch, I’ve decided to play a game with my selections. Each successive film will feature a performer from the previous film. E.g. “The Big Heat” features Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame. “Sudden Fear” features Grahame and Joan Crawford.

It is my hope that my final film of the month will link back to the first.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray conspicuously looking inconspicuous in the grocery store in Double Indemnity.

Click here to view my Noirvember Picks!