Greetings, all and sundry! I have decided to stick with the idea of Lists that Ruth suggested a few weeks ago. Which has presented me with a plethora of ideas. And the desire to tidy up loose ends and and possibly expound on a certain category of character in film. First suggested by iluvcinema in her response to my article on The Top Ten Femme Fatales on FrontRoomCinema. To that end, I proffer a Rogues Gallery of Mugs, Sad Sacks, Fall Guys, Stooges and men who think they are the smartest ones in the room and pay the consequences for it. Allow me to introduce.
To this end, allow me to introduce one of the most talented, yet underrated actors of the past century. Whom many may recognize as a poster boy for Disney during the 1960s and later as television’s proverbial Perfect Dad in My Three Sons. A worthy topic for another time. Though now, I would like to plunge back to the earlier times and films which firmly planted the subject of this dissertation on the Hollywood map while specializing in a specific and memorable type of character.
#10: Steve Buscemi’s Mink in Miller’s Crossing (1990)
The low life bon vivant, conniver, coke head and suggested homosexual lover of J.E. Freeman’s Eddie Dane. Though Buscemi isn’t on film long. He makes exquisite use of his role. Playing fast and loose with The Dane and John Turturro’s Bernie Bernbaum affections. Mink inadvertently sets himself up to be shot in the face at Miller’s Crossing in Bernie’s place. Creating one heck of an unseen plot line while allowing Bernie to perform all kinds of mischief.
#9: Frank Sinatra and The Rat Pack in Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
What chance does five Las Vegas casinos have against being robbed simultaneously during the rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ New Year Eve’s night by a dozen WWII commandos looking for a score? Slim to non existent. Until one of their men dies of a stroke crossing The Strip immediately after the festivities. With a mob fixer looking for clues, Ocean decides to ship their swag out in Richard Conte’s coffin. The Rat Pack is in full attendance at a local chapel as the whispered sounds and word of Conte and his coffin being cremated stops everything in its tracks.
#8: Oliver Reed as Dr. Hal Raglan in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979)
A well intentioned psychologist who uses controversial methods to physically manifest his patients’ inner angst and anger in ways as shocking as they are ugly. The good doctor is divorced and his institutionalized ex, Samantha Eggar takes her anger to whole new level. Giving sudden birth to small, childlike and incredibly strong creatures that carry out her reign of terror on Hal and his new family. Not for the faint of heart!
#7: Orson Welles’ Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Who falls head over heels for Rita Hayworth’s scheming Elsa Bannister. Bored, blonde and married to unexciting, though constantly looking for kicks, Everett Sloane. His and Elsa’s game involves another couple. A proposed fake death, A real murder and $5000.00. That ends with a chase through Chinatown and its final showdown between Elsa and her husband. With pistols blazing in a Hall of Mirrors inside The Crazy House.
#6: Edward G. Robinson as Professor Richard Wanley in The Woman in the Window (1944)
An absolute, little known Noir gem from expressionist Fritz Lang. The professor is unassuming and has it all. A wife and son. A house in the suburbs and a sudden attraction for a portrait in a gallery’s huge window. The professor meets the portrait’s model, an alluring Joan Bennett. Alice. Who is much more than appears to be. A very hard boiled dame. The professor is hooked. Starts to lie to his wife and others to see Alice again. Until her boyfriend and possible pimp shows up. A death occurs and the professor’s sedate life heads South in a hurry!
#5: Joseph Cotten as novelist Holly Martins in The Third Man (1949)
Who travels to post war Vienna in time for the friend who had invited him, Harry Lime’s burial. A stranger in a strange land. Holly tries to get a grasp on the situation while rubbing elbows with expatriates, refugees, British and Russian troops and Harry’s girlfriend, Anna. Who may be a Russian agent and link to Harry. A Black Market kingpin who sells diluted Penicillin and has a lot to answer for. Holly gets played by everyone. Especially the Brits and their Intelligence Officer, Major Calloway. Methodically played by Trevor Howard. Who coerces Holly to be his “Dumb, decoy duck” in flushing Harry out of Vienna’s maze like sewers.
#4: Warren Beatty’s Pulitzer Prize seeking reporter, Joe Frady in The Parallax View (1974)
One of the last great conspiracy films of the late 20th century. As Frady dusts off the cobwebs the assassination of a Senator at the Seattle Space Needle he and a few others had witnessed a year before. Under Alan J. Pakula’s deft direction and a superb supporting cast, Frady moves slowly and is drawn into random events that end in unexplained, accidental deaths. Following leads and getting inside the Parallax Corporation. Then finding himself suddenly in way over his head.
#3: Sterling Hayden’s thuggish Johnny Clay in John Huston’s superb The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
A two-time loser who wants nothing more than to make a bunch of money. Leave the city and get back to his Quarter Horses in Kentucky. Brought into a big time diamond heist led by just paroled yegg and safe cracker, ‘Doc’. Sam Jaffe. Who needs an expendable Hooligan while hiding his urges for very young, nubile girls. Johnny takes on the role of Jaffe’s confidant and protector as the heist is pulled off with some last second intervention by the police. Only to be double-crossed and shorted by the rich old men financing the operation. Johnny is gut shot protecting Doc and manages to get home just as the police close in.
#2: Timothy Carey’s monumental, gaunt and doomed Private Maurice Ferol in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957)
Carey is nothing more than a soldier in the French army during WWI. Whose platoon is assigned the task of taking ‘The Ant Hill’. A reinforced position with artillery and machine guns. The problem is. Carey’s and his mates’ task has been going on for more than a month of Trench Warfare that consistently ends in stalemate. A new Commanding Officer wants a maximum effort that has Kirk Douglas’ Colonel Dax leading more of the same. The new CO gets mad and wants Dax to choose three men at random and have them Court Martialed and shot for Desertion. Carey’s Pvt. Ferol is one of them and is given every opportunity to bluster and bully at first. Then break down and grovel as the hour approaches. Definitely Carey’s best and most unencumbered performance on film!
#1: Elisha Cook Jr. – The Grand Old Man of Saps!
Whether he’s giving life to George Peatty. Soft spoken, quiet nebbish with a domineering wife, Sherry (Razor tongued Marie Windsor) in Kubrick’s The Killing (1958). Two bit gunsel, Wilmer Cook in The Maltese Falcon (1941). Just looking to get by Harry Jones in The Big Sleep (1946). Or paranormal incident survivor, Watson Pritchard in House on Haunted Hill (1959).
Mr. Cook reigns supreme in a highly specialized niche. An every man’s everyman. Buttressed by many small, though meaningful roles as the landlord, Mr.Nicklas in Rosemary’s Baby
(1971). Near invisible, Mr. Bunker in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid
(1972). Cody in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
(1973). Soft spoken Willie in Electra Glide in Blue
(1973). And a cameo amongst many as Carl in The Outfit
(1973) and as Eli the Taxi Driver in Wim Wenders’ Hammett
Mr. Cook had made a cottage industry and consistently utilized career as a balding, kind of flabby and meek, high voiced nobody with something to say. Often quietly. Sometimes pathetically. Yet, always memorably!
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Thoughts on this list of Great Saps in Cinema? Feel free to add your own in the comments.