I worry that it's taken me forever to write about Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947) because talking about Elisha Cook, Jr. is such a stereotypical noir-fancying thing to do. I myself called him an "underworld shlimazl extraordinaire" on his first appearance in this Patreon and it's true, but a great part of what interested me about both of these films was the opportunity they afforded Cook to demonstrate a wider range than fall guys with +10 mortal fear. I know I'm overstating even some of his famous roles; Harry Jones in The Big Sleep (1946) may be a "funny little guy" who drinks poison for the sake of a woman who wouldn't have done the same for him, but he knows what he's doing and chooses to protect her anyway and Bogart's Marlowe respects him for it ("You did all right, Jonesy"). I'm still willing to bet that when most people think of him, he looks like the gunsel Wilmer.
I went into The Killing curious about the combination of late noir and early Kubrick, but otherwise knowing almost nothing about the story.1 The title was ambiguous: a big score? A slaughter? Well, yes, but also the funniest movie by Kubrick I've ever seen. I'm including Dr. Strangelove (1964) in that statement. The Killing is not precisely a comedy by genre, although it could be quite credibly double-featured with the endearingly slow-motion trainwreck of Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), but it runs a tight, tense, loopingly nonlinear plot on a steady deadpan diet of the ironies, absurdities, and inevitable crack-ups that occur when reality gets into the gears of a frictionless theory. Straight lines turn into punch lines with foreknowledge. At least one violent act comes out pure slapstick because it's so shocking and so stupid. The narrator may have been a late-stage studio addition, but he subverts his own orderly function—clarifying a timeline that repeatedly re-runs the same span of days through different characters' eyes until the whole exploded jigsaw comes together for the audience as it never does for any of the cast save Sterling Hayden's Johnny Clay, the meticulous overseer of this highly compartmentalized crime—with misinformation and minutiae, announcing with the same breaking-news gravity when one character can't fall sleep or another is running fifteen minutes late. Even when the beautiful Rube Goldberg machine of Johnny's plan begins to go off the rails, its failure doesn't cascade from an inevitable fatal flaw, it goes kablooey in about three different directions at once and none of them foreseeable except in head-smacking hindsight. (Incidentally, I have seen exactly two movies by Quentin Tarantino—Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Hateful Eight (2015)—and even I can tell that he imprinted screamingly on this movie.) The cinematography strikes a smoothly shifting balance between the emphatic shadows of noir and a more realistic, daylit style that is not yet as echoingly codified as Kubrick's later compositions. Jim Thompson wrote the script, so it really is hard-boiled as hell. But it's still essentially a heist film, and a darkly comedic one at that. It takes Elisha Cook, Jr. and Marie Windsor to turn it into noir.
As George and Sherry Peatty, Cook and Windsor twist the familiar coupling of a pliable husband and a chiseling wife past parody into nightmare—every frame they share looks like the cover of a hardboiled novel, a bad scene that's about to get even worse. He's thin, creased, his face a tragicomic mask of preternatural anxiety and preemptive conciliation, a soft-spoken racetrack cashier abjectly in love with a woman who uses him to practice her contempt like some people take up skeet shooting. Her face is a mask, too, but a carefully painted one, all polished cheekbones and rolled blonde hair and black false eyelashes, her mouth a cartoon heart of invitation, her eyebrows angled to disdain. He can't compete with that greasepaint armor; he's a romantic. In return for the plain-spoken yearning with which he tries to describe the intimacy of an older couple he saw on the train, all he gets is flashy scorn, his wife's big beautiful body sprawled lazily on the bed with an indifference that tells him hands off even more unarguably than the jeering cut of her mouth. She treats his devotion like an embarrassing ailment, his sincerity like the feed line for a standing joke. She has four inches on him in stocking feet and in heels starts to look like a bored Aphrodite with the saddest Anchises in the world. (Windsor, who got Kubrick's attention with her take-no-prisoners performance in The Narrow Margin (1952), is even billed above Cook in the opening credits.) It is impossible to imagine what misalliance of idealization and opportunism stuck them together in the first place, but after five years they're parasitically inseparable, though Sherry has designs to the contrary. Her trouble is that she's not as clever as she is cruel: she knows what she wants, but she shouldn't trust men to get it for her. She would call her boyfriend a handsome brute. The audience sizes him up within two sentences as a meathead and wouldn't hand him a lighter for his own cigarettes, let alone the inside dope on a $2,000,000 heist. Put their sex-fueled double-dealing together with George's skittish desperation and what you've got is a film noir in miniature, the kind of material that could have been a feature of its own and instead goes off like a bomb among the larger coils of the heist plot. I have seen a lot of bad things happen to Elisha Cook, Jr. since my first encounter with The Maltese Falcon (1941), but I am not sure that I had seen him play an honest-to-Aristotle tragic character until The Killing.2 He's good at it—he hurts to watch. For maximum irony, of course, mild-mannered George Peatty who looks as though he'd crumple if he accidentally hurt a fly racks up the highest body count in the film, even more than the professional hired killer whose inability to resist a gratuitous racist crack throws another wrench into the precision timing of the scheme. "You jerk," one of George's teammates berates him early in the film, when his pathetic attempts to laugh off the accusation only confirm that he's given the game away to his treacherous, adored wife—"you clown! Come on, clown, sing us a chorus from Pagliacci!" It's not often that you hear characters so explicitly called out by archetype. Someone really should have remembered how that opera ends.
Like many people who grew up on Hollywood musicals and '50's sci-fi, I saw any number of movies directed by Robert Wise before suddenly taking note of him, in my case a few years ago with The Desert Rats (1953); if that hadn't worked, I can say that Born to Kill would definitely have gotten my attention. It's a pulpy, amorally entertaining B-noir starring Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney as two of the nastiest screen lovers I've seen since Scarlet Street (1945). She's a hot-blooded, cold-hearted divorcée silkily coasting through other people's damage on adopted wealth and pasted-on morality, he's an alpha bruiser with a volcanic temper and the impulse control of a wrecking ball; nobody in this film fights crime. Esther Howard's booze-soaked landlady gives it an extrajudicial try, after Tierney's Sam Wilde leaves his latest girlfriend dead on her kitchen floor for interrupting his territory-staking murder of her other man. Walter Slezak's philosophizing private eye will play on the side of the angels if the price is right, but he's just as happy to extract a bonus fifteen thousand from Trevor's Helen Brent in exchange for a convenient lapse of memory. There are a few innocents on the bewildered verges of this story, but mostly it's a hot, toxic spiral around Helen and Sam and their escalating criminal and sexual one-upsmanship, a game of chicken that can end only in bed and/or the gas chamber. "There's a kind of corruptness inside you," she marvels, her fingers tightening on his back. He gives her the tough guy's ultimate compliment: "You have guts." They murmur breathlessly over the details of a murder scene—his doing, her discovery—until their mouths meet hungrily again. The audience doesn't need the seal of the Production Code to know that their romance will end as badly as it began; the question is just whether they'll be the deaths of one another sequentially or simultaneously and how many of the supporting cast they'll take with them when they go.
Cook's reputation preceding him as it does, he seems like a shoo-in for collateral damage, especially given his closeness to Born to Kill's ground zero. His Mart Waterman is Sam's partner in at the very least crime—he's waiting up in bed with the day's paper when Sam comes home from his unplanned double slaying to the Reno hotel room they share, absently quizzing the bigger man about his day and then looking over ironically when Sam in reply stretches out full-length on the mattress beside him and stonily smokes a cigarette: "If we're going to carry on a conversation, it'd help for you to talk." He could be a fascinated sidekick or a self-protective hanger-on à la Dr. Einstein, but he's the brains of the outfit and no pushover despite his size and his easily worried face. Even if his instructions are couched in plenty of Gaston-strength ego-soothing,3 Mart's still the one with the getaway plan, double-checking that Sam has enough cash for the first train out of town and then staying behind to cover their tracks with the last stern caution, "In the meantime, no dames, understand?" He's dismayed, but not shocked. He's done this before. Sam's violent whims may be the driving factor in their lives, but Mart's wearily practiced quick thinking is the reason they're not behind bars or worse. In a film whose primary relationships are based on deception, convenience, or mutually ruthless chemistry, it's a curiously touching testament not just to Sam's equal-opportunity fatal charms but to simple human affection, the same thing driving Howard's Mrs. Kraft to seek justice for a pretty, promiscuous woman whose murder she knows the police feel no responsibility to solve.
Of course, the thing I love best about Mart is that he's not a nice guy. He just looks like one by comparison with a hair-trigger psychopath. "You can't just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you," he chides Sam. "It's not feasible!" Note that he never says it's wrong. Invited to stay at the townhouse of Helen's wealthy foster-sister, he makes an unexpected but unobtrusive guest who does nothing weird or larcenous at all. He tries to warn Helen about her volatile lover, speaking from five years' experience living with "the sort of guy that punches first and asks questions later"; told icily to butt out of an affair that doesn't concern him, he responds frankly, "You think it doesn't. It concerns me, all right, if it concerns Sam." By this point there are four people involved in the protagonists' poisonous pas de deux and Mart sounds reasonably concerned for all of them. He doesn't want to clear out of San Francisco as precipitously as Reno and he's seen what happens to Sam's girls, not to mention the boys who hang around them. He's not much of a moral compass, but he sounds like the voice of nonviolence at least. Then we get his meeting with Mrs. Kraft. He charms her socks off. Bright-eyed as a door-to-door salesman, ingenuous as the juvenile lead Cook once was, he flirts with her outrageously, in exactly the right key of shared and teasing play to appeal to her sense of humor where a straighter approach would have put up her guard. He calls her "glamour girl," himself a "bad boy," sympathizes enough and cajoles the rest of the way that the gravel-voiced, glass-eyed, beer-swigging matron finds herself agreeing to trade a C-note for a lead on the killer of her late, beloved Laurie Palmer. His parting shot is the final hook, delivered with impossibly transparent coyness: "I'll do this on just one condition . . . that you don't make any passes at me when you get me out there. I'm a very shy kid!" She laughs appreciatively and dirtily, not taken in for a moment but just as delighted as if she had been. Who knew Elisha Cook, Jr. had serious game? Get Mrs. Kraft alone on the dunes, though, and all of a sudden he looks like a plausible serial killer of his own, a disarming Bluebeard with a line in lonely hearts and shallow graves. "You can depend on me, glamour girl," he promises, one hand in his pocket with the flick-knife. It's creepily endearing. Inevitably he's overborne by Tierney's blunt-force apex predator, but then he should have known the rules would be no different for Sam's boys. Helen doesn't take the lesson.
Not surprisingly for an actor who originated the sixteen-year-old hero of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! the year he turned thirty, Cook looked barely old enough to buy his own drinks well into middle age, a trick of physiognomy he could use to pathetic effect, underlining the small-time nature of characters who either don't know or won't admit how out of their depth they are until it's too late—Wilmer is a kid, whatever his calendar age, killing-dangerous but still playing gangster dress-up with his double-breasted trenchcoat and his hidden pistols and his self-penned hard-boiled dialogue, none of which he knows how to use as well as an amused Sam Spade or even an impatient Brigid O'Shaughnessy. One of the reasons I enjoy Mart Waterman so much is that he's an adult who only puts on the boyish look to deceive, playing the nice (or the naughty) young man for the character who's susceptible to it while swapping straight talk with the rest; he's been too many years around the block with Sam Wilde for anything else. George Peatty doesn't work as a character unless he's older than his wife and knocked enough around by his life to think of a fifth-share of a robbery as a long-owed recompense, but an illusion of youth still flickers in and out of his face from unpredictable angles, the naïveté of imagining that he can impress his wife enough to make her love him, maybe, or the phantom of the young man he used to be before the decades of passing lucky strangers their winnings while neither the money nor the luck inclined toward him. I like seeing a character actor given enough screen time to suggest these pasts, whether criminal or simply disappointed, and enough room in the dialogue to take up a person's space rather than just a definitive archetype or an indelible cameo. Not bad for a guy who really did not survive to the ends of most of his movies. I just heard some bells ring for five in the morning and I'm not even sure where the closest church is. This preliminary sketch brought to you by my versatile backers at Patreon.
1. I thought until I started writing this post that I had seen only a couple of Kubrick's films; the ratio actually turned out to be eight out of thirteen features. I have not seen Fear and Desire (1953), Killer's Kiss (1955), Barry Lyndon (1975), Full Metal Jacket (1987), or Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and I've always been under the impression that A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) is considered essentially a Spielberg film. The rest, surprisingly, yes. I think I keep forgetting some of his movies are his. This happened to me with Hitchcock once.
2. Until The Killing, I did not realize either that Elisha Cook, Jr. had beautiful hands. He uses them like a mime and the part of George Peatty really shows them off. His most characteristic pose facing either his co-conspirators or his wife has his chin cupped in his palm, his elbow on the table; sometimes half his face is hidden by his hand or his fingernails tap nervously on his teeth, concentric and self-effacing gestures. They give him away as much as his defenseless face. I was unexpectedly reminded of Edward Petherbridge. I have to remember that Cook started as a stage actor; he may have been Hollywood's "lightest heavy," but he was all sorts of people on Broadway, light comedy and protagonists included.
3. It's not quite as bad as Madame Bovary (1949), but I do have some difficulty not hearing the line "Why, he must've been crazy thinking he stood a chance with a dame after she'd got a load of you!" in LeFou's voice. While we're on the subject: all together, everyone, for Tropical Storm Gaston.