the ultimate noir cast…
by CHUCK STEPHENS
Stanley Kubrick’s labyrinthine 1956 heist flick The Killing—an exploded rethink of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and eventual template for the narrative convolutions of Reservoir Dog—became an instant facet in the jewel that was film noir, even as it refracted many of the cinematic crime bedazzlements that had preceded it. Much of its pleasure lies purely in its casting of an array of filmdom noir’s familiar faces, the movie’s every heavily shadowed curve and intentionally left-rough spot tricked out with class-act fillies and brick-headed galoots from Hollywood’s brightest galaxies of second- and third-rung heroes. Not even Sterling Hayden—one of the brashest, snarlingest leading men the screen has ever known—could have muted the charisma that surrounded him on The Killing’s set, not even when it came from men like Elisha Cook Jr., who seemed half his size, or frails like Coleen Gray, so meek she threatens to dissolve altogether under pressure of mere proximity to the man she loves. Everyone gets their own ripe mouthful of hard-boiled dialogue in The Killing, much of it supplied by a modern master of the form: Jim Thompson, pulp fiction’s furthest-out practitioner of stream-of-cracked-consciousness and creeps-giving conversation. Thompson had recently relocated to Hollywood after the publication of two of his magnum opera, The Killer Inside Me and Savage Night, when Kubrick hired him to collaborate on a screen adaptation of novelist Lionel White’s racetrack caper, Clean Break. The first product of the reportedly strained, multifilm collaboration between Kubrick and Thompson, their incendiary script for The Killing remains cinematic legend, lightning trapped in a jar—and their cast conspires to breath sulfur and sadness into every line. Could any other group of actors have come together as such a finely calibrated machine of mirth and menace, or imbued the film’s fractured narrative and hell-forged moral nuances with as many scents of poison or shades of existential disarray?
Sterling Hayden (Johnny Clay)
Born Sterling Relyea Walter in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, in 1916, then adopted at the age of nine and renamed Sterling Walter Hayden, the swaggering, six-foot-five-inch leading man once acclaimed as “the most beautiful man in the movies” came to Hollywood from a seafaring background, and returned to the sea repeatedly throughout his career, including sailing supplies from Italy to the Balkans for the OSS during World War II, for which he was multiply decorated. He remained close to the sea throughout his life, penning a lengthy account of his love of sailing in his 1963 memoir, Wanderer, while living in one of the pilothouses of the mighty ferryboat Berkeley, then docked in Sausalito (the North Bay city where he would spend much of the rest of his life.) Both gentle and gigantic, Hayden could easily have dominated any film in which he appeared but always remained a thoughtful and carefully modulated performer, paying tremendous attention to—listening to—the actors who worked with him. No wonder he produced most of his greatest work for directors known for eliciting unsettling, off-kilter performances from their actors: Kubrick (as The Killing’s luckless Johnny Clay, and later as Dr. Strangelove’s loose atomic cannon, General Jack D. Ripper), Nicholas Ray (as Johnny Guitar himself), John Huston (The Asphalt Jungle, where he furiously demands of people, “Don’t bone me!”), Francis Ford Coppola (as the corrupt cop in The Godfather), and Robert Altman (as The Long Goodbye’s outsized, unhinged, and unavoidably Haydenesque fading writer, Roger Wade). One of the greatest of Hollywood’s twentieth-century leading men, Hayden made a number of appearances on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show in the seventies, fascinating—nay, altogether addictive—clips from which can be found scattered on YouTube. Hayden died in Sausalito in 1986.
Coleen Gray (Fay)
Born Doris Jensen in Staplehurst, Nebraska, in 1922, Coleen Gray became a contract player for 20th Century Fox in 1944, stopped acting for a couple of years after having a child in her midtwenties, then rushed back on-screen with a series of standout (if largely underplayed, as was her wont) roles at the forties’ end. Though she shot her scenes as John Wayne’s ill-fated betrothed for Howard Hawks’s Red River in 1946, the film wasn’t released until ’48, by which time Gray had been featured in two 1947 favorites: with Richard Widmark in Henry Hathaway’s snickering Kiss of Death, and with Tyrone Power in the geek noir milestone Nightmare Alley. In the fifties, she continued down noir’s crooked highway in The Sleeping City and Kansas City Confidential, and supported Ronald Reagan in the Allan Dwan western Tennessee’s Partner. By 1960, she was reduced to sucking men’s pineal glands dry in search of eternal youth as The Leech Woman. Though she worked in television for several decades, Gray increasingly turned her attention to her religious and political beliefs in the sixties, testifying before Congress in 1964, as part of “Project Prayer,” in favor of prayer in schools, and later working with born-again Watergate crook Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship; she also appeared in the Reverend Billy Graham’s 1986 production, Cry from the Mountain. Gray currently resides in Los Angeles.
Vince Edwards (Val Cannon)
Though eventually better known as the suave, pensive surgeon Ben Casey (the title character of one of early sixties television’s most popular medical dramas), Vince Edwards—a former national championship swimming star from Ohio State University (born in Brooklyn, 1928)—kicked off his headlining screen career as Hiawatha in Kurt Neumann’s 1953 western of the same name, and could occasionally be found playing handsome, cold-sweat psychopaths in crime thrillers throughout the fifties. The pair of films Edwards made with director Irving Lerner—Murder by Contract and City of Fear—are both masterworks of late-model noir: in the former, Edwards is a contract killer with the pathological patience of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman and a mortal fear of murdering women; in the latter, he’s a feverish escaped con carrying what he thinks is a container of dope—though it’s actually full of radioactive powder that’s slowly causing his innards to mutate and melt. (Martin Scorsese has professed his fondness for both of these low-budget, stylistically inventive Lerner sleepers.) Ben Casey had been a Bing Crosby television production, and Crosby encouraged Edwards’s singing career throughout the sixties as well. Edwards also directed several episodes of Ben Casey, and later directed episodes of the original Battlestar Galactica. He died in Los Angeles in 1996.
Jay C. Flippen (Marvin Unger)
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1899, and billing himself as “the Ham What Am” by the midtwenties, the craggy, snaggly-faced Jay C. Flippen—veteran vaudevillian, early radio sportscaster, jazz singer, blackface comedian, and friend of the great African American performer Bert Williams—cut a broad if little-recognized swathe across much of twentieth-century culture. A stage performer infrequently seen on-screen until the late forties, he appeared as “T-Dub” in Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night and soon became a familiar Hollywood face, working with director Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart in Winchester ’73 (where he’s kissed by Shelley Winters), Thunder Bay, and The Far Country. (The palpable homoerotic dimension of Flippen’s love for his former cellmate Sterling Hayden in The Killing lurks only barely beneath the surface of many of those Mann/Stewart films as well.) Flippen shared the screen with Marlon Brando (The Wild One), John Wayne (Jet Pilot, Hellfighters), and Henry Fonda (Firecreek), and sang in Fred Zinnemann’s Oklahoma. He turned up often in early sixties television, on sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Ensign O’Toole. A leg amputation left Flippen in a wheelchair in his later years, but he continued acting at the peak of his powers through his final, and perhaps most memorable, role as the Manichean Nixon-era power broker Luther Yerkes, in Russ Meyer’s (woefully undersung) censorship satire The Seven Minutes. Flippen died in 1971.
Ted de Corsia (Policeman Kennan)
As blocky and imposing as an onrushing Mack truck, Ted de Corsia, born in Brooklyn, 1903, began his film career fairly late in life, debuting in 1947 as a sneer from the shadows in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai, and famously fell to his death from a steel-girdered bridge in Jules Dassin’s The Naked City the following year. He became a regularly featured film noir nightman and frontier badass for the remainder of the fifties. De Corsia worked for directors as varied as Vincente Minnelli (Kismet), Joseph H. Lewis (the same year’s The Big Combo), and John Sturges (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral), and had appeared in André de Toth’s Crime Wave along with his Kubrick costars Timothy Carey and Sterling Hayden in 1954; in 1956, the year he appeared in The Killing, he performed in at least six other features and more than half a dozen TV shows. Bat Masterson, Rawhide, Green Acres, I Dream of Jeannie, Get Smart, The Monkees—the burly, often comedic but always potentially brutal de Corsia continued to be an omnivore of television guest slots until his death in Encino, California, in 1973.
Marie Windsor (Sherry Peatty)
“I don’t think I’ll have to kill her,” Sterling Hayden muses with a grin over Marie Windsor’s pretending-to-be-sleeping body in The Killing. “Just slap that pretty face into hamburger meat, that’s all.” More than a few film noir fellas have felt that way about the characters that the strikingly big-eyed Marie Windsor specialized in: gold diggers, two-timers, doe-eyed spider women, lethal dolls. (“I know you like a book, you little tramp,” Hayden later snarls at her. “You’d sell out your own mother for a piece of fudge.”) Born Emily Marie Bertelsen in Marysvale, Utah, in 1919, Windsor—a onetime Miss Utah who studied acting with the immortal Maria Ouspenskaya (sayer of The Wolfman’s immortal “Even a man who is pure at heart . . .” sooth and also acting teacher to, among others, Elaine May)—has become one of the legendary figures of film noir, an O.G. queen of the Bs best remembered for films like The Narrow Margin and Force of Evil. In fact, she appeared in genre nuggets of every stripe, from straight-up westerns like R. G. Springsteen’s Hellfire (one of Windsor’s personal favorites) to Preston Sturges’s western farce The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend, the 3-D science fiction hokum of Cat-Women of the Moon, old Hollywood wheezers like Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, and Roger Corman no-budget drive-in quickies like Swamp Women. She even played Josephine to Dennis Hopper’s Napoleon in Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind; the Marx Brothers and Vincent Price are in it too. Windsor won a Look magazine award for best supporting actress for her part in The Killing, and remains a favorite of noir aficionados everywhere. Though largely retired from screen acting by the midseventies, she stayed busy as a painter and sculptor and was active in the Screen Actors Guild. Windsor died in Beverly Hills in 2000.
Elisha Cook Jr. (George Peatty)
The quintessential American character actor, Elisha Cook Jr. (Cookie to his friends) held center stage at the fringes of Hollywood cinema for decades, appearing as all manner of bug-eyed mugs and heat-packing psycho-sidekicks in hundreds of film and television classics. The word gunsel seems carved to fit Cookie, as John Huston must have seen at a glance when he cast him as the slapped-around pistol punk Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon. Cook got his first big break in theater, anointed by Eugene O’Neill himself for a memorable part in Ah, Wilderness! in 1933. His first picture was shot in New York in 1930, but his film career proper began in Hollywood in 1936: by 1941, the year he appeared in The Maltese Falcon, Cook had already worked for directors Mervyn LeRoy, Robert Florey, Tay Garnett, and John Ford (in Submarine Patrol). Endless inimitable turns in film noir staples ensued: across from Humphrey Bogart again in The Big Sleep, seconding Lawrence Tierney in Born to Kill, and perhaps most indelibly as the speed-freak drummer in Robert Siodmak’s extraordinary Phantom Lady. (Cook would later claim Barbara Stanwyck as the foremost influence on his acting.) An encyclopedia would be required to trace Cook’s myriad TV appearances from the sixties to the end of the eighties, and he continued in features nearly as long: slain in Shane and deformed by Boris Karloff in Voodoo Island in the 1950s, back in Rosemary’s Baby, Blacula, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North Pole and Wim Wenders’s Hammett. A lifelong outdoorsman, Cook was born in San Francisco in 1903 but for much of his life kept a residence far from the film business, in a cabin in the High Sierras; he died in Big Pine, California, in 1995.
Joe Sawyer (Mike O’Reilly)
“Tough-looking, square-faced, fair-haired, large-headed, solidly built American actor who played top sergeants, taxi drivers, crooks, sailors, and sundry denizens of working-class districts” is how David Quinlan’s once-indispensible Illustrated Encyclopedia of Movie Character Actors sums up Joe Sawyer (born Joseph Sauers in 1906 in Guelph, Ontario)—not a bad description at all, never mind that Sawyer was Canadian. My parents’ generation grew up knowing Joe as Sergeant Biff O’Hara in the Rin Tin Tin dog-adventure movies and radio and television shows. John Ford used Sawyer (then still Sauers) often in the thirties and forties, in The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath, and many other films; so did Raoul Walsh and Charles Vidor—indeed, it would be difficult to find a major Hollywood director from the Golden Age who didn’t direct Sawyer at one time at or another. IMDb lists more than two hundred film and television appearances, many of them uncredited, and there were probably many more: Sawyer appeared in sixteen films in 1936 alone. Sawyer died in Oregon in 1982.
James Edwards (Parking Attendant)
A forerunner of Sidney Poitier in the struggle to bring dignity to Hollywood roles for African Americans, James Edwards (born in Indiana, 1918) earned a B.S. in dramatics at Northwestern University but turned seriously to acting only after being wounded in combat during World War II; his first big break came from Elia Kazan, who directed him in the controversial Broadway hit Deep Are the Roots, where he costarred with Barbara Bel Geddes. He had a beaming, sometimes glowering countenance and a lush sonority in his delivery that riveted the viewer to whatever he was doing—a talent that led to a standout turn in Mark Robson’s Home of the Brave in 1949, which should have made Edwards a star but instead, after much critical praise, left him feeling embittered and betrayed by Hollywood’s high racial walls. He continued acting—in Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, Douglas Sirk’s Battle Hymn, Anthony Mann’s Men in War, and as one of Lawrence Harvey’s ill-fated platoon buddies in John Frankenheimer’s paranoid masterpiece The Manchurian Candidate—along the way becoming friends with Woody Strode, the athlete turned John Ford mainstay with whom Edwards would share many of his struggles in the industry. Though his final role was as George C. Scott’s valet in Patton, Edwards never lost the poise and bearing he’d carried with him throughout his career—or the intensely human seething that seemed always just below his placid surface, raging to break free. Edwards died in San Diego in 1970, only fifty-one years old.
Timothy Carey (Nikki Arcane)
One of the most gargantuan and adorable scenery chewers the cinema has ever known, the six-foot-four Timothy Agoglia Carey had a growl so loud and a grimace so creepy he could have frightened Beelzebub off a toilet seat—and a warm if slightly warped grin so goofy and infectious he could charm a kitten out of a tree. A beatnik/hepcat/margin dweller before there were terms for such things, Carey was born in Brooklyn (are you sensing a pattern here?) in 1929. He was fired from the set of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (for scene-stealing as an extra) almost before his career began; appeared across from Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward in Henry Hathaway’s White Witch Doctor, with Brando in The Wild One and One-Eyed Jacks, and, uncredited, in André de Toth’s Crime Wave and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden; got mercilessly stomped (for real) by Richard Widmark in a scene for Delmer Daves’s The Last Wagon; and showed up as the face of evil in Bob Rafelson’s Monkees’ trip Head and on a hundred other oddball occasions, from Mermaids of Tiburon (a.k.a. Aqua Sex) to Beach Blanket Bingo and Chesty Anderson U.S. Navy. Carey’s career cornerstones include his work for Kubrick in The Killing and Paths of Glory and for John Cassavetes in Minnie and Moskowitz and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. In 1962, Carey wrote, directed, and starred (as God) in The World’s Greatest Sinner, a monomaniacal vision of scuzzball grandeur with a soundtrack by Frank Zappa; his years-long plans to complete and market a TV sitcom pilot called Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena never came to fruition. In recent years, outtakes from the photo shoot for the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album have revealed an image of Carey, posed holding his rifle in The Killing, positioned directly behind, and entirely occluded by, George Harrison’s head in the finished LP sleeve shot—lurking, once again, in the shadows of the glamorous, at once present and gloriously little-known. Carey died of a stroke in 1994.
Kola Kwariani (Maurice Oboukhoff)
“Kola (Kwariani), 280 [lbs.], was a brutal Georgian who learned wrestling from his mother, a six-foot-three-inch 205-pounder. Kola’s mother learned wrestling from her mother.” So wrote Gay Talese in the New York Times in 1958 of Kola (Nicholas) Kwariani, who was known in New York chess-playing circles simply as Nick the Wrestler. Born in Kutaisi, Georgia, in 1903, Kwariani spoke eight languages and wrestled Gene “Mr. America” Stanlee in a famous golden era match. Though his film career was confined to his work in The Killing and a 1952 episode of Columbia World of Sports entitled “Rasslin’ Rogues,” Kwariani’s outsized presence, innate intelligence, and extraordinary cauliflower ears made a lasting impression. Moreover, Kubrick gave him one of the best speeches in the film, and it’s well worth remembering here: “You know, I have often thought that the gangster and the artist are the same in the eyes of the masses. They are admired and hero-worshipped, but there is always present an underlying wish to see them destroyed at the peak of their glory.” Kwariani died in New York in 1980.
Jay Adler (Leo the shark)
Born in New York City in 1896, Jay Adler—brother of the famous teacher, Stanislavskian, and Group Theater founder Stella Adler—came from an acting dynasty and enjoyed a long and varied career on Broadway, in Hollywood, and on television, with bits and standout small parts in Robert Wise’s Three Secrets, Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo, Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life, Alexander MacKendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success, and Jerry Lewis’s The Family Jewels. He died in Los Angeles in 1978.
Tito Vuolo (Joe Piano)
“Squat, voluble, and Italian-born, Tito Vuolo could not avoid being typecast as the jolly Italian in office,” writes IMDb minibiographer Guy Bellinger of the actor behind The Killing’s motel operator Joe Piano. So thoroughly does Bellinger seem to grasp the Vuolo gestalt that we’ll quote him at greater length: “Vuolo portrayed dozens of Italian barbers, pizza makers, vendors, grocers, waiters, hotel or restaurant proprietors. He played them well, but he was at his best when he was not restricted to stereotypes, particularly in films noirs where his good nature created a powerful contrast with the atmosphere of moral decay prevailing in such films as Kiss of Death, The Web, T-Men, The Racket, and, what is probably the best of them all, The Enforcer, as the taxi driver witnessing the murder at the beginning of the film.” Little more need be added, other than to note that Vuolo was born in 1893 in Gragnano, Italy, worked (often uncredited) for directors Michael Curtiz, Stanley Donen, King Vidor, and Anthony Mann, and died in Los Angeles in 1962.
Joe Turkel (Tiny)
Joe Turkel worked thrice for Stanley Kubrick (tying with Philip Stone for most credited appearances in a Kubrick film): first here, in what amounts to a glorified if pivotal bit as second gun in The Killing’s climactic shoot-out (you’ll glimpse him in one other scene too, if you’re quick), then as Paths of Glory’s Private Arnaud, and finally—and perhaps most famously—as Jack Nicholson’s chimerical bartender Lloyd in The Shining. Born (like so many of his Killing castmates) in Brooklyn, in 1927, Turkel is also intimately familiar to his many fans as Blade Runner’s Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the replicant industry pioneer and power broker who meets a squishy end at the hands of one of his proudest creations: Rutger Hauer. Deep genre divers will also remember Turkel as Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik in Roger Corman’s great 1967 pop art/gangland mashup, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Now retired from acting, Joe Turkel lives in Southern California.
Rodney Dangerfield (Onlooker)
The thirty-five-year-old Rodney Dangerfield (born Jacob Cohen in Babylon, New York, in 1921) received neither respect nor screen credit for his legendary (if peripheral) “role” as an onlooker during Kola Kwariani’s racetrack dustup in The Killing. Fans of the harried-to-the-point-of-hallucinations comic genius’s Easy Money and Back to School—and even hard-core Rodneyists who go all the way back to 1971’s The Projectionist—must, however, now admit that the Dangerfield filmography truly begins here, in these few fleeting frames from The Killing, back in 1956. Dangerfield died in Los Angeles in 2004.
Art Gilmore (Narrator)
You may not know Art Gilmore if you fell over him in the dark, but if you were going to the movies or watching TV in the mid-twentieth century, you’ve heard his voice a hundred times. The narrator of countless coming attractions trailers and educational shorts, and the voice of dozens of unseen radio announcers in movies (Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, for one) and on TV shows, Gilmore (born in 1912 in Tacoma, Washington) finally began to come out from the sound booth and appear on-screen around the time he started working for Dragnet creator and entertainment mogul Jack Webb in the early fifties; in the sixties and seventies, he appeared frequently as police captains and lieutenants on the Webb-produced hits Adam-12 and Emergency. Gilmore’s voice also introduced Ronald Reagan’s career-changing speech “A Time for Choosing,” in support of Barry Goldwater at the 1963 Republican National Convention. Sonically inclined liberal cineastes have been searching for ways to forgive him ever since—even as we admit that classics like The Killing couldn’t possibly have been the same without him. Gilmore died in Irvine, California, in 2010.
(THE CRITERION COLLECTION 2011)
“THE KILLING” 1956 directed by Stanley Kubrick