This time I've added my follow-up posts directly underneath Carl's essay.
A nationally-known sportswriter with a deep, highly perceptive interest in all things noir...what great fun it was to have the versatile talents of Carl during the increasingly lost/papered-over early years of NC. No way we could let THIS roll over the edge of the Board!
I follow this (which in an instance or two will show its age--THE TURNING POINT has, thankfully, turned up at last) with my take on what might work as an O'Brien-themed Noir City. The lineup here is wonderful, but it needs to be stretched a bit to cover the full running time and to bring in more of the 1960s (the fascinating but mostly untouched/unexamined "noir residue" period that, in film, is cast into the auteurist approach and, in TV, given—at best—tepid lip service).
But Carl's festival is just fine on its own, actually--and best of all, it's accompanied with his muscular, noir-inflected prose, which (as either Eddie would say) goes down easily with your favorite adult beverage.
Never made it to the Noir City mag, Don. Still could, if someone was of a mind to print it. Originally written in 2009 ... but enjoy.
by Carl Steward
The first Edmond O’Brien Film Noir Festival is still a fantasy waiting for an enterprising programmer to mine its potential to please, and quite possibly, its capacity to reap box-office gold as well.
For the past month or so, I’ve been noodling with a hypothetical 10-day festival bill focusing solely on O’Brien, one of the most versatile actors of his time or any other time. That’s right, nearly two weeks of nothing but Eddie O noir – and two features a night, to boot.
A reach? Hardly. O’Brien is one of the few actors prolific enough to carry such a program – a powerful one at that -- and there would be added merit to such a venture in that so many of his films not only are commercially unavailable on DVD, they rarely show up on Turner Classic Movies or anywhere else on the tube.
I even had to leave out some dark favorites that didn’t quite hit the film noir mark squarely enough, notably Eddie’s stirring performance with Jan Sterling in the 1956 rendition of Orwell’s 1984, as well as his fine work in the Lillian Hellman prequel to The Little Foxes, 1948’s decidedly nasty Another Part Of The Forest.
But there is still a lot to view, almost all of it worthwhile. I’ve watched so much O’Brien noir in recent weeks, I find I’m drinking and sweating a whole lot more, craving the occasional Lucky Strike and developing a bit of a paunch. On the other hand, my hair is noticeably wavier and my verbal repertoire a bit snappier.
O’Brien wasn’t a superstar, but his body of work was voluminous and diverse, as one would expect from a self-professed character actor who could also serve as a very effective lead. He won one Oscar (ironically, for one of his less satisfying parts in The Barefoot Contessa) and was nominated for another (Seven Days In May). But with the popular revival of film noir, he has become best known for the legacy he left to its ever-growing legion of fans as one of the hardest-working men in Dark City.
So without further ado, we dim the house lights and raise the curtain...
Night 1: The Classics
Any O’Brien fest must start with D.O.A., his signature effort in film noir and one of the greatest one-man shows in the genre. O’Brien is rarely off screen in this original tale of a man who is informed that he’s been poisoned, only has a few days to live, and must spend his remaining hours frantically trying to unravel the how, who and why of his imminent death. It’s become a comfort flick for noir fans, one that can be viewed over and over with fresh rewards on each new watch. Save the few quirky moments – the inexplicable "woo-woo" overdub in the St. Francis Hotel party scene and a later scene in which Eddie marches down a street in step with the unintentionally comic cadence of Dmitri Tiomkin’s thundering soundtrack – it’s top-drawer noir, and the location settings in L.A. and San Francisco only add to its ever-increasing luster.
The Killers (1946)
So many other players in the incredible ensemble cast get more attention in Robert Siodmak’s wondrous work – Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, even the thug Hall of Fame lineup of Charles McGraw, William Conrad and Jack Lambert. But it’s O’Brien who drives the action as the crack insurance investigator who unravels the mystery of Swede Andersen’s murder and connects the flashbacks so effectively through his own character. It was O’Brien’s first noir film, and quite a launch pad for what was to become an awesome string of noir-rooted crime thrillers over the next several years. He’s merely the straight man here, but also the galvanizing force of an acknowledged classic.
Night 2: Good Cop/Bad Cop
Between Midnight and Dawn (1950)
O’Brien and Mark Stevens make for an intriguing pairing as patrol cops on the night beat, with Eddie’s Dan Purvis as the world-weary veteran who tries to school his young, cocky partner in a production that served as the model for countless buddy-cop films and TV shows to follow. The first half of the film isn’t terribly appealing as film noir as it focuses on Stevens’ cheeky romance with the all-too-wholesome dispatch girl, Gale Storm. But it shifts into a darker gear when Stevens is gunned down and O’Brien sets out with a vengeance to track down the killer. Eddie’s not quite as bitter or violent as Robert Ryan’s Jim Wilson in On Dangerous Ground, but quite effective in the climactic scenes, and the fact that he develops a relationship with Storm only after the death of his partner provides a strong noir conclusion.
Shield For Murder (1954)
In interviews, O’Brien often waxed about moving from in front of the camera to behind it as his career advanced. But as it turned out, 1954’s Shield For Murder was one of his few directorial efforts (and he shared the duty with Howard Koch). It’s a bit surprising he never did more, because save the shadow of a boom mike clearly visible in the opening scene (yikes, who was watching those rushes?), it’s quite a satisfying action noir. Of course, O’Brien is even better acting as the sour, corrupt detective Barney Nolan, who can’t realize his suburban dream with his slightly trampy trophy girl Marla English without resorting to a series of outlandish crimes. The first scene in which O’Brien viciously guns down a syndicate messenger to steal the $25,000 he’s carrying sets the ominous tone, and Eddie’s at his sweaty best trying to elude both the cops and the crime figures who suspect his deed. Love the scene of O’Brien sitting in his car counting the cash, his tongue wagging with greedy deceit.
Night 3: Split Personalities
A Double Life (1947)
Make no mistake, this is Ronald Colman’s showpiece as the renowned stage actor so obsessed with his role as Othello that he becomes consumed by his character in real life, murders sassy, sexy waitress Shelley Winters in her apartment, then nearly commits another with his on-stage Desdemona (Signe Hasso), who is also his off-stage romantic interest. O’Brien doesn’t even turn up until well into the film as the press agent who connects the dots on Colman’s unstable Anthony John. O’Brien deftly gives his character a balance – he’s determined to unmask the killer but also sympathetic toward his psychosis. In the hands of a lesser character actor, the film’s climax might not have worked nearly as well.
The Bigamist (1953)
It’s not generally regarded as a noir film but it’s essential to O’Brien’s early 1950s canon, not only for his own excellent performance but that of noir queen Ida Lupino, one of two films in ’53 in which Lupino directed O’Brien (the other being The Hitch-Hiker). It’s an interesting, daring picture for its time, too, in which a lonely traveling salesman from San Francisco befriends a woman on a Hollywood tour bus and first develops a friendship, then a full-fledged love affair. Complicating matters, Eddie unknowingly impregnates Ida and feels obligated to marry her when he finds out, concurrent with his efforts to adopt a child with his wife in San Francisco, Joan Fontaine, who can’t conceive. O’Brien gives a tender rendering of his part that makes you sympathize with his bigamous predicament. An independent production under The Filmakers banner, The Bigamist was rescued from obscurity when it turned up on a 2006 DVD paired with D.O.A., and it has received some Turner Classic Movies airings since. To be sure, it deserves to be back in regular circulation.
Night 4: Sorely Underrated
Man In The Dark (1953)
Now here’s a film that desperately needs to be reclaimed from the dark, for a lot of reasons. First, it’s the definitive noir from the 3-D fad of the mid-Fifties, a bit cheesy in its execution but one can only imagine how it must have looked on the big screen back then. Beyond the gimmick, it’s also a most entertaining thrill ride, even without 3-D glasses. O’Brien plays a hardened criminal who – shades of Clockwork Orange more than a decade later (Anthony Burgess’ novel didn’t even arrive until 1956) – receives an experimental brain operation against his will that renders him a lamb of a man with no memory of his past. He even gets a new name. Naturally, he is abducted by his old gang, now being run by the oily Ted De Corsia, and is reunited with his former moll, noir fave Audrey Totter. Both are in top form here as they try to refresh O’Brien’s memory about the $130,000 he stole and stashed before his mind-altering surgery. The incredible climax, filmed at the long-gone Pacific Ocean Park amusement center in Santa Monica, is a stunner, particularly the scenes on the rickety old Sea Serpent rollercoaster. One of the creepy "Laughin’ Sal" exhibits plays prominently in the film, too.
The 3rd Voice (1960)
Think you’ve seen all the great O’Brien performances? You haven’t if this virtuoso Eddie performance has escaped you, and since it’s almost impossible to find, that’s probably likely. The 3rd Voice is another film that cries out for restoration and revival on its considerable post-classic period noir merits. A noticeably aged Eddie is hired on contract by the spurned lover of a rich businessman to impersonate the coarse old buzzard while he’s on a Mexican fishing trip. O’Brien methodically studies the man’s life history, appearance, mannerisms and voice, not realizing that his co-conspirator (Laraine Day, in a brilliantly executed dark turn) is going to gun down the real millionaire upon his arrival at a secluded Mexico resort. O’Brien continues the impersonation after the murder and ultimately convinces enough people with his spot-on impersonation that he lands the cash. But in the end, both he and Day are undone in a surprise plot twist involving the gorgeous Julie London, who is also quite effective in her part. Find it, see it, treasure it. It’s an O’Brien beauty.
Night 5: Taking A Backseat
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
William Talman steals this Lupino masterpiece as the escaped serial killer Emmett Myers, who sleeps with one eye open and may be the single most chilling villain in the history of noir. Talman catches a ride with old Army buddies O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy, on their way to a fishing adventure in Mexico, and proceeds to give terrorize them for much of the film’s taut 71 minutes. Of the two captives, O’Brien gets the worst of it from Talman and comes off the most convincing as a frightened ordinary joe caught in a precarious life-and-death situation. He offers some quality dimension in the role because he’s hardly a heroic figure. He’s panicky and a bit cowardly, which provides a good contrast to the tougher, more stoic Lovejoy. Thrilling film with great performances by all three principals.
The Turning Point (1952)
Paramount does film noir a disservice by keeping this fine, wholly underappreciated film in the vaults, if only because it suppresses one of O’Brien’s most compelling character roles. It takes a self-assured actor to play a naïve dupe, and that’s essentially what Eddie is here as a special prosecutor who not only has trouble busting up soul-less Ed Begley’s L.A. syndicate (with our man DeCorsia back as Begley’s brutal right-hand henchman), he has no clue his vet-cop father is a mob informant and his assistant on whom he dotes (Alexis Smith) is sleeping with his childhood pal, the crusading reporter hero expertly played by William Holden. Holden gets the choicest part here, but O’Brien is nonetheless superb as the government sap who wises up too late to save his dad or his friend. It’s another film with great location work, including a ride up the Angel’s Flight trolley and several scenes in the run-down Bunker Hill district. What a shame it’s still such a rare item.
Night 6: The Small Screen
"Killer In The House" (1961)/"Death Watch" (1957)
An O’Brien festival wouldn’t be complete without some of his most distinctive (and extremely rare) television noir performances, which almost serve like mini-feature films in two distinct cases in which he played starkly different characters. In "Killer In The House," an episode of The Dick Powell Theatre, he plays a convict who kills a guard in an escape and subsequently turns up at the home of his brother played by Earl Holliman, who after an early life of crime with his sibling became domesticated with a wife and baby while his brother was in jail. Eddie tries to re-enlist his brother in a robbery he has cooked up along with some fellow crooks, but he resists, leading to a suspenseful hostage drama. Oh, yeah: it’s directed by none other than Ray Milland.
"Death Watch" was an episode of the obscure series Suspense, and features Grade-A O’Brien work as a police sergeant in charge of the safety of a schoolteacher (Janice Rule) who was the only witness to a mob killing and is sequestered at a hotel in protective custody. O’Brien learns that someone in his police crew assigned to the detail is going to try to kill the teacher, but he doesn’t know how or who, and concocts an ingenious plot to catch the assassin. Some familiar noir character faces turn up in this little gem, notably Edward Binns and the ubiquitous Whit Bissell.
Johnny Midnight (1960)
To round out O’Brien TV Night we add a few episodes of Eddie’s first and most compelling of two series in which he starred (the other being 1963’s Sam Benedict, in which he plays a crusading attorney). As Johnny Midnight, O’Brien is a longtime successful Broadway stage actor turned New York City private eye, with many of his cases involving crimes in the entertainment world. Much in the vein of such half-hour noir-tinged series of that era such as M Squad, Peter Gunn and Johnny Staccato, the plots are simple, but everything really revolves around O’Brien, who lives in a swank penthouse with one of the most stunning views in the city and is attended by wisecracking Asian houseboy Aki. Aborted after one season and 39 half-hour episodes, but most worthy of rediscovery. Any episode will do. They all have Eddie O.
Night 7: Intriguing Female Partners
Two Of A Kind (1951)
A dream pairing of two noir icons, O’Brien and Lizabeth Scott, this film about a scam to convince an elderly wealthy couple that Eddie is their long-lost son, and as such, in line for a large inheritance. O’Brien, a con man since childhood who first encounters Scott while working in a bingo parlor, goes to the perverse length of smashing his pinkie finger in a car door at Scott’s urging. Their scenes together are pretty terrific, but alas, the film takes a bad turn when Terry Moore appears as a perky niece of the wealthy couple. The ending is pretty flat and unsatisfying, too, but at least O’Brien winds up with the right dame – Liz, of course!
The Web (1947)
One of the first glimpses of O’Brien in one of his many roles where he is essentially full of himself--the irresistible wiseacre and unlikely charmer of alluring females. A two-bit small-claims attorney, he signs on as a bodyguard for scurrilous businessman Vincent Price, but his real interest in taking the job is getting up-close-and-personal with Price’s Girl Friday, the enchanting Ella Raines. Not a whole lot of deep noir here. It’s more of a crime romp full of clever William Bowers-penned one-liners with all of the players turning in delicious performances. Just another O’Brien rarity worthy of a much wider audience.
Night 8: Curious Obscurities
The Shanghai Story (1954)
One of the beautiful things about O’Brien’s career during the noir era is that he was primarily a free agent who signed on for films at every major studio save MGM, and dabbled on some minor lots as well. This low-budget Republic trifle offers a fascinating premise – after the Communist takeover of China in 1949, several people of varying nationalities are being held at a dingy abandoned Shanghai hotel, including O’Brien, a doctor who takes on role of group leader trying to protect everyone’s safety. It casts a eerie, sinister mood and holds up reasonably well despite some hilarious casting choices – Ruth Roman as a femme fatale type who curries mysterious favor with the Communists, and particularly Marvin Miller (best remembered as the emissary Michael Anthony in the TV show "The Millionaire") as a corrupt, lecherous Chinese colonel. Some good noir bit players, though – Barry Kelley, Richard Jaeckel, and wouldn’t you know, Whit Bissell.
A Cry In The Night (1956)
How can you go wrong with Natalie Wood, Brian Donlevy and Eddie O, along with Raymond Burr playing yet another one of his array of sickos? Burr is a peeping tom with a mother complex this time, conking Wood’s boyfriend with a lunchpail in a secluded lover’s lane spot and then abducting Wood. O’Brien plays a coarse, loose-cannon police captain, also conveniently Wood’s father, who upbraids the boyfriend while taking up the manhunt. A guilty pleasure with enough juicy noir moments to earn a spot in the lineup.
Night 9: Sorely Underrated II
It must have been something to be a movie-goer back in ’50: "Hey, Marge, another Eddie O’Brien flick is opening down at the Bijou." Of the four noirs released that year in which he was featured, Backfire is the least known, but perhaps unjustly so. O’Brien is just one player in an ensemble cast featuring Gordon MacRae, Virginia Mayo, Dane Clark, Ed Begley and Richard Rober, but the key figure as an ex-soldier and pal of MacRae’s who turns up mysterious missing and appears only in flashback until the end. A complicated and at times convoluted story all manages to come together in an outrageous climax featuring O’Brien saving the day in a body cast in a scene that must be seen to be believed.
An Act Of Murder (1948)
Top-notch film, probably leaning more toward melodrama than noir, with O’Brien as a liberal defense attorney charged with crafting defense of a hard-line judge he despises after the judge, played by the great Frederic March, resorts to a mercy killing of his terminally ill wife. One of three standout films O’Brien made with March, the others being Another Part of the Forest as well as 1964’s gripping Seven Days In May, for which O’Brien was nominated for the only acting Oscar despite an all-star cast. That’s a mini-festival in itself, as all three films are essential viewing.
Night 10: Top of the World, Ma
White Heat (1949)
O’Brien doesn’t appear until 30 minutes into this certified classic, but from that point to the historically explosive finish, he holds his own against James Cagney’s ruthless psycho Cody Jarrett as an undercover cop gone con who sidesteps one potential blown-cover moment after another, even resorting to giving Jarrett a neck rub to win his trust during one his headaches. Even after multiple viewings, it doesn’t register with most people that O’Brien actually gets the last line in the film after Cagney’s unforgettable "Top of the world, Ma!" Adds O’Brien, "He finally got to the top of the world ... and it blew up in his face." Even if he took a backseat to Cagney’s landmark performance, at least Eddie got the last word. Not bad for an actor still on his way up.
711 Ocean Drive (1950)
There is absolutely no good reason why this gritty, spellbinding noir isn’t as well-known and highly regarded as his other 1950 classic, D.O.A. It’s a stunner from start to finish, with O’Brien as a gregarious telephone repairman and $2 horse-player who uses his knowledge of electronics to weasel his way to the top of an L.A. gambling syndicate. It’s Eddie O at his absolute best – sharp-witted, cocksure and ruthless, all rolled into one dynamic ball of unrestrained energy. And there may be no more shocking line in noir than when O’Brien arrogantly pronounces to his bookie pal Chippie that he has gambling boss Barry Kelley right where he wants him ... "by the short hairs." It somehow got by the censors, but it’s just one magic moment in a film stuffed with them, climaxing with the grandiose demise of O’Brien’s Mal Granger in a shootout at Hoover Dam.
So, drive home safely. Hope you enjoyed the Eddie O Festival, even if you had to pull all the films and TV shows together yourself like I did. But who knows? If the single-star festival concept gains any measure of commercial traction from this, we may be back next year with the Richard Conte Cavalcade of Crime.
EDDIE M lauds EDDIE O in NC 19: a reworking to fit the NC SF format
Posted by Don Malcolm on 6/12/2020, 9:41 am, in reply to "From 2016: Carl's EDMOND O'BRIEN FILM NOIR FESTIVAL article"
Edited by Don Malcolm on 6/12/2020, 1:24 pm
Carl's festival (in the initial posting of this thread) is very nicely conceived and provides a wonderful look at Edmond O'Brien's "noir pedigree" from 1946-60.
Given, however, that Noir City is actually a bit longer than ten nights times two films (with at least two additional matinee screenings), it's necessary to amplify and slightly re-arrange the screening schedule to make it totally viable. (And, at that, it's likely that TCM-era Eddie M. is seriously disinclined to invest so much in a single actor/actress, as "the bottom line" is a more compelling consideration once a certain threshold of success has been achieved.)
For this exercise, though, we'll assume that Eddie M. travels back to a different phase of his braggadocio and decides to use the other Eddie--Eddie O--to give us an alternate path through the changes in film noir from the 40s to the 60s. And, with the additions placed in the second weekend of this pipe-dream of a festival, we also get into the mid-60s, to the period I like to call the "noir residue" period in America, where TV and film still reached back to the noir modality and attempted to recapture/hijack it in the slicker environs of the early-mid 60s.
Most of the films added here are ones that Carl mentions in his terrific write-up of his festival, but there are a few surprises in store. And a few things got shifted around in recognition of how a festival needs to be scheduled to maximize attendance on key days of the week. Carl's film pairings are mostly intact, showing that he's got a future in a currently non-existent business (film programming) where we will gladly welcome him into the ranks of the unemployed.
A few comments added for films not in Carl's schedule. Films in bold type are ones that have been screened at NC previously (one argument in favor of this show is that so much of it has not been seen in the series thus far).
2023 note: this post from 2020 used "NC 19" as its mode of organization. I'm not going to change that, as this reprint is for reference purposes only and is not intended to represent "reality."
NOIR CITY 19
NOIR EVERYMAN: EDMOND O’BRIEN
THE KILLERS/WHITE HEAT
("Too much value" in the original formulation with D.O.A., I'm afraid...each film is a #1 slot feature, so they should anchor both Fridays in this show. WHITE HEAT is a nice variation on Eddie O's role in THE KILLERS.)
Small screen: Killer In The House/Death Watch
Small screen: Johnny Midnight-1
A DOUBLE LIFE/THE BIGAMIST
THE HITCH-HIKER 1:00 5:00 9:00/THE TURNING POINT 3:00 7:00
(Sunday is often a day without a separate matinée, so this would be standard procedure. TURNING POINT was shown recently, but HITCH-HIKER was last seen in NC 12, and it has a big rep, so it should bring in a good crowd.)
TWO OF A KIND/THE WEB
BACKFIRE/AN ACT OF MURDER
THE SHANGHAI STORY/A CRY IN THE NIGHT
MAN IN THE DARK/THE 3RD VOICE
D.O.A./711 OCEAN DRIVE
(Vintage 1949-50 O'Brien in two very different modes. You could even show 711 first to make sure the greatest number of people will (re)discover it, knowing that many more than usual will stick around to see D.O.A.)
small screen: The Eleventh Hour “The Color of Sunset”/The Breaking Point “The Tides of Darkness”
Johnny Midnight-2 and/or Sam Benedict
THE HANGED MAN/SYNANON
(A one-day dive deep into "noir residue" as it branched out from TV crime shows to psychological examinations with the risk of madness/death looming at or near the surface. The evening show resurrects the fine Don Siegel remake of RIDE THE PINK HORSE and the hard-hitting, noir-inflected SYNANON, a punchier variation on the subject matter of the "doctor's shows" that O'Brien and so many other big-name actors appeared on in the first half of the 60s...a time that disappeared forever when B&W TV came to its abrupt end.)
1984/SEVEN DAYS IN MAY
(Oh, what the heck--let's get political! Maybe they'll play the Super Bowl that day, eh?)
BETWEEN MIDNIGHT & DAWN/SHIELD FOR MURDER
(Ending with the good Eddie v. the bad Eddie. How appropriate for the series on both levels, n'est-ce pas?)
You are invited to work up that Conte Cavalcade of Crime, Carl...note that SYNANON, as I think was mentioned awhile ago, is the only time that Conte and O'Brien appear in the same movie.