My Hero --- Steve Cochran
Information on Steve Cochran isn’t easy to come by. He seems to have floated somewhere outside the Hollywood mainstream. It would be easy to say that, based on his sleazy and clearly untrustworthy screen roles, Steve was held at bay by the town’s social gatekeepers. His conduct during off-hours was typical of fun-loving young men on their way up. Lots of drinking, much whoring, and an ongoing willingness to trade on a handsome, but disquieting, face. Steve always came across like a big bully. He shoved a cringing old man around in a 1959 episode of The Twilight Zone (What You Need) and got run over by a car for his trouble. As an unscrupulous Confidential-inspired publisher, he victimized Van Johnson in Slander, and was shot dead by his own mother for the pay-off. When Steve entered the room, you knew a double-cross was in the offing. His insolence toward a barking David Brian in The Damned Don’t Cry demonstrated Cochran’s talent for effortlessly dominating a scene, and his underplayed treachery in White Heat gave even Cagney
a run for his money.
Steve was known as a notorious womanizer. I’d venture to say the gals did much of the chasing. Dangerous types like Steve always score. The tally sheet included Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren (could he have gotten them confused? --- I would have), Joan Crawford (well, he worked with her, so natch), Barbara Payton (assignations with male co-stars was virtually written into her contracts) --- many more. He had an unforgettable cameo as a cuckolding lounge lizard in The Best Years Of Our Lives, but was otherwise wasted at Goldwyn menacing Danny Kaye. A temporary movie lull found him playing foil to Mae West for a 1948 legit revival of Diamond Lil. The fact he was able to hold his own opposite Mae convinced the town of his survival skills, if not his thespic ones. Steve had stage experience, was briefly on Broadway, and managed camp shows during the war, so this was no babe in the woods. He was cruelly typecast --- make that typecast for his cruelty, after the high-profile conniving he practiced in White Heat, and Warners exploited his perfidy further in Highway 13, Dallas, and Storm Warning. For that last one, Klan leadership was right up Steve’s alley, for there was often the coward’s face behind the venal masks he wore. Through force of talent, he often invested these roles with values not suggested on the script’s printed page. The Damned Don’t Cry found him refreshingly sympathetic in an otherwise perfunctory role as a disloyal hoodlum, and Dallas showed a flair for comedy that might well have been explored further were it not for that always threatening countenance of his. From all accounts, Steve wasn’t like that offscreen. Oft described as a big harmless lug, he was a beloved, if bemused, hound for booze and babes. Having seen Come Next Spring, a beautiful slice of Americana he produced for Republic in 1956, I suspect there was a good deal more to Steve than that.
The boneyard that was television guest work became Cochran’s sixties port of call. Just spade jobs a dozen other guys could have filled, but features were tough to come by, and the price of cigarettes kept going up, so what could he do? Steve’s craggy face reflected the seediness that had crept into Hollywood’s post-Golden Age landscape, but on him it looked good. He had a certain brilliantined authority in middle age that should have been better appreciated. When Cochran reached for the decanter with that tired, resigned familiarity, as here in Of Love and Desire with Merle Oberon, you’re quite prepared to embrace whatever hard pavement truths he’s sharing. Too bad he never got that chance, for his run was fast coming to its finish.
Steve had recently completed --- what else? --- a Euro crime thriller (Mozambique) when he hoisted anchor for a yacht tour with an all-girl crew (one age fourteen). The stated purpose was to scout for locations, and that might have been on the level too, for he’d lately finished an independent feature which he produced, directed, co-wrote, and starred in, Tell Me In The Sunlight ("A sailor and a stripper fall in love on the beaches of Nassau"). Unfortunately, and disastrously for the girls, their seafaring host collapsed and died on board, and none of them knew how to pilot a yacht. After twelve nightmarish days (one of which was punctuated by a particularly vicious storm), the craft finally drifted into port with three hysterical passengers and Cochran’s badly decomposed body. The official finding said acute infectious edema, but some suspected foul play. Investigations went nowhere, the death having occurred in international waters, so the matter was put to rest (he was 48). A sad and sorry finish for an actor who never got his proper due. Three of his excellent, and seldom seen, Warner noirs would be ripe subjects for DVD revival --- the aforementioned Highway 301, Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison, and Tomorrow Is Another Day. Maybe we’ll eventually see them in Warner’s outstanding, and ongoing, series of Film Noir box sets.
Steve Cochran --- Color Fan Portrait
Steve in Highway 301
Virginia Mayo with Steve in a White Heat Lobby Card
With Gary Cooper and Ruth Roman in Dallas
With Joan Crawford and David Brian in The Damned Don't Cry
With Ruth Roman in Tomorrow Is Another Day
With Merle Oberon in Of Love and Desire