Tomorrow is Another Day (1951), currently available on the Warner Archives streaming service, shows Cochran as Bill Clark, an ex-con who was jailed for murdering his father. In prison since he was 13, Clark comes into the civilian world nearly 20 years later like a teenager in a grown man’s body. “Your generation grew up, married, raised families, went to war,” the warden tells him as he prepares to leave prison. “But nothing happened to you, Bill. You just got older.” Clark enters a post-war America of extravagance and good times. He’s bewildered by it all, satisfying himself first with some newfangled ‘banana nut’ pie, and later by visiting Dream Land, one of the “dime a dance” halls he’d probably read about while he was doing time. That’s where he meets Cay Higgins (Ruth Roman, with some over-the-moon Joan Crawford eyebrows). Bill goes home with her one night and runs into her angry boyfriend. A scuffle breaks out, and Bill is dropped hard. When he wakes up, he sees Cay’s boyfriend on the floor, his body lodging a bullet or two. Cay did the shooting in self-defense, but convinces Bill that he did it. ‘You don’t remember what happened?” she says. She practically looks into the camera and says, I got this big gorilla right where I want him!
The couple hits the road, pretending to be married. They shack up in a camp where Bill gets a job picking lettuce. Unexpectedly, Cay enjoys married life, even if it’s only a ruse to hide from the law. Meanwhile, Bill grows more neurotic as he senses the cops closing in on them. Though the movie wasn’t a huge hit, director Felix Feist gives it a light noir feel and does the best he can with a typical Warner Bros potboiler.
Cochran was 34 at the time of Tomorrow is Another Day. A former cowboy and railroad worker who’d left the University of Wyoming to try his hand at acting, he’d impressed studio heads with his work in films starring Danny Kaye, and Ronald Reagan. He’d also delivered a strong supporting performance opposite James Cagney in White Heat. Warner Bros was testing the waters with Cochran as a leading man in the John Garfield mold. There’s a key moment in Tomorrow is Another Day when the couple on the lam trade their city finery for leather jackets and blue jeans. With his low-key acting and feral good looks, Cochran looks less like Garfield and more like the off-beat leading men to come, from Marlon Brando to Monty Clift. Warner Bros would spend the next couple of years trying him in a variety of roles, from rodeo men to tank commanders, but Cochran was simply born to play heavies.
Consider Storm Warning, released by Warner the same year as Tomorrow Is Another Day. Ginger Rogers witnesses a murder committed by the KKK, and notices her brother-in-law (Cochran) among the mob, underneath a white hood. Directed by Stuart Heisler, the movie was accurately described by Bosley Crowther as a “mechanically melodramatic film, superficially forceful but lacking real substance or depth.” Yet, the movie was a money-maker and Cochran turns in one of the slimiest performances of his career as a Klan lackey, a stupid man hiding behind the force of a large group. With a strong cast around him, including Rogers, Reagan, and Doris Day, Cochran steals the picture. Hostile one moment, nervous as a bagged rat the next, his villain has far more shading than say, Reagan does as a self-righteous District Attorney. At the film’s climax, an enraged Cochran hurls Day across a room with such violence that it looked as if America’s future sweetheart wouldn’t come out of this movie without a touch of brain damage.
Unfortunately, Storm Warning hasn’t aged well. Cinematographer Carl Guthrie makes the best of the Corona, California backdrop and gives it a nice, noir feel, but at heart it’s the sort of heavy-handed ‘message’ picture that Warner Bros was making in those days. Yet, the scene where the town’s reigning “grand dragon” takes Rogers into a field and works her over with a bullwhip has a surreal terror about it, especially since Cochran is watching the action with an absolutely demented look on his face. (No one was better than Cochran at lurking in the shadows looking like a wild-eyed degenerate!)
If Cochran was brooding in Tomorrow is Another Day, and manic in Storm Warning, he’s downright sinister in Highway 301, a routine crime thriller released just two months prior to Storm Warning, in Dec. 1950. As dapper killer George Legenza, he plays the sort of short-tempered gangster that George Raft or Bogart might have played. Granted, the movie is just a typical “crime doesn’t pay” drama, but Cochran shows he could play villainy close to the vest, even as he was taking particular pleasure in murdering women who posed a threat to his gang’s safety. Crowther, in full-slam mode for The Times, wrote the movie off as “a straight exercise in low sadism,” and wasn’t far off the mark.
The film ends with Legenza making a mad sprint through the streets as he tries to elude the cops. The scene is fascinating because Cochran plays it like he’s half-enjoying the chase. Crowther noted that the audience for the NY premiere was “made up mainly of muscular youths” who weren’t especially interested in the story as a crime deterrent, but seemed to enjoy the action provided by this “this cheap gangster melodrama.” One can imagine the youths in the theater cheering for Cochran as he dashed through alleys and parking lots, occasionally glancing over his shoulder to see if his pursuers were near. Cochran could easily portray the kind of lazy charisma and disdain for authority that audiences have always liked; if luck had been on his side, he might have picked up the sort of roles that went to Robert Mitchum.
Unfortunately, Warner Bros was at a low point, still churning out traditional gangster flicks while other studios were moving into newer, fresher territories. Cochran went on to start his own production company, and intermittently earned some critical praise working for directors ranging from Michelangelo Antonioni to Roger Corman. By the 1960s he was earning his bones in TV shows like Twilight Zone and Bonanza, and was frequently a subject for the scandal magazines of the day, usually involving a woman. He scuffled to write and direct his own projects, but his one effort, Tell Me In The Sunlight, wouldn’t be released until two years after he died. By 1987 when Mamie Van Doren wrote about their affair in one of her steamy memoirs, Cochran was long overlooked by all but the most serious of movie buffs.
The titles currently showing on the Warner Archives do Cochran some justice. They show an actor who had been given the ball and was determined to run with it, an actor who had some questionable private habits but was, nonetheless, as capable as anyone in the business.
Tomorrow is Another Day, Storm Warning, and Highway 301 are all available on the Warner Archive streaming service.