The ineffable Mr. Cook, Jr., does not spend a whole lot of his brief screen time in this exceptionally engaging RKO B-picture looking so chipper. Rather, up until precisely this point, he has been kicking and screaming and kicking and screaming and insisting "I didn't kill anybody!" and kicking and screaming some more. And then, in a lengthy German-Expressionist-inflected dream sequence, he sneers and snickers at the film's hero, who's about to get the chair for the murder that he himself accused Cook's character of, getting a bit of his own back with some "How YOU doin'?" sarcastic insolence. Cook plays a cabbie who's fingered by stolid but apparently insufficiently attentive hero John McGuire (and the character's a reporter, too; damn sloppy journalists...) and is not-quite-cooling his heels in the death house as McGuire's cutie girlfriend is menaced by the real killer and title character, played by Peter Lorre in one of his most seriously weirdly menacing turns. Proudly showing off his seriously bad teeth, indolently draping his long gray scarf around his neck, lunging for our heroine as if in the slow-motion of a smack-induced trance, his work here is part of why this picture is sometimes referred to as "the first true film noir" (and that is the quoted blurb on the back of the Warner Archive box). An arguable claim, for a lot of fairly obvious reasons we needn't get into here. As enjoyable as this picture is, it is not what you'd call an incredibly inspired piece of work. Which is part of what makes it so enjoyable. There is certainly some brilliance here, but also a lot of expedience, and it's the combination of the two that make this a kind of surreal experience. Because it's a B-picture and it's got to get its work done in like an hour and change, its narrative traffics in a kind of ruthless efficiency (to use the wonderful phrase from the Monty Python "Spanish Inquisition" sketch) that creates, among other effects, breakneck, seemingly arbitrary changes in tone, as when the hero's interior monologue begins, 19 minutes into the action. (Said monologue features the immortal reflection, "Lotta people live in Brooklyn. Why couldn't I?") These shifts give the picture as a whole a peculiarly, and I'd say largely uninitentional, alienated surreal feel. Nothing is weirder, however...and I guess this should be classified as a spoiler...than Cook's transformation at the end. The once surly and manic fellow—not that he didn't have a damn good reason to be—has had his name cleared, and his job as a taxi driver (!) reinstated. Waiting outside the diner where the newlywed hero and heroine have said their goodbyes to the neighborhood, he's genuinely eager to show the man who almost had him executed that he doesn't hold anything even resembling a grudge. Offering the couple a ride, he practically screeches, "This one's...ON THE HOUSE!" The pause there indicates that maybe all is not as well as he would like it to look, and that maybe he's gonna drive them all off of a bridge after they get in. We never do find out.
Cook is somewhat more consistently low-key in his even smaller part in John Flynn's 1973 The Outfit, a particular aspect of which was discussed here. Playing the counterman at a rural diner overseen by Joe Don Baker's character, he expresses very Cook-ish suspicion at the two bogus "hunters" who ooze in looking for his boss. Baker makes quick work of the pair (not in the way you might think, though; one of the ways this is such a refreshing film is the resourcefulness shown by its criminal class—part and parcel, of course, of the Richard Stark "Parker" novels, one of which is the source material for this picture). This post-noir picture features a really exemplary group of glorious classic presences in bit and supporting roles: aside from Cook, there's Jane Greer from Out of the Past, Marie Windsor, who did Cook very wrong in The Killing, Robert Ryan, Timothy Carey (also in The Killing, as you'll recall),Henry frigging Jones, and more, and more still. (And Army Archerd as Ryan's butler!) Despite this near-parade of seemingly referential cameos, one never gets the feeling of being winked at, as one often does in the post-Tarantino age of supporting-role stunt/homage casting; all of these pros act like they belong. Because they do.
In any event, a better-than-solid anti-policier, happily replete with scenes and dialogue snatches very well transplanted from the book, and one or two zingers that the filmmakers appear to have come up with themselves. One favorite in the latter category: "Goddamn you, why'd you have to kill him?" "He owed me money."