The Flix List: Great Saps in Cinema

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!
Suggested by iluvcinema

#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 (1982).
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!

Check out Jack’s profile page and links to his other reviews



Thoughts on
this list of Great Saps in Cinema? Feel free to add your own in the comments.

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26 thoughts on “The Flix List: Great Saps in Cinema

  1. One marvelous list of movie saps, Kevin! And you’ve topped with the one guy who truly owns the category with Elisha Cook, Jr. Man oh man, was he perfect for the role. Thanks for this.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Michael:

      You’re more than welcome!

      And thanks for getting things started.

      Elisha Cook, Jr. was already battling with Timothy Carey for the number one slot when I was putting the list together. The hard part was assembling the remainder of the list and placing them appropriately.

      I’m quite pleased with the list and how it panned out. While giving some love to a type or kind of character that I grew up with. And is near non-existent, today.

  2. Cool idea for a list. My favorite would have to be Elisha Cook Jr. in The Killing.

    Here’s a few worth mentioning. Peter Berg as Mike Swale in The Last Seduction, Chazz Palminteri as agent Cujaun in The Usual Suspects, Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, John Cazale as Fredo in The Godfather II, Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister in Election and Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand in The Long Good Friday. Here’s a little known one… Matt Malloy in Neil Labute’s In the Company of Men. While this was a star-making vehicle for Aaron Eckhart, Matt Malloy’s character Howard has to be one of the biggest saps of all-time.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, dave:

      Great list and suggestions for Honorable Mentions.

      I mentioned Peter Berg’s Mike Swale when I put together my list of Femme Fatales for Scott at FRC.

      http://www.frontroomcinema.com/thursday-list-top-10-femme-fatales/

      Good catches with Chazz Palminteri and Bob Hoskins. Though, Hoskin’s Harold Shand misread everything and struck out in the wrong direction. Basically because he didn’t keep better tabs on his crew’s proclivities.

      The more I see of ‘In the Company of Men’, the more Matt Malloy’s Howard deserved what he got.

      1. Yeah while Eckhart’s character was just plain evil Malloy’s character was just a spineless sap who was easily taken in by the mysoginistic, macho charisma wielded by Eckhart. The shame of it all is that while Malloy got what was coming to him, Eckhart’s character didn’t pay any price at all.

        I just checked out that list: http://www.frontroomcinema.com/thursday-list-top-10-femme-fatales/. Hard to top that list. Linda Fiorentino is certainly worthy of the #1 spot. My favorite fatale comes not from the past but the future. Christina Hendricks as the sexy but deadly Saffron (aka Bridget, aka Yolanda) from TV’s Firefly. In the episode “Our Mrs. Reynolds” she totally reeled me in. Hook, line and sinker.

  3. Rich

    ECJ is one of those guys you always see in old movies but can never remember their name – at least I never can. I will try to remember it from now on because he was quite good.

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, Rich:

      Thanks for dropping by and adding to the conversation.

      Your comment sums up quite well the definition of a character actor. You see him or her. Recognize him or her. But don’t remember their names.

      Elisha Cook, Jr. is one of the few actors who could openly embrace a downfallen or trodden character. And make those faults his own and memorable in film after film.

      About the only actor displaying that sort of moxie today, would be #10. Steve Buscemi.

    1. jackdeth72

      Greetings, Andy:

      Timothy Carey made a career out of playing strange, often unlikeable characters. Especially under Kubrick’s direction in ‘The Killing’. Then achieving near cult status as South Dakota Slim and his “Booby Hatch”. Or as Hilb in ‘Waterhole #3’.

      Though it is as Pvt Ferol that Carey can cut loose, open up and swing for the fences. Which earned his #2 spot.

      Thanks for dropping by!

  4. Ted S.

    Interesting list of characters Jack, I’ve only seen two films from that list, Miller’s Crossing and the original Ocean’s Eleven. Totally forgot Buscemi was Miller’s Crossing, haven’t seen it in a while.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Ted!

      I had to add Sinatra and The Rat Pack for the chapel scene during last five minutes of the original ‘Ocean’s Eleven’.

      Buscemi, as an actor has always intrigued me. With his willingness to take on odd, quirky, often unlikeable characters and pull it off with ease.

  5. Glad I could be an inspiration Jack!

    Your list (as all your other postings) is AWESOME! Especially number #1. Poor Elisha Cook, Jr. He just had SAP written all over his face.

    I kind of feel the same way about Sterling Hayden although he was a more imposing presence he still had that “life sure has taken IT out of him” look to his face.

    I am so glad that you liked Woman in the Window. I think my dad had introduced this one to me years ago, because he was a fan of Dan Duryea.

    Alas you have gotten me in a noir-ish mood. Watch out now 🙂

    1. jackdeth72

      Welcome, iluv!

      There’s something about actors in films from the 1940s and 50s and how they wore their beaten to death Fedoras. That could add a few miles to their
      faces. Bogart, Mitchum, Hayden and John Garfield had that in spades!

      Maybe it was the way their hat’s brim cast shadows across eyes, nose and cheek?

      ‘The Woman in the Window’ is a great find! For its mood and Joan Bennett’s ability to pull strings so seductively.

      Your suggestion for a list of ‘Mugs’ was a good idea that found a file in my gray matter. And like Jethro Leroy Gibbs, I don’t waste ‘Good’.

      Enjoy your Noir expedition!

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Dave:

      ‘Scarlet Street’ is a great choice.

      What I enjoy about Edward G. Robinson was his ability to play anyone well. Though not a ‘sap’ role. His work in ‘Brother Orchid’ always makes me smile.

    1. jackdeth72

      Greetings, Castor:

      I think the classics had more room to play with, expound and expand upon the sap. Certainly more then than now. Lest you might offend someone. More’s the pity.

      1. Agreed and especially within the conventions of film noir. So in a modern context you can certainly see how many films that are considered “modern noir” would have this “sap” in them.

  6. Unique and interesting, great top 10 Jack. For some reason I feel most Warren Beatty characters could fall into this category but that might be more my reaction to him as a person than the fictional personalities he plays.

    Although not the man who thinks he knows it all, Jeff Goldblum is the perfect fall guy in John Landis’ grossly – in my opinion – underrated Into The Night.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Dan:

      Thanks for adding such great comments!

      I pulled Warren Beatty’s Joe Frady from a distant corner of my mind. ‘The Parallax View’ caught my attention for its sedate pacing and underlying menace. That spools up tightly and delivers an ending I didn’t see coming.

      Great catch with Jeff Goldblum and ‘Into the Night’! The gangling actor has a great talent at playing a schlub. That I first noticed in his small role in Joan Micklin Silver’s ‘Between the Lines’.

  7. Hi Jack, sorry for the late comment but I echo Dan in saying this is an unique top 10! Very informative for someone like me as I’ve only seen one from your list. All the films seem interesting, though I don’t think I’ll ever have the courage to see The Brood! My colleague told me about it once before and truly it’s not my cup of tea 😀 Thanks again for the list!

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Ruth!

      You’re quite welcome.

      I was wondering when you’d drop by and add to the conversation.

      Cronenberg’s ‘The Brood’ isn’t for everyone. A great little scary flick with a frightening ‘Monsters under the Bed’ moment. Samantha Eggar knows all of Oilver Reed’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities and plays him like a cheap fiddle.

      A better place to start would be either ‘The Third Man’ or ‘The Parallax View’.

      BTW: Great work with collage photo of Elisha Cook, Jr.!

  8. Interesting list, Jack! I have only seen a few of these, but I think you nailed it with #1. Every role I have seen Cook play would fit in perfectly with this list.

    1. jackdeth72

      Hi, Eric:

      I first saw Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer in ‘The Maltese Falcon’ when I was a kid.
      Wondering, where does this guy get off acting so tough against Bogart’s Sam Spade, when Cook had neither the spine or muscles to pull it off?

      Which started a search for Cook’s other works and the understanding of what a ‘sap’ truly is. How flawlessly well Mr. Cook fit the bill and let you care about the character.

      The fun was in selecting others who came close to sharing the same circumstances and caressing the same magic.

  9. Pingback: Weekend Viewing Options (Week Ending 22nd June) — i luv cinema

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