Black Mass: Film Noir Classic “Storm Warning” and the Grim Fate of Steve Cochran


Years ago, I developed an interest in film noir movies and viewed many classics of the genre like “Double Indemnity”, “Touch of Evil”, “Notorious” and even neo-noirs like “Chinatown” and Brian De Palma’s “Sisters” (fun and kooky with gorgeous Margo Kidder!)

More recently, I’ve been seeking some lesser known noirs and so, a few months back, my wife and I dug up 1950’s “Storm Warning”. It’s quite good, and loaded with stars: Ronald Reagan, Doris Day, Ginger Rogers. But it’s Steve Cochran, the actor who played the main heavy, and the sordid tale of his death that makes “Storm Warning” stick to my synapses.

The plot of the film leads with a great hook. A fashion model, played by Rogers, arrives in a small town to visit family. Immediately after getting off her bus, she watches a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen break a man out of jail and kill him. (The victim is, perhaps surprisingly, white because of… reasons.) Rogers’s character is shocked at the violence, but remains unseen by the attacking mob. She goes to the bowling alley where her younger sister, played by Day, is employed. There, the older sister is introduced to the younger sister’s new husband, played by Cochran, who is—surprise!—one of the killers.

When Ronald Reagan shows up as an unrelenting DA trying to get the bottom of the case, Rogers’s character faces a dilemma. She can rat out her younger sister’s husband, or just leave town in with her lips shut. (One thing I love about film noir is it allows its protagonists to be flawed and not always doing “the right thing” (yawn).) The story nicely ratchets up the tension, culminating in an appropriately dark finale.

All the actors do fine work within the confines of the genre. But Cochran really stands out—he oozes malice and threat, but you can understand his appeal to the naïve young woman played by Day.

After I watched the film, I looked up it up online to get a sense of how it had settled into American film history. That’s when I read more about Steve Cochran, a controversial figure in both life and death.

Cochran, a “Hollywood handsome”* actor active during the 40-50s, mainly played rogues and villains. He starred in dozens of films, at times working with major actors of the day like James Cagney, Burt Lancaster, and Joan Crawford. (Here’s an interesting bit from his Wikipedia bio: Cochran “was given the lead in “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison” (1951), which inspired Johnny Cash to write his song “Folsom Prison Blues””)

* Cochran said this about his look:, “With this puss of mine, I could play a corpse and be accused of overacting.” (Way to stay humble, big guy.)

The bad boy actor also garnered a lot of attention for his off-screen womanizing. Cochran had affairs with tons of famous actresses including Mae West, Jayne Mansfield, Mamie Van Doren, Ida Lupino, Yvonne DeCarlo and Barbara Payton* as well as marrying and divorcing three times. This search for sexual adventure may be what ultimately led to his death.

* Stay tuned on Payton—I’ll be doing a post on her tragic life soon.

Cochran earned tabloid space for non-romantic chicanery as well. In the 50s, he received a ticket for flying his airplane into the airspace above Beverly Hills. 1960, he crashed a boat carrying himself, two women, two dogs, and a chimpanzee. (Guess it wasn’t his lucky chimp.)

In 1965, Cochran boarded a yacht (fittingly christened “the Rogue”) for a sailing journey planned to go from Acapulco to Costa Rica. Joining him were three young Mexican women he’d hired for supposed assisting and cleaning duties. More than twenty days later, the drifting boat was rescued by a fishing vessel. The women were alive, albeit panicked. Steve Cochran was dead.

So what happened? Let me quote from this SF Gate article.

Castellanos, Zacarias and De La Rosa told the Associated Press that Cochran would drink several whiskies every night and sleep under the stars on the deck, before making his way down to the cabin in the early hours. On either June 12 or 13, The Rogue lost one of its two masts in a storm. The crew said that while attempting to fix the mast, the actor complained of pain in his legs, which soon spread to his chest, arms and head. 

With no ability to sail a 40-foot yacht with a broken mast on rough seas, the women and girl described a horrific scene wherein they tried to stay on deck away from the stench, but heavy rains forced them to shelter in the cabin near the actor’s quickly decomposing body. As they told the Guatemalan newspaper after the ordeal, the handsome actor they had seen on celluloid gave way to “a swollen monstrous thing” as a “fetid odor enveloped the yacht.”

The smell of death, ladies and gentlemen. The fetid smell of death!

Further dignities awaited Cochran’s decaying corpse.

Moving the actor’s body was an unenviable task. “The huge blackish mass he had become disintegrated when the funeral home employees touched it,” reported Prensa Libre. “The stench of death washed over the small town.”

The actor’s death was eventually revealed to be caused by a lung infection. As a result of this inopportune passing, Steve Cochran seems to have faded from America’s collective cultural memory, becoming merely a footnote in news articles and blog posts such as this. (His “Storm Warning” co-star, Ronald Reagan, managed to keep his name alive by doing… something important. I’m blanking on what.)

Quite a story, eh, folks? Just imagine being those women, stuck on aboard a yacht with food running out, and the body of a caddish movie star melting into black goo.

Sounds like the plot for a good noir.

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