He was the go-to guy when Hollywood needed a patsy, a fall guy, and he did it with class and dignity, no matter how small the part was. Starting out in vaudeville at the early age of 14, he eventually made his way to the big screen, he starred opposite Lana Turner in Her Unborn Child (1930), but it wasn’t until 1936 that Cook finally became a full time actor.
Cook was a man of small stature, but the characters that he portrayed often were vicious losers with a snarl on their lips. He had a lengthy career and did an enormous amount of television work; often guest starring in plenty of prime time shows, often playing a villain or a spineless criminal. Most often remembered for being the gunsel Wilmer in John Houston’s classic Film Noir, The Maltese Falcon.
These are the top twenty films of Elisha Cook Jr that you may have missed.
1Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Dir: Roman Polanksi.
Mr. Nicklas (Elisha Cook, Jr) is the landlord of the Bramford building, and he shows the Woodhouses, Guy and Rosemary, the apartment that is for rent but he does not mention anything about the apartment’s sorid past. Cook was an acquitance of the producer William Castle and the two were friends. The role was small but for Cook fans merely seeing the actor adds to the picture’s overall greatness.
2The Big Sleep (1946)
Dir: Howard Hawks.
Phillip Marlow(Humphrey Bogart) is hired by a wealth family to find out who has been blackmailing General Sternwood’s youngest daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers) for her improprieties. On his way out, Marlow meets the General’s older daughter Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and so begins one of the screen’s great romances as Marlow and Vivian begin flirting back and forth with each other.
Cook portrays Harry Jones, “that funny little guy” who is forced to drink poison by Lash Canino (Bob Steele) for love of all things. His death scene is particularly moving.
3The Killing (1956)
Dir: Stanley Kubrick.
In 1956 Stanly Kubrick directed The Killing, a film noir about a race track robbery that goes wrong. Cook played George Peatty, a betting window teller that worked at the track; he tells his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) about the upcoming job hoping to impress her with promises of easy money to come, but she is two timing him with her lover, Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) and he plans on stealing the money from the gang.
After the hold up a shoot out commences and Val is killed; a wounded George makes it back home just in time to kill the cheating Sherry. Cook and Windsor are a truly doomed film noir couple; he is the nervous patsy and she is the money hungry conniver; together they are dynamite.
Dir: George Stevens.
Alan Ladd is Shane (Alan Ladd), the concise mysterious gunslinger, a man of few words with a vague past. Shane rides into a small western town and is befriended by homesteader Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and his wife and child. Shane learns that the homesteaders are suffering acts of intimidation by the ruling cattle baron who wants the land for himself; Shane is offered a job and he soon accepts.
Jack Wilson (Jack Palance),is a ruthless gunfighter that works for the cattle baron, and he taunts Frank “Stonewall” Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.), a fierce ex-confederate homesteader into a gun battle, where he gets the drop on the farmer and kills him. This is, of course, all leading up to a conflict between Shane and Wilson, and the man in black doesn’t survive.
5House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Dir: William Castle.
It is a large image of Elisha Cook Jr.’s disembodied head that greets filmgoers to William Castle’s production of House on Haunted Hill. Vincent Price is eccentric millionare Frederick Loren; he has arranged for five strangers to spend the night at a haunted house, with the winner getting $10,000 dollars if they survive till morning. It is Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook) that owns the house, but there is no backstory as to how he has received it. Pritchard is convinced that the place is haunted by the ghosts of people that he has killed there in the past, including his brother, and any other ghosts that have gathered there to kill the present guests.
Since this is a Willaim Castle production, you can expect plenty of false scares, misleading plot twists, and of course some type of promotional gimmick to lure in moviegoers. The exterior shots of the house were of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed 1924 Ennis House in Los Feliz, California and the rest was done on soundstages. Cook is his usual high strung self and he warns the audience that the ghosts will be coming for them next.
6Salem’s Lot (1979)
Dir: Tobe Hooper.
Salem’s Lot, a 1979 television mini-series based on a novel by Stephen King and directed by Tobe Hooper was pretty excellent for being what it was. Ben Mears (David Soul) a writer, returns home to find the source of evil that is prevading his former hometown. In short, Mears becomes a vampire hunter and his target is Kurt Barlow( Reggie Nalder) and his handler, Richard Straker (James Mason); the two are holed up in the old Marsten House, a place that was creepy when Mears was but a boy.
Cook is Gordon ‘Weasel’ Phillips, a minor charater; once again he gets to play a crazy old man. Nonetheless this is a great film and should be hunted down.
7One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
Dir: Marlon Brando.
After robbing a Mexican bank, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) takes the dough and deserts his partner Rio (Marlon Brando) to be apprehended but Rio escapes and comes a gunning for Dad. Directed by Brando, One Eyed Jacks is Brando’s one and only time behind the camera.
This film was drafted first by Rod Serling and then later by Sam Peckingpah, and was orginally helmed by Stanley Kubrick, who dropped out after difficulties with the star. Originally the film ran for 4 hours and 42 minutes and went over budget in a large way until Paramount stepped in and cut the film down to a manageable 141 minutes. Look for a quick cameo by Cook as a fellow gunman named Carvey.
8The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Dir: John Huston.
This is the film that literally put Cook on the map. Cook plays Wilmer, a “gunsel” that tries to intimidate Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart); “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter” replies Spade after he once again disarms Wilmer.
Cook portrays Wilmer as a near psychotic small time crook that carries two guns at all times. Regarding the scene where Spade humiliates him in front of his boss, Gutman (Syndey Greenstreet), Cook said “If you look at the scene closely…the tears are streaming down my face I’m so angry.”
This film literally established the stereotypical Cook role: “I played rats, pimps, informers, hopheads and communists. I didn’t have the privilege of reading scripts. Guys called me up and said, ‘You’re going to work tomorrow.’” Though a small role, it is a pivotal one that lead to Cook’s successful career as an character actor.
9Emperor of the North (1973)
Dir: Robert Aldrich.
Talk about testosterone rush cinema, this is it! Featuring two of cinema’s greatest heavies, Robert Aldrich deliveries the goods with this film about a hobo (Lee Marvin) who isn’t afraid to accept the challenge to ride on Shack’s (Ernest Borgine) train. In Hobo lingo, the Emperor of the North Pole was the King of the Road and that is what A-1(Marvin) aims to be; he is willing to battle Shack hand to hand on top of a moving train in order to claim the title. Orginally this film was to be directed by Sam Peckinpah, but he lost his opportunity. Cook plays fellow hobo Gray Cat alongside a number of other significant character actors.
10Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
Dir: Eddie Forbes.
Don’t Bother to Knock is a quiet film that stars Richard Widmark and Marilyn Monroe in an early role. The entire film takes place inside of a hotel and Cook plays elevator operator Eddie who is the uncle of visiting niece Nell Forbes (Monroe). Jed(Widmark) is an airline pilot that is visiting the hotel to see his girlfriend Lyn (Anne Bancroft), but she gives him the shove off and he turns his attentions to Nell and then the fireworks start.
This was Monroe’s first starring dramatic role and Cook is notable as her sympathetic uncle. B film fare all around.
11Electra Glide in Blue (1973)
Dir: James William Guerico.
This is a great film and stars a pre-Baretta William Blake as John Wintergreen, a diminutive motorcycle cop that gets promoted to be a homicide cop, but a puzzling suicide that is actually a murder causes him to invoke the wrath of the established old boy network.
Cook has a supporting role as Willie, the town drunk, that helps Wintergreen solve the case. This film features beautiful cinematography by the great Conrad Hall.
12Born to Kill (1947)
Dir: Robert Wise.
Film Noir was definitely fertile ground for Cook, and here he plays the doomed pal of hot headed Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), who eventually kills him. This noir is the darkest of the lot of 1940 RKO produced films, and it is a showcase for the talents of Lawrence Tierney, whose ambition is to “fix it so’s I can spit in anybody’s eye.” The story is simple; a murderer marries a young innocent(Audrey Long) woman and them goes after her sister(Claire Trevor). Cook is the patsy here and Tierney is the deranged killer that thinks that he is cutting in on his territory. Tough, mean and hard edged.
13I Wake Up Screaming (1941)
Dir: H. Bruce Humberstone.
A young promoter, Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature), is accused of the murder of Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis), a young waitress that he “discovered.” Christopher promoted her as a model and when she is discovered dead, he becomes the number one suspect.
Cook is Harry Williams, a switchboard operator at the hotel where the victim lived, and he becomes a suspect when he goes missing for several days. Police detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) is nonetheless suspicious of Frankie and he keeps applying the heat.
This film is renowned for its moody lighting and it sets the standard that would become a regular noir feature in other films. Just another hotel job for Cook.
14Phantom Lady (1944)
Dir: Robert Siodmak.
Now we are getting a slice of prime Cook here. In Phatom Lady, Cook portrays a high strung jazz drummer that is featured in the house band that Jack Marlow (Franchot Tone) takes the lady with the unusual headgear to. Cliff (Cook) leers and convulses as he plays, trying his best to catch the phantom lady’s (Ella Raines) eye, but all it gets him is being a suspect in a murder rap.
The sequence where Cliff sits in with a band for an after hours jam session is spectacular and really shows off Cook’s abilities as a character actor. He, of course, ends up being strangled to death for his trouble. Buddy Rich supposedly sat in for the close ups of Cook drumming; an great noir film in generally.
Dir: Wim Wenders.
Hammett is a tribute to film noirs, produced by Francis Ford Coppola, and is a fictionalized account of Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon. This was Wenders first American feature after he made a big splash on the film scene with his adaption of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, as The American Friend.
Hammett (Frederic Forrest) takes a break from writing and essentially become Sam Spade as he once worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency earlier in his career. Basically the film is a mess as it attempts to mirror the detective films of the 40’s-shooting, but Coppola insisted that the film be re-shot again on studio sets and certain plot thread are tangled and miss their mark.
Cook is great here as a cab driver that corrects Hammett on the correct use of the word gunsel. Look for a cameo by Jack Nance portraying Elisha Cook Jr. in The Maltese Falcon.
16The Outfit (1973)
Dir: John Flynn.
Mackin (Robert Duvall) is freshly released from prison but he has only one thing on his mind and that is getting revenge on the guy’s that snuffed out his brother. See Mackin and his brother made the mistake of knocking over a mob owned bank and this is the price that needed to be paid. Fresh from the jug, Mackin gets in touch with his old partner played by Drive In standard Joe Don Baker and with gal pal Karen Black along for the ride, they pursue mob kingpin Robert Ryan.
Talent comes in full force in this feature as we have apperances by Sheree North, Elisha Cook Jr., Timothy Carey, two ex-heavyweights (Archie Moore and Roland La Starza) and the film’s source was by Donald Westlake. The film was directed by John Flynn, who also did such classics as Rolling Thunder and Bestseller. An all star 70’s classic of cinema explotation.
Dir: Robert Kaylor.
Jodie Foster plays a waitress that joins a travelling carnival and meets up with the likes of Gary Busey, Robbie Robertson, Meg Foster and briefly, Fred Ward. Cook appears as old timer, On-Your-Mark, a 50 year veteran who planned on retiring from the road at the end of the season (he of course gets killed).
Long on details and insights but short on plot, this film has become a sort of cult classic given its subject matter. Robbie Robertson (of The Band) co-wrote an produced this film.
Dir: Max Nosseck.
John Dillinger was a certified public American folk hero that robbed banks in the 1930’s and he is portrayed here by real life hell raiser Lawrence Tierney.
The real life Dillinger surrounded himself with some of the elite of the bank robbing community: Homer Van Meter, Harry Pierpont, Fat Charley Mackley, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Baby-Face Nelson. Homer Van Meter (Alisha Cook Jr.) a fellow robber and pal of Dillinger’s has little to do here but love grape soda and wait to get bumped off. Tierney is the real reason to see this film as he seethes with a barey contained anger that is apparently a bit too real.
19Baby Face Nelson (1957)
Dir: Don Siegel.
Mickey Rooney(!) is Baby Face Nelson and as such he chews the scenary with gusto, but it is hardly enough to keep viewers interests. Carolyn Jones (The Adams Family) plays a sexy and loyal gun moll and Cook plays Homer Van Meter yet again! Yet another typical United Artists gangster fare.
20I, the Jury (1953)
Dir: Harry Essex.
An uncredited Elisha Cook Jr. appears in this Mike Hammer film of the book by the same name. A former war buddy off Hammer’s is murdered and Mike takes it personally. Cook plays Bobo, a dim slow witted boxer that now appears as a children’s Santa Claus in a department store and warns Hammer that “the big man” is after him. This film was at first released in 3-D and was lensed by John Alton. “The actresses were all bosomy stereotypes, including Peggie Castle, Margaret Sheridan, Frances Osborne, Mary Anderson and those riotous twin sisters Tani and Dran Seitz.” Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews, film review, March 25, 2002.