Life and Death in L.A.: November 2023

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

It Came from Poverty Row: Hollywood's B-Movie Factories Mined Noir Gold

Ann Savage, Tom Neal, "Detour" (1945).
Hitchhiking on the road to hell.
So many westerns were filmed at the small, independently owned studios near the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and Gower St. in Hollywood that people began calling it Gower Gulch. From the 1930s to the ’50s it was the epicenter of low-rent film production and the gaggle of studios there was disparagingly known as Poverty Row. Monogram, Republic, Eagle-Lion and Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), among many others, cranked out westerns, gangster films, horror movies, comedies, teen musicals and films noir, usually on beer-money budgets with modest sets and B- or C-list actors. 
Back in the days when movie houses showed double features, cheaply made B-pictures were paired with big budget films produced by the major studios. Strong demand for B-pictures gave rise to an industry dedicated to knocking out 55- to 75-minute dramas, comedies and musicals that the larger studios were unwilling to bother with. 
Always pinching pennies, Poverty Row directors were known to use sets left behind by more prosperous productions that had been shooting at neighboring soundstages. To save money, directors shot scenes outdoors, often in natural light with Hollywood neighborhoods as backdrops. Interior shots with vast black pools of shadow could mask a lack of sets, props, costumes and even adequate lighting equipment.
Films were often spare, with unfiltered images that seemed to convey noir’s tales of murder and treachery with an air of authenticity not found in polished productions by the majors. 
Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) in Hollywood.
One of the studios where B-pictures were made.
Known for quick and dirty operations, Poverty Row studios took on films that Paramount or Warner Bros. would shy away from. Stories too tawdry for polite company may have been rejected at Fox, but they were the stuff that made Poverty Row’s engine fire on all cylinders. Titles such as “The Red Menace” (1949), “Bury Me Dead” (1947) and “For You I Die” (1948) rolled off the Poverty Row assembly line. Many had a sensational, ripped from the headlines feel that reflected the brash energy of American tabloid journalism of the 1940s and ’50s. 
Of course, not each an every film shot on Poverty Row sparkled like a diamond. With rushed schedules and budgets stretched to the breaking point there's bound to be some clunkers. Production values were less than top-notch, performances could be uneven and scripts had plot holes you could drive a Buick Roadmaster through. Shooting schedules were usually short and hectic, often less than a week for feature films. While a goodly amount of the output was dreck, a number of masterpieces were the product of those thread-bare productions. Ingenuity and craftsmanship could make up for tight finances and screenplays sorely in need of a rewrite. 
Many skilled technicians who’d been in Hollywood since the days of the silents found a steady income there. The low-rent studios didn’t pay much, but kept droves of film industry veterans off the breadlines during the Depression. It was a blue collar island in a neighborhood bulging at the seams with high falutin artistes.
Poverty Row was a corner of the industry that didn't take itself overly seriously. No one expected that Monogram, PRC and Eagle Lion’s pictures would ever be regarded as art, and the likelihood of critics ever seeing them was slim to none. Above all else it was a tough racket. Films were at times cut with the delicacy of a flying meat cleaver and distributors were often paid a flat fee for each film regardless of how many tickets were sold. 
This was a market of mass production and the goal was to deliver the product with great speed. 
The chaotic atmosphere and urgency to get a film in the can paradoxically offered directors and other artists greater latitude to try things that would never be approved by larger studios. The relatively low cost of each project allowed directors and actors to be largely left alone to do their work without interference, which resulted in some spectacular and enduring films that otherwise might never have been made. 

Five Noirs Made for Peanuts 
that Still Knock Our Socks Off
Here are a handful of top-notch crime dramas (and one that's not so top-notch) produced during Poverty Row’s heyday. I’ll list more of them in the coming weeks. Please feel free to enter your picks for the best Poverty Row crime and noir features in the Comments section below.:
Tom Neal, "Detour." Trapped in a paranoid nightmare.
Detour” (1945) Producers Releasing Corporation
We begin with the grand daddy of noirs done on dirt cheap budgets by independently minded directors. In this case it’s the King of B-pictures, Edgar G. Ulmer. It’s a classic example of how a bottom-rung budget can set a gritty, claustrophobic mood that looks just right for noir. We can almost feel desperation radiating off the screen. It’s the production’s thread-bare look that enhances the protagonist’s sense of hopelessness and isolation. 
The very down-at-the-heels look is in itself a character in this movie, and it’s that shop-worn texture that sets the mood and somehow makes the plot all the more credible. It’s the story of pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) who just can’t seem to catch a break. His head is filled with visions of Carnegie Hall, but instead he pounds the keys at a gin joint, scooping up tips from the punters and gritting his teeth. His gal sings at the saloon to his accompaniment, but fed up with their dead end existence, she cuts bait and heads for the West Coast in search something better. 
Al stays behind in New York until he finally gets the gumption to follow his love. He’s broke, so he gets out on the highway and sticks out his thumb. He feels a rush of enthusiasm he hasn’t experienced in years, like he’s on his way to the promised land. But his journey turns into something resembling the third circle of hell. 
He catches a ride with a big-wheel gambler, but that goes sour — real sour —and he decides to change his identity, as you do in noir. When he begins thinking his luck might be changing for the better he crosses paths with hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage), a spitfire whom he soon wishes he never met.
This is arguably Ulmer’s noir masterpiece (he felt that “Ruthless” [1948] was his best), a story so unyielding in its pessimism that big studios would likely pass on it. Just as well. They’d probably try to dress it up for maximum consumer appeal, and that would ruin everything. The film was remade in 1992 with Tom Neal’s son, Tom Neal Jr. — it’s best to stick with the original.
Edward Norris, Jean Gillie, Herbert Rudley, "Decoy" (1946).
"Decoy" (1946) Monogram Studios
When it comes to cruel, irredeemable femmes fatale, Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) wins top honors as the rottenest apple in the orchard. Told in flashback, “Decoy” features double crossers, a death row execution and a doctor who raises the dead. Then, things start to get weird.
Throughout the film, Margot remains a cold-blooded double crosser. For her sheer cruelty and outsized zest for sadism, she stands out among noir’s most treacherous females.
She pulls off a murder that is as hideous as any committed by man, woman or child onscreen at the time. In her crazed pursuit of a $400,000 stash of loot, she disposes of an accomplice as he’s fixing a flat tire by slamming her car into forward gear and running over the unsuspecting sap several times for good measure. She hops out and rifles through the dead man’s pockets before driving off.
Aside from Margot’s depraved antics, the centerpiece of the film’s first half is a whacky stunt that involves hijacking a morgue meat wagon that’s carrying the body of an executed man. Margot and her band of ghouls bring the corpse to a laboratory where a doctor administers a drug that brings the dead man back to life. (Yup, you heard right.)
In the film’s closing moments she lies on her death bed while Police Sgt. Portugal (Sheldon Leonard), who has been on her trail, stands over her. She asks him to come closer, as if she means to tell him something — something confidential — and he crouches down, bringing his face closer to her’s. Is she about to unburden herself and express regret for all the wrong she has done, we wonder? Nah! With her dying breath she cackles hysterically in the copper’s face. She can now leave this mortal coil, warmed by the fact that she’s had the last laugh at another in a long line of suckers. With her rotten-to-the core exit, Margot is the very model of a film noir femme fatale.

Elyse Knox, Don Castle, "I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes" (1948).
I Wouldn’t be in Your Shoes” (1948) Monogram Studios
Ann Quinn (Elyse Knox) wishes that a saint would deliver a pot of gold to her and her vaudeville hoofer husband Tom Quinn (Don Castle). Tom says it wouldn’t mind if that pot of gold was delivered by “the opposite of a saint.” We get a creepy feeling that in uttering those works he’s unintentionally summoning up a demon. When Ann switches off the lights a chorus of cats begins to howl outside their bedroom window. The hoofer chucks his shoes at the vocalizing felines, setting off a disastrous chain of events that no one could have predicted. 
Based on a Cornell Woolrich story, “I Wouldn’t be in Your Shoes,” like a number of Woolrich’s yarns, is the story of a man wrongly convicted of murder. As Tom sits on death row, Ann frantically searches for evidence that will prove him innocent. Frequently, Woolrich’s persecuted men are rescued by strong willed, inquisitive females who go to great lengths to dig out facts that will save the poor dope whose neck is on the chopping block. 
We get the story in flashback, with Tom’s echoey voice narrating as he sits in a prison cell. Ann is a ballroom dance instructor whose most dedicated pupil is a big tipper she calls Santa Clause. It turns out that Santa is really Police Insp. Clint Judd (Regis Toomey), a crusty veteran of the force known for cracking difficult cases. He finds a footprint outside of a murder scene that links Tom to the crime. The murder victim is Tom and Ann’s shut-in, cash laden neighbor, and coincidentally, not only does a thick wad of moolah find its way into Tom’s hands, the pair of shoes he hurled at the noisy cats unexpectedly materialized on their doorstep the next morning. It’s a cinch that there’s a frame-up in the works, but Tom has a date with the hangman’s noose and time is running out for him. 
Hokey touches (the echoey narrator), static camerawork and uneven performances don’t take much away from the outlandish plot that, while stretching credibility to the breaking point, is pure Woolrich, and that alone makes it worth a look. Strangely enough, if the film was a high budget production, I doubt that we’d be willing to forgive the parts that don’t make a lot of sense. How, for example, does Insp. Judd find the time to do the seemingly enormous amount of personal sleuthing and still hold down a job? No matter. In a low-rent, funky production such as this we sit back and go along for the ride.
Dolores Fuller, Herbert Rawlinson, "Jail Bait" (1954).
Jail Bait” (1954) Howco. 
When it comes to cheapie film productions with odd plot lines I could hardly neglect to mention Edward D. Wood Jr., director of cult classics such as “Plan 9 from Outer Space” (1957), “Glen or Glenda” (1953) and “Bride of the Monster” Wood’s wild, frequently disjointed work tends to land in the science fiction and horror genres and is widely renown simply for being so, so bad. He was awarded two of film critic Michael Medved’s Golden Turkey Awards, one for Worst Director of all times and the other, a Worst Film award for his “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”
Regardless of their premise, Wood’s films, be they science fiction fantasies with cheesy flying saucers or a pseudo documentary about transvestites and sex change surgery, don’t lean heavily on verisimilitude and plausibility. Perhaps because of that, the Wood oeuvre has for decades attracted packs of hipsters who view the stuff largely for its ironic comedic value.
“Jail Bait,” the director’s sole attempt at film noir, may be the lesser known Wood film on the midnight screenings circuit mostly because it avoids outrageous and inflammatory topics and the plot stays basically within noir’s conventions. The title doesn’t refer to under-aged girls, by the way. It’s what one character calls the gun her delinquent brother carries with him on the streets. Although it’s probably not an accident that the film is tagged with a suggestive title — in this business you gotta have a gimmick.
The film is a straight-ahead crime drama telling the story of Don Gregor (Clancy Malone), a partner in crime with gangster Vic Brady (Timothy Farrell). Don, fresh out of prison, is brow beaten onto committing a robbery with Vic, and it goes badly. That's when Don's father, plastic surgeon Dr. Boris Gregor (Herbert Rawlinson) is forced to perform a plastic surgery job on Vic, who wants to hide his identity. Don is being held hostage until the surgery is complete, so Dr. Gregor goes to work on the desperate criminal with great urgency. 
Vic is a wanted man, so they can’t risk using an operating room. Naturally, the procedure is done on the sofa in Vic’s living room. A nurse isn’t available to assist, so the doctor’s daughter, Marilyn (Dolores Fuller, Wood’s real life girlfriend) pitches in. The entire operation is conducted with a basin of hot water, some ether, a scalpel or two, probably, and some clean sheets used to make bandages. Voila! Vic gets a new face, but in an odd twist his new profile is something less than what he expected.
Produced on a measly budget, “Jail Bait” suffers from uneven acting, vacuous dialogue (Dr. Gregor thoughtfully remarks, “Plastic surgery, at times, seems to be very, very complicated.”) and scattershot direction. But somehow Wood’s strange ending and some laughably stiff line readings add up to a rather likable mess. It’s enough to make me wish that Wood had tried his hand at noir at least one more time.  
Leslie Brooks, "Blonde Ice" (1948).
Blonde Ice” (1948) Film Classics
San Francisco society columnist Claire Cummings (Leslie Brooks) gets hitched to a rich dude, then shows off her mastery in the art of two-timing. Claire never met a man she couldn't play for a sucker, because she’s … you know, cold like ice.
“Blonde Ice” director Jack Burnhard also directed “Decoy,” and between both films he gave rise to two of the most dastardly femmes fatale in all of noir. Unlike gun moll Margot Shelby in “Decoy,” Claire is a wage slave working among ink stained wretches. But both are driven by an insatiable desire for riches and will Hoover up every dollar, diamond and mink they can extract from unsuspecting marks. The difference between them is that Margot is an underworld denizen and Claire is a social climber. Margot uses blunt force to get cash, while Claire would prefer to marry it. She does, however, pack a pearl handled revolver in her purse and isn’t afraid to use it.
Nicknamed Blonde Ice, we meet Claire as she’s about to walk the plank with a middle-aged moneybags while giving her whimpering ex-beau, sportswriter Les Burns (Robert Paige), the heave-ho. Even after taking the vows she still tantalizes crestfallen Les, stringing him along as her husband of 15 minutes grows huffy watching from the sidelines. She calms hubby, but he won’t stay pacified for long. For Claire, it’s a minor bump in the road. She always keeps an eye open for new prospects with bulging bank accounts should the need for a substitute arise. 
It’s no wonder that she took up her vocation in the news biz, chronicling the comings and goings of the conspicuously wealthy. According to her peers, she ain’t no newspaperwoman. That’s immaterial to Claire — the job’s main perk is a bird’s eye view of eligible dupes who are ripe for the picking. 
In large part, what’s most enjoyable about both films, for me, at least, is the cold bloodedness of the crimes to which both lethal ladies resort. Claire is blasé when she pulls the trigger, and is quick to put on a charming face when the situation calls for it. After shooing away a blackmailer who wants to take her for 50 grand, she switches from a snarl to a smile, deftly toggling into her charming socialite persona to greet arriving guests. In the end, Claire lives up to her nickname, but when the people around her get wise to her dark motives and darker deeds, the world becomes too chilly a place for her. 

Next time, I’ll talk more about Poverty Row, directors who learned their trade there and the films that they made.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Lovesick Wanderer Returns ... to a Double Cross

Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, "Criss Cross" (1949).

This article contains spoilers.

By Paul Parcellin

The magnetic attraction between Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster) and Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo) is the stuff that drives “Criss Cross” toward its dramatic and deadly conclusion. Steve returns to town after two year’s absence and the first thing on his mind is rekindling their romance. In fact, it’s probably the only reason that he returned. As much as he tries to convince himself that he’s not interested in seeing Anna again we know it’s just a matter of time before the two get together. 

They’re the volatile kind of couple that seems to thrive on getting into scraps, making up and starting the cycle over again. Complicating matters is gangster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), who is also pursuing Anna’s affections. We believe in Anna’s sincere feelings for Steve, and just when it seems that they’re going to pick up the pieces of their broken marriage — they divorced two years previously — they quarrel and she runs off to Yuma with Slim to get hitched. It’s a revenge marriage, perhaps, or maybe it’s all about the money, but one thing’s certain: there’s precious little warmth between her and her gangster hubby.

That should have been the end of their love triangle, but she and Steve can’t seem to stay away from each other. In voice-over he says it’s fate that keeps bringing them together, and for a while it seems that way. By chance, he glimpses her at Union Station seeing Slim off on an extended trip and that’s enough to set the wheels in motion for a disastrous outcome. Like Lancaster’s role as Swede in “The Killers” (1946), he plays an affable but naive gadabout who is putty in the hands of the people around him whom he mistakenly thinks he can outsmart.

Steve, we learn, has many good qualities, but sound judgment isn’t one of them. He can’t resist getting involved with Anna, despite efforts of Steve’s mother and his longtime buddy Det. Lt. Pete Ramirez (Stephen McNally), who feed him well meaning advice that he stubbornly ignores. 

There’s something boyish about Lancaster’s Steve. We see it when he returns home and throws a ball to his dog and romps like a school kid after dismissal from class. He overlooks the long-term consequences of his actions when it’s extremely unwise to do so. Getting involved with a gangster’s wife is the beginning of his downfall, and when Dundee catches Steve and his wife together, Steve dreams up a heist scheme on the spot to explain why the two of them are alone upstairs. Steve works for an armored car company and he’s got a bright idea about robbing a truck he’ll be guarding when it’s full of payroll cash. 

DeCarlo, Dan Duryea, an uneasy marriage.

It’s a bold move and almost comically unthinkable for someone as devoid of criminal experience as is Steve. But it’s also a clever move considering that he pulls it out of thin air just to save his hide. Dundee wants to know why he’s coming to him for help and Steve bluntly answers that he’s the only crook he knows. Dundee is taken aback but still interested. 

This turn of events abruptly shifts the film’s tone from a tale of clandestine love to a straight-up heist movie. Dundee is well aware of the shenanigans going on behind his back, but is intrigued by the possibility of scoring a lot of cash, and he has plans for Steve once the robbery is over. Of course, Steve has plans for Dundee, and the outcome of this caper hinges on who is more successful in double crossing the other.

Apart from the tense give and take among the main characters who appear along side a bevy of terrific character actors, the city of Los Angeles is a character in itself. Director Robert Siodmak makes the most of the once stately homes that serve as a backdrop to the story. The old neighborhood Steve returns to is the Bunker Hill section of the City of Angels, a setting for many a noir. For appreciators of the city’s architecture that decades ago fell to the wrecking ball, “Criss Cross” is a stunning timepiece that treats us to tasty morsels of vintage eye candy. 

Stairways leading to double- and triple-decker dwellings, looming Victorian homes that are just this side of shabby and the views of City Hall and its surroundings could make anyone nostalgic for the Los Angeles of decades ago, even if they were born long after those once-majestic buildings were leveled. There’s even a scene in a rundown apartment with Dundee’s mob working out the details of a robbery in which we see through the windows in the background the two cars of the Angels Flight funicular gliding up and down the steep incline of Bunker Hill. 

The film opens with a nighttime aerial view of Los Angeles City Hall, the towering building that then also housed the L.A. Police Dept. It seems ever present in the background, a kind of center of gravity around which the characters in this story orbit. It also serves as a reminder that justice is awaiting those who follow criminal pursuits. 

Siodmak’s non-linear way of telling the story begins with the camera panning across the flickering lights of the city, bringing us to a dance hall parking lot where Steve and Anna are carrying on a clandestine affair while Dundee waits inside for Anna. 

We get the setup in short order. Anna and Dundee are married, there’s a big job worth six figures in the works and Dundee is more than a bit suspicious that Steve is after his wife. Later, we see Steve driving toward a rendezvous spot where the armored car stickup will take place. Then in a long flashback sequence we see what brought him to this juncture in his life. 

Burt Lancaster, Tom Pedi, caught in the crossfire.

The film’s final portion focuses on the robbery’s aftermath and the duplicitous Anna, who bears the responsibility of causing Steve’s downfall. But is she really deserving of the blame? Considering that the robbery wasn’t her idea and that the choices that she’s left with are not good, she opts to save herself and that’s probably not a bad idea. Steve, the romantic, says he never cared about the heist money, he only wanted to be with her. But then there’s Dundee to contend with, who, like Steve, sustained severe wounds in the botched robbery. Wounded or not, Dundee is coming after them and she decides to grab the dough and split. 

Up to that point we never doubt her feelings for Steve, but when the chips are down she observes “You have to watch out for yourself.” It’s a cold slap in the face to Steve, but her moment of clarity comes a little too late and she pays the price for not being more discriminating about the company she keeps. So does Steve. It’s not the heroic ending that Hollywood movies normally proffer, but it’s consistent with noir’s cold, cynical view of the world. Like Steve, we don’t see Anna’s true nature until death comes knocking at the door. Then all bets are off.


Wednesday, November 8, 2023

More Than a Gunsel: Elisha Cook Jr. Played Wobbly Tough Guys, Inept Would-Be Heroes and Dyed in the Wool Victims Often Displaying Raw Emotion and Unexpected Vulnerabilities

Humphrey Bogart, Elisha Cook Jr., "The Maltese Falcon" (1941).
Just a cheap gunman hanging around hotel lobbies.

When he died in 1995 at the age of 91, Elisha Cook Jr. was the last surviving cast member of John Huston's 1941 film noir classic “The Maltese Falcon,” whose players included Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Mary Astor. While his was a supporting role, Cook left an indelible impression that remains intact more than eight decades later.

Many say that “The Maltese Falcon” was the first ever film noir while others insist that “Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940) was the genre’s opening salvo. One thing is for certain: Having acted in both films, Cook’s film noir street cred is rock solid.

He appeared in more than 100 films, including comedies, westerns and war pictures, working with some of Hollywood’s most esteemed directors, a virtual who’s who of Hollywood heavy hitters, including Stanley Kubrick, Howard Hawks, Robert Wise, Sam Peckinpah, Andre DeToth, Mervyn LeRoy, Otto Preminger, Robert Siodmak, and Jules Dassin, among others. Cook would be the first to admit that not every film in which he appeared rose to the level of the 1941 Huston-directed spellbinder. He once claimed that he was in more "B-for-bomb turkeys" than any other actor.

Frequently performing beside the likes of Bogart, Greenstreet, Gary Cooper, Allan Ladd and Marilyn Monroe, to name a few, Cook had an emotional presence that put him on equal footing with the stars even in his relatively minor roles. Whether he was playing a sniveling informant, sinister henchman or a flawed protagonist, his most complex characters put on a rugged facade that belied a spate of vulnerabilities that occasionally bobbed to the surface. At times his characters were lovestruck weaklings easily manipulated by scheming jezebels. He often played average joes who were pawns of the ruthless and were pushed around by low-life hoodlums and gangsters’ errand boys. He was Jonesy, the broken-hearted informant forced to drink poison in "The Big Sleep" (1946). As Cliff, the cuckolded husband who throws a monkey wrench into a racetrack holdup in Stanley Kubrick’s "The Killing" (1956), he drowns in pathos and inadvertently helps take his partners in crime down with him.

But the role most deeply etched into our pop culture collective consciousness is undoubtedly Wilmer the gunsel, the inept, brutally callous and cowardly bodyguard to Sydney Greenstreet in "The Maltese Falcon.” Part of what makes that film pure viewing pleasure is its cheeky dialogue and biting repartee lifted directly from Dashiell Hammett’s novel. Amid many ironic asides and withering retorts, Cook scores a zinger or two. 

”Keep on riding me," he tells Bogart’s Sam Spade. "They're gonna be pickin' iron out of your liver."

As Wilmer — humiliation and tears of rage.

But apart from some poisonous retorts, his characters’ emotional complexities leave a lasting impression on us. We see humiliation and hatefulness in his expression after Bogie swipes both of his pistols and mortifies him as his boss, Kaspar Gutman (Greenstreet), looks on with muted amusement.

"If you look at the scene closely," Cook said, "the tears are streaming down my face I'm so angry."

With more than a touch of self-deprecating humor, Cook liked to point out that he got the part of Wilmer simply because he had the same agent as Huston and Bogart. But it’s hard to imagine any other actor standing in Wilmer’s shoes.

"I played rats, pimps, informers, hopheads and communists," he said, although that wasn’t necessarily by choice. He had to take whatever happened to be on the studio’s schedule. "I didn't have the privilege of reading scripts. Guys called me up and said, 'You're going to work tomorrow.' "

A Career Spanning Over Six Decades

A native of San Francisco who grew up in Chicago, Cook was a traveling actor in the East and Midwest before going to New York, where Eugene O'Neill picked him to play the juvenile lead in "Ah Wilderness!," which ran on Broadway for two years.

His first screen roles were in the silent era — he made his film debut with “Her Unborn Child” (1930). The early roles were often uncredited, but he showed a knack for performing in front of the camera. By the time that the talkies arrived his career began picking up steam. 

He could handle a remarkable range of characters, from timid and neurotic to sinister and cunning. As a performer who could radiate vulnerability as well as menace he became a sought after character actor. He continued to make his mark in films-noir and gangster films with roles in “Born to Kill” (1947), “Dillinger” (1945) and “Phantom Lady” (1944). 

In “Phantom Lady,” Cook is a hophead jazz drummer who becomes the prime suspect in a murder case. He encounters Carol "Kansas" Richman (Ella Raines) and is knocked out by her slinky allure. In one of the most frequently cited scenes in noir, Cook pounds out a frenzied drum-solo with erotic overtones as Kansas looks on.

Cook as George Peatty — bamboozled by his wandering wife.

His work in noir extended into the 1950s with roles in such films as “Don’t Bother to Knock”  (1952), playing Eddie Forbes, whose attempt to help his unemployed niece, Nell (Marilyn Monroe), brings about disastrous results, and George Peatty, a hapless cashier involved in a racetrack heist in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing.” Peatty’s loveless marriage ends up being his undoing and his fate is sealed in a tragic twist.

Other notable performances include that of Watson Pritchard in William Castle's horror film “House on Haunted Hill” (1959).

In the 1960s and 1970s he appeared in a wide range of television shows, including “The Twilight Zone,” “Perry Mason.,” “I Spy,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” “The Wild Wild West” and “Gunsmoke.” He also played a recurring role on “Magnum, P.I.” in the 1980s.

His late career work includes such high profile films as “Rosemary's Baby” (1968), “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973) and “The Outfit” (1973). 

Cook, never one to mix in Hollywood’s social circles, resided for many years in Bishop, Calif., and often summered at Lake Sabrina in the Sierra Nevada. He died of a stroke in 1995 at a nursing home in Big Pine, Calif. 

Here’s a list of some of Elisha Cook Jr. most memorable crime film performances and the characters he played:

The Devil is Driving” (1932) Tony Stevens

Scion of a wealthy businessman is charged with drunken-driving and causing an accident that kills a woman and cripples her child. A low-budget cautionary tale.

They Won’t Forget” (1937) Joe Turner

A small-time hood is suspected of murder. Political ambition and tensions between the North and the South lurk in the background This is one of Cook’s earliest crime film roles.

Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940) Joe Briggs

An aspiring reporter is the key witness at the murder trial of a young man accused of cutting a café owner's throat and is soon accused of a similar crime himself.

The Maltese Falcon” (1941) Wilmer Cook

San Francisco private detective Sam Spade takes on a case that involves him with three eccentric criminals, a gorgeous liar and their quest for a priceless statuette.

I Wake Up Screaming” (1941) Harry Williams

Inspector Ed Cornell tries to railroad Frankie Christopher into a murder rap for the killing of model Vicky Lynn. 

Keeping the tempo, in "Phantom Lady" (1944).

Phantom Lady” (1944) Cliff Milburn

A devoted secretary risks her life to try to find the elusive woman who may prove her boss didn't murder his selfish wife.

Dillinger” (1944) Kirk Otto

John Dillinger begins his life of crime as a petty thief and meets his future gang in prison, eventually masterminding a series of daring robberies.

Blonde Alibi” (1946) Sam Collins

Soon after a young woman breaks off her engagement to a doctor, the doctor is found murdered. Suspicion falls on his ex-fiancé and a pilot with a checkered past.

The Falcon’s Alibi” (1946) Nick

A wealthy woman's secretary, fearing that she will be blamed if her employer's jewelry is stolen, hires the Falcon as guardian. The Falcon is blamed when the jewels are stolen and murders ensue.

Two Smart People” (1946) Fly Feletti

A fugitive negotiates a five-year sentence for the theft of a half-million dollar worth of bonds while suspecting that a con-woman, a cop and a former crime-partner are after his hidden bonds.

The Big Sleep” (1946) Harry Jones

Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by a wealthy family. Before the complex case is over, he's seen murder, blackmail and what might be love.

Fall Guy” (1947) Joe

Tom Cochrane (Leo Penn'), full of cocaine and covered with blood, is picked up by the police. Soon, he’s a prime suspect for murder.

Born to Kill” (1947) Marty

Marty Waterman (Cook), a henchman of the murderous Sam Wilde (Lawrence Tierney), finds out the hard way that it’s risky doing business with a hot-tempered paranoid such as Sam.

The Long Night” (1947) Frank Dunlap

Police surround the apartment of apparent murderer Joe Adams, who refuses to surrender although escape appears impossible. During the siege, Joe reflects on the circumstances that led him to this situation.

The Gangster” (1947) Oval

Cynical gangster Shubunka (Barry Sullivan) controls the Neptune Beach waterfront. He runs a numbers racket with the local soda shop owner. The police are in his pocket and the local hoods are on his payroll.

Flaxy Martin” (1949) Roper

Mob attorney Walter Colby is manipulated by showgirl Flaxy Martin into taking the rap for a murder committed by mobster Hap Richie's goons, but he escapes and is out for revenge.

Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952) Eddie Forbes

A married couple staying at a swank hotel need a babysitter for their young daughter while they attend a function. Elevator operator Eddie Forbes recommends his niece, Nell (Marilyn Monroe), for the job — big mistake.

I, the Jury” (1953) Bobo

Detective Mike Hammer is determined to catch and kill the person who killed his close friend, and the clues lead to a beautiful, seductive woman.

Trial” (1955) Finn

A courtroom drama set in 1947 deals with post-World War II problems facing the United States such as stormy race relations and the growing threat of communism.

The Killing” (1956) George Peatty

Career criminal Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) assembles a five-man team to plan and execute a daring racetrack robbery.

Accused of Murder” (1956) Whitey Pollock

Nightclub singer Ilona Vance (Vera Ralston) is accused of murder and Lt. Roy Hargis (David Brian) attempts to prove her innocence.

Chicago Confidential” (1957) Candymouth Duggan

In Chicago, a crime syndicate tries to take over a labor union by killing its whistle blower treasurer and framing the honest union boss for the murder.

Plunder Road” (1957) Skeets Jonas 

Five men rob a train in Utah of 10 million dollars in gold and head to Los Angeles in three trucks hoping to meet up with their beautiful accomplice and leave the country.

Baby Face Nelson” (1957) Homer van Meter

George "Babyface" Nelson (Mickey Rooney) became one of the most important gangsters of 1930s Chicago. To compete with Al Capone, he allies himself with John Dillinger.

The Outfit” (1973) Carl

Earl Macklin (Robert Duvall) robs a bank owned by the mob, serves his prison time and is released, only to start a private war against the crime outfit that owned the bank.

Hammett” (1982) Eli the Taxi Driver

A fictional account of real-life mystery writer Dashiell Hammett and his involvement in the investigation of a beautiful Chinese cabaret actress's mysterious disappearance in San Francisco.