Movie nostalgia became big business in the early seventies & swept in with the new boom was a revival of "Liberty Magazine" which devoted entire issues to the Golden Age Of Hollywood during its five-year run. The cover of one such issue listed dozens of luminaries including Elisha Cook. WHO WAS ELISHA COOK? A reader asked in the next issue, and a photograph was duly published. Nearly everyone who loves movies knows who Elisha Cook is, but, as with many unsung character actors, they don't know that they know him. But think Wilmer, the resentful henchman of genial Casper Gutman, who kicked Sam Spade in the head simply because Spade wouldn't stop riding him. THEN Cook's face and voice swim into focus.
For many years, Cook was the sole surviving cast member of "The Maltese Falcon": the other characters treated him like a kid, even though he was well into middle age by then. But Cook was short, with a youthful face, so audiences accepted him in adolescent and young adult roles for many years. Cook appreciated but resisted nostalgic inquiries about his long career: if you asked him how he prepared for his greatest roles, he was likely to answer: "I don't know. I read the script." He might recall his dialogue from a Boris Ingster classic like 1940's "Stranger On The Third Floor", but nothing else about making the first true film noir. "Whatever they write, that's what I portray, the best I can," Cook would say, not with slightly disowned vanity, but with absolute conviction. According to Cook, his trade secret for playing a good onscreen villain was "Good writing and directing. If you don't have those things, forget it, you've got nothing. I don't care how good you are." It was more than that for this lifelong admirer, though. Franchot Tone was billed way above Cook in Robert Siodmak's "Phantom Lady", but who can forget the famous drumming sequence when Cook risked 1943 Production Code censors to show how he really felt about Ella Raines?
Although Cook gave all the credit for a breathtaking night sequence to his 1947 director Robert Wise and fellow players Lawrence Tierney and Esther Howard, "Born To Kill's" moral dilemma was more consistently revealed by Claire Trevor and Elisha Cook. Sterling Hayden and Coleen Gray did a good job in 1956's "The Killing" but for me the real stars of this vintage Stanley Kubrick noir are Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook. Cook explained that he liked playing shady characters or bums which may explain why he didn't sweeten them, he fully accepted their values while the cameras were rolling and returned to his won modest, hard-working self off-screen. Towards the end of his life, he didn't even live in Hollywood, but that didn't stop producers from calling: in the eighties, he played Ice-Pick opposite Tom Selleck on "Magnum, P.I." Who was Elisha Cook?: For many years he was my favourite living character actor and along with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet, he's gonna live forever...on film.
Copyright 1996 Monica Sullivan
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