Steve Cochran Centennial

25 May

Steve Cochran would have turned 100 today, May 25, 2017. (He died in 1965.) He was a character actor who was most active in the 1940s and ’50s, most often playing dark, good-looking heavies in crime films and westerns. He was under contract for a while to Samuel Goldwyn Productions and later to Warner Bros. where he made what I consider to be his best films. He’s probably best known for WHITE HEAT (1949), in which he had a key supporting role as one of the robbery gang led by cold-blooded killer Cody Jarrett, played masterfully by James Cagney in his spectacular return to gangster roles after a decade away from the genre.

In the film, Cochran plays Big Ed, who bides his time, waiting for the opportunity to overthrow Jarrett, take over the gang and shack up with Jarrett’s beautiful, lusty wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) who can’t wait for Big Ed to make his move. Jarrett is fully aware of all this. As he tells his wife in an early scene, with Big Ed present, “If I turned my back long enough to for Big Ed to put a hole in it—there’d be a hole in it.”

Cochran has only three extended scenes in the film, but he makes the most of them. Cagney is a formidable presence and his Jarrett a relentless foe, especially after he escapes prison and races toward the hideout his wife shares with Big Ed, yet Cochran remains a cool customer throughout. He’s pretty confident he can outwit and overpower Jarrett when he inevitably shows up. When Verna threatens to run out on him, he reminds her that she shot Jarrett’s mother (Margaret Wycherly) in the back, killing the tough old dame (and a bonafide force in the gang) after she’d gotten the drop on Big Ed. He threatens to tell Jarrett all this. Verna’s look of horror says it all.

Needless to say, Big Ed’s dreams go up in a flash of gunsmoke, but they create some palpable tension for the first ¾ of the movie (with an even greater source of tension added for the explosive finale). He was the only character in the film who made a convincing counterforce to Jarrett.

WHITE HEAT was the fifth of six films Cochran made with Virginia Mayo. The two of them appeared in three Technicolor Danny Kaye movies while they were all under contract to Goldwyn in the 1940s: WONDER MAN (1945), THE KID FROM BROOKLYN (1946) and A SONG IS BORN (1948). They also appeared together in Goldwyn’s Best Picture winner of 1946, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946). After WHITE HEAT, they would appear in one more Warner Bros. movie, the Technicolor musical SHE’S BACK ON BROADWAY (1953). Their characters were romantically involved in four of the six movies, all but the first two Danny Kaye movies. Cochran has just one scene in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, but it’s quite memorable. He plays a smooth operator whom Mayo, as the wife of war vet Dana Andrews, has taken up with after becoming disillusioned with Andrews’ inability to get a good-paying job upon his return. Andrews walks in on Mayo and Cochran in the married couple’s apartment as Mayo is getting ready to go out with Cochran. Andrews orders him to get out and they exchange a few words before Mayo intervenes and Cochran starts to head out. Andrews has a brief exchange with him about readjustment, which Cochran seems to have no problems with, and that’s it. Fortunately for Cochran, the outcome is a lot better for him than the one in WHITE HEAT where Cagney walked in on him and Mayo.

In SHE’S BACK ON BROADWAY, Cochran is somewhat miscast as a director of Broadway musicals. Mayo plays his former lover who’d walked out on the hit show they were doing six years earlier for a career in Hollywood and is now back to try and make a name for herself on Broadway again after her Hollywood career has slumped. Still hurting, Cochran wants nothing to do with her but the producer and the show’s backer force her on him. His current girlfriend (Patrice Wymore) is in the show also, adding further complications. Unable to separate his work from his emotions, Cochran makes life miserable for Mayo and much of the cast, leading up to a disastrous out-of-town tryout. Only when he and Mayo work out their problems and reunite as a couple, can they go on.

It’s definitely an odd role for Cochran. He seems much too rough-hewn to be directing a musical and it doesn’t help that the lavish musical numbers dominate the film and leave little room for character development. They’re also strangely disconnected from each other, as if each song was pulled from a completely different show. Also, I was annoyed that Cochran, the film’s unmistakable male lead, got billed after two supporting actors, Gene Nelson, as the male lead in the musical they’re rehearsing, and Frank Lovejoy, as the show’s producer. (Nelson is seen at the left in the top of the two stills above and Lovejoy is seen on the left in the still under it.) Nonetheless, it was refreshing to see Cochran playing something of a good guy for once and one who survives the end of the movie. He’s also more emotionally vulnerable than he is in most of his tough guy roles and is clearly in pain from the breakup with Mayo six years earlier. It was nice to see a happy ending for the two of them in their final film together.

Another film worth singling out is STORM WARNING (1951), a social drama from Warner about a Ku Klux Klan chapter in a southern town and, arguably, Cochran’s second best film after WHITE HEAT.

The cast is topped by the unlikely star trio of Ronald Reagan, Ginger Rogers and Doris Day, but it’s Cochran who steals the show as a simple-minded southern brute manipulated and exploited by the Klan. He plays a mill worker, married to Day, who is part of a Klan mob which storms the city jail late one night to pull out, beat and shoot to death an undercover investigative reporter who’s been jailed on trumped-up charges. Unfortunately for Cochran, the shooting is witnessed by Day’s big-city sister, Rogers, newly arrived in town for an unannounced visit. Rogers is shocked when she arrives at her sister’s home and recognizes Cochran as the shooter and, when Cochran’s boss, mill owner Hugh Sanders, comes to see her, she recognizes him as the other member of the mob who’d taken off his hood. They successfully intimidate her into clamming up on the stand at the inquest after D.A. Reagan has subpoenaed her following her initial eyewitness assertion that Klan members had committed the murder. After the Coroner’s verdict of “assailant or assailants unknown” is announced, Cochran and his Klan buddies go out and celebrate. When the drunken Cochran finds Rogers alone at their home packing and getting dressed, he grabs her and molests her, an act interrupted by Day’s sudden return home, which leads to a brutal and tragic chain of events.

Robert Osborne, when introducing this film on TCM, noted the plot’s similarities to A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, which Warner produced the same year. Both films deal with a southern couple—a nice girl and her loutish husband—visited by an older sister who disrupts the tenuous harmony of the household. However, Cochran deliberately tones down his animal magnetism and never tries to be as seductive as Brando’s Stanley Kowalski. As handsome as he is, he never holds anyone in his thrall except Day, who strikes us as pretty naïve herself. Rogers even calls him, to his face, “a stupid, vicious ape,” something Blanche DuBois would never have done, and we can’t disagree. Which doesn’t mean we don’t feel some sympathy for him. Cochran displays a childlike simplicity and vulnerability, which makes him ripe for use as a scapegoat by the Klan, especially when his recklessness becomes a liability. Early on, he pleads with Rogers like a child trying to avoid punishment for his latest infraction after she’s admitted that she saw him shoot the reporter. At other times, he behaves like a wounded animal. It’s only because her sister loves this man that Rogers refuses to identify him and Day, to her credit, convinces us that she does. There isn’t a single false note in Cochran’s performance and alone among the principals in the cast, he looks, sounds, and acts as if he belongs in this setting. He injects a note of realism into the film, which, despite its lofty aims, makes a few too many compromises. For one thing, it assiduously avoids the racial element of Klan violence. There’s also a surprising paucity of southern accents in the film. Still, the scenes of emboldened Klan members and ordinary townsfolk embroiled in mob scenes are pretty harrowing and the final Klan rally is a horrifying spectacle. The film deserves some credit for tackling a controversial subject and condemning a then-newly empowered hate group.

Cochran’s a particularly silky bad guy in THE CHASE (1946), based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, in which he’s a Florida racketeer who hires a down-on-his-luck war vet to be his chauffeur only to have his mistress run off with the chauffeur. When even Peter Lorre, as Cochran’s sidekick, finds Cochran intimidating, you know the actor is doing his job. Cochran and Lorre then pursue the treacherous couple to Cuba. The main problem with the film is that the chauffeur is played by lightweight actor Robert Cummings in a role that would have been better played by Robert Mitchum, who played a similar role in a similar plot opposite Kirk Douglas in the film noir classic OUT OF THE PAST, made a year later. Cummings is so unformidable that you can’t believe he’d have a remote chance of outwitting Cochran.

Cochran played another robber, this time the head of the gang, in HIGHWAY 301 (1950), a year after WHITE HEAT and also for Warner. It’s a tawdry, slapdash B-grade crime thriller filmed largely on Warner’s soundstages and backlots, despite its Maryland and Virginia settings, and quite a step down for Cochran. Here’s an excerpt from my IMDB review of the film: 

Cochran (Big Ed in WHITE HEAT) snarled with the best of them and does it throughout this film in a portrayal he could have pulled off in his sleep. He’s quite menacing to the women in the film, who spend a lot of time sneaking down stairways to avoid and escape him. (In real life it was quite the reverse, or so I’ve heard.) Cochran was an excellent actor, but he suffered from typecasting, especially in a film like this, where he’s given no characterization at all.

 But he does have a great Leone-style extreme closeup:

“Goin’ some place, sweetie?”

It doesn’t end well for the poor girl, a moll who’s running out on him. (She has far worse luck than Virginia Mayo did, that’s for sure.)

Cochran grew up in Wyoming and even once worked as a cowpuncher, so it was great to see him play a sympathetic horse trainer in THE LION AND THE HORSE, a contemporary western shot in Utah about a trainer who rescues a horse he caught and sold to a rodeo after the rodeo owner has mistreated it. I saw this on TV decades ago and remember being impressed by Cochran’s ability to convey his empathy and affection for the horse. He made other westerns, but was usually the bad guy.

Years later, he turns up in an episode of “The Twilight Zone” called “What You Need” in which “A small time crook plans to exploit an old street peddler who has the uncanny knack of selling people exactly what they will shortly need,” per IMDB. Needless to say, Cochran plays the crook, seen here with Ernest Truex:

I’ve seen quite a few other Cochran films and have a few unseen ones in my collection, like this one, TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY (1951), another Warner melodrama, this time with Ruth Roman as his ex-wife, whom he’s seen grappling with in this still:

Unfortunately, the week I spent researching my previous entry on Raymond Burr’s centennial which occurred a mere four days ago, meant I couldn’t plunge into Cochran’s career with the same kind of rigor. I re-watched STORM WARNING for this, but I’d love to have re-watched other films of his including THE DAMNED DON’T CRY, INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON, THE LION AND THE HORSE, PRIVATE HELL 36 (pictured below), QUANTRILL’S RAIDERS and a gangster film he did for Roger Corman called I, MOBSTER. I did watch SHE’S BACK ON BROADWAY for the first time in preparation for this piece

In any event, Cochran certainly deserves to have a greater reputation than he does. At the very least, everyone should go out and see one of Hollywood’s greatest crime thrillers, WHITE HEAT.

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4 Responses to “Steve Cochran Centennial”

  1. jorge luis perez rivera May 25, 2017 at 7:51 AM #

    He also starred famously in Michelangelo’s Antonioni Il Grido (The Cry) in the late fifties, which some say was his best.performance.

    • briandanacamp May 25, 2017 at 10:32 AM #

      That’s another one I still haven’t gotten around to watching. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Ted Hicks May 25, 2017 at 10:54 AM #

    Quite thorough as usual, Brian. Besides the Antonioni film, Cochran was also in Peckinpah’s “Deadly Companions” (1961), as well as a lot of TV work. I always liked seeing him, which was probably helped by the fact that he looked a lot like my Uncle Marv.

    • briandanacamp May 25, 2017 at 12:25 PM #

      When I consulted his IMDB filmography I was disappointed to conclude that I didn’t have any of his TV appearances in my collection. I especially wish to see the “Untouchables” episodes he was in. I haven’t seen DEADLY COMPANIONS in decades. Cochran’s character in that was quite a change of pace for him. I’m curious to see how that plays today. Thanks.

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