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Tag Archives: Edmond O’Brien

D.O.A. (April 30, 1950)

D.O.A.
D.O.A. (1950)
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Cardinal Pictures / United Artists

The curse of high expectations strikes again.

Don’t get me wrong, D.O.A. is an excellent mystery that moves at a nice pace and has a great concept. But it’s been on my “must see” list since 1988, when the remake with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan came out, so maybe it was a foregone conclusion that I’d find it a little disappointing. The fact that it’s regularly cited as one of the all-time great film noirs probably didn’t help either.

D.O.A. stars Edmond O’Brien as a big lug with a wandering eye who never took life or love too seriously until the day he was fatally poisoned. Suddenly, his purpose in life becomes crystal clear. He has to solve his own murder before he dies.

O'Brien

The characters O’Brien plays, Frank Bigelow, is an accountant in the small town of Banning, California. He’s been carrying on an affair with his confidential secretary, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), but she seems much more serious about their future than he does. Bigelow tells her he’s pulling away from her because he doesn’t want to see her get hurt. When Bigelow suddenly has to travel up to San Francisco on business, she sees it as an opportunity for him to decide whether he’s serious about her or not. He sees it as a chance to paint the town red.

Bigelow goes out for a wild night on the town with a bunch of soused guys and gals who are in town for Market Week. He winds up at The Fisherman, a jumping jazz club where Bigelow doesn’t fit in with the “jive-crazy” patrons. (Neither does the bartender, who admits to Bigelow that he doesn’t “get it.” He’s a Guy Lombardo fan.) At the bar, a mysterious figure drops something in Bigelow’s bourbon and fades away into the night.

Sick to his stomach the next morning, Bigelow visits a doctor and finds out he has ingested a “luminous toxin,” a poison that attacks the organs. Bigelow only has a day or two to live … a week at the most.

O'Brien and Brand

D.O.A. is a well-made and entertaining B movie, and has lots of great footage of both San Francisco and Los Angeles, but I just can’t rate it as highly as the film noirs I consider masterpieces, like Detour (1945) and Out of the Past (1947). With those movies, there’s a sense of existential dread below the surface. They work on more than one level, I find myself coming back to them over and over, and they haunt my imagination.

I was expecting something similar with D.O.A., but O’Brien galumphs through the proceedings like a man with a hangover, angrily shaking down suspects and browbeating people for leads. After the poisoning, the film moves at a nice clip, but I never got the sense that Frank Bigelow was a man who was truly facing death. I also found the supporting characters mostly uninteresting, and Bigelow’s verbal exchanges with them were too often just information dumps.

I watched D.O.A. twice, but I still can’t really keep any of the supporting characters straight. The only person who really stands out for me is Neville Brand as Chester, a sadistic henchman who refers to himself in the third person.

After I watched D.O.A., I thought back to another B noir that starred Edmond O’Brien, The Web (1947). D.O.A. is considered an all-time classic, and every fan of film noirs has heard of it. The Web, on the other hand, seems mostly forgotten. But The Web has a better villain (Vincent Price), a much more interesting female lead (Ella Raines), and dialogue that is much more clever and entertaining than the dialogue in D.O.A.

So why is D.O.A. so highly regarded, while The Web is a movie no one remembers? I really think it comes down to the fact that D.O.A. has a crackerjack concept. The beginning and end of the film are incredibly strong, but I just didn’t find the film as a whole to be all that it’s cracked up to be.

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White Heat (Sept. 2, 1949)

White Heat
White Heat (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

White Heat lives up to its name. It starts with a bang and ends with an even bigger bang.

The tempo doesn’t slacken in the middle, either. Director Raoul Walsh had a great sense of scope and pacing, and White Heat is one of his best films.

Walsh is a director I’ve seen a lot of lately. I recently re-watched High Sierra (1941) and watched The Roaring Twenties (1939) for the first time. I’ve also reviewed six of his other films since I started this blog.

I had good things to say about Walsh’s last movie, Colorado Territory (1949), but White Heat is a masterpiece. It features a blistering performance by James Cagney as the psychopathic criminal Cody Jarrett and rolls together elements of gangster films, police procedurals, heist movies, prison dramas, and movies about undercover cops.

White Heat brought the era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie to a close, while laying the groundwork for all the crime and heist pictures to come.

Cody Jarrett headline

The era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie began in 1931 with the release of Little Caesar, which made Edward G. Robinson a star, and The Public Enemy, which made James Cagney a star.

As a contract player for Warner Bros. and as an independent actor, Cagney played all types of roles, but his persona is most closely associated with gangster roles in movies like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

White Heat is unique because Cody Jarrett lacks any redeeming characteristics. Unlike his previous gangster roles, where glimmers of humanity and acts of redemptive self-sacrifice were commonplace, in White Heat he’s a trigger-happy psychopath.

Even the thing that should make him more human — his relationship with his mother — is twisted. Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) is just as cold-blooded as her son, and has a more important leadership role in Cody’s gang than his own wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo).

In the scene where Cody Jarrett says goodbye to his mother and wife at a drive-in theater, Ma Jarrett is sitting between them and there is clearly more affection between Cody and his Ma than there is between Cody and Verna.

Mayo Wycherly and Cagney

Virginia Mayo was the female lead in Walsh’s previous film, Colorado Territory (which was a loose remake of Walsh’s own film High Sierra), but that role couldn’t have been more different from Verna Jarrett.

In Colorado Territory, she was the ultimate ride-or-die chick, ready and willing to go down in a hail of bullets with her man by her side.

In White Heat she a faithless slattern who’s only out for herself.

She might be a better role model in Colorado Territory, but her performance in White Heat is one for the ages. When we first see her, she’s in bed and snoring. Later, when she’s serving drinks to Cody and another man, she serves herself a big slug of whisky first and gets good and loaded. In one scene, she spits out her chewing gum before kissing Cody. These are all things that were simply not done by Hollywood actresses at the time of the film’s release.

Cagney and OBrien

The memorable villains in White Heat have their stolid good-guy counterpoint in Edmond O’Brien, who plays a Treasury Agent named Hank Fallon. After the daring train heist that opens the film, Cody Jarrett turns himself in for a smaller crime he didn’t commit to beat the bigger rap. The T-men send Fallon into the prison under the name “Vic Pardo” to cozy up to Jarrett. Fallon isn’t a very interesting character, but he’s in an interesting situation, and O’Brien excelled at playing Average Joes up to their necks in trouble.

The T-men who back up Fallon are all interchangeable squares, but their methods are fascinating. Police procedurals and docudramas were extremely popular when Walsh directed White Heat, and the film features modern law enforcement techniques like a three-car tail with radio communication to coordinate cars A, B, and C. The police tail that leads up to the climax of the film involves long-range surveillance that uses two electronic oscillators zeroing in on a transmitter secretly placed by Fallon.

Made It Ma

It might be hard for today’s viewers to see, but White Heat was an extremely current film at the time of its release. The law-enforcement methods are modern, and the film playing at the drive-in where Cody says goodbye to Verna and his Ma was a current release, Task Force (1949).

Most importantly, it’s not a story of romantic gangsters who belong to the past. Cody Jarrett is nothing like the tragic gangster Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, who meets his fate on a lonely mountain range. Cody Jarrett’s last stand takes place amid the gleaming silver pipes and Horton spheres of a Shell Oil plant.

There’s nothing romantic or tragic about Cody Jarrett’s last stand. It’s a violent, psychopathic “screw you” to the world, and one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history.

A Double Life (Dec. 25, 1947)

A Double Life
A Double Life (1947)
Directed by George Cukor
Universal Pictures

George Cukor’s A Double Life stars Ronald Colman as a brilliant stage actor named Anthony John — “Tony” to his friends — who loses himself so completely in each of his roles that he has to be careful about which parts he accepts.

When the film begins, Tony appears to be a charming, “hail fellow well met” sort of chap who’s as friendly with theatrical agents and his fellow actors as he is with stagehands and women on the street. It’s no coincidence, however, that he’s starring in Philip MacDonald’s comedy A Gentleman’s Gentleman.

When the run comes to an end and he’s offered the lead in Shakespeare’s Othello, Tony hesitates. He’s always wanted to play the part, and even worked out some staging ideas years earlier.

But the role of Othello is a dark one (no pun intended), and Tony fears what psychic and emotional depths he might sink to playing the tragic Moor night after night.

And he’s not the only one. His beautiful ex-wife Brita Kaurin (Signe Hasso) cautions against it. She and Tony still love each other, but when she tells her boyfriend, theatrical agent Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien), what it was like to be married to Tony, it’s clear that the good times and bad times all coincided with the parts he was playing. “When he’s doing something gay like this it’s wonderful to be with him, but … when he gets going on one of those deep numbers,” she says. “We were engaged doing Oscar Wilde, broke it off doing O’Neill, were married doing Kaufman and Hart, and divorced doing Chekov.”

Winters and Colman

Against her better judgment, however, Brita eventually takes the role of Desdemona, and everything goes just as badly as you might expect.

If A Double Life were just a burlesque version of Othello, with a stand-in for Iago whispering lies about infidelity in Tony’s ear, it wouldn’t be nearly as good or as interesting as it is.

Instead, it’s a hypnotic portrait of self-inflicted madness. We watch Tony slide easily from one persona to another early in the film when he slips on a pair of eyeglasses and goes out to eat in a new restaurant, convincing young waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters) that he’s new in town.

Ronald Colman

He’s a hugely talented actor, but his talent comes with a price. The more popular his performances as Othello become, the more his mental and emotional health deteriorate. (And his performances are indeed popular; his Othello ends up running on Broadway for an unbelievable, not to mention unrealistic, 300 performances.)

When Tony finally commits the inevitable murder, it’s not a passionate reenactment of Othello’s murder of Desdemona, it’s a weird, tawdry killing committed in a dissociative state.

There’s much about A Double Life that’s heavy-handed, both visually and thematically. If you’re paying close attention, all the attempts early in the film to hammer home the point that Anthony John has a “double life” might seem like a bit much. (Even his name — two Christian names in search of a surname — is a clue.) By the second or third reel, however, I was completely enthralled.

Othello

The plot of A Double Life is essentially pulpy and exploitative, so I think a great deal of credit must be paid to Ronald Colman for his exceptional performance, not only as Anthony John, but as Anthony John playing Othello. (The role was originally intended for Laurence Olivier. When Olivier was unavailable, the producers went with another seasoned British thespian.)

Colman ended up winning the Academy Award for best actor for his role in A Double Life. It was the fourth time he was nominated and the first time he won. (Miklós Rózsa’s score also won an Academy Award.) There are moments when his performance tends to get a little exaggerated and “showy,” but I thought that was appropriate for the character. He’s playing a self-involved, grandiose stage actor, after all.

Milton R. Krasner’s brilliant cinematography bears mention, too. There are many things about A Double Life that don’t exactly place it in the category of film noir, but the look of the film is pure noir. It’s full of shadows, dramatic lighting effects, city streets at night, and cramped, dark rooms. There’s a mounting sense of dread running through the film, and Krasner’s cinematography is largely responsible for it.

I had no idea what to expect from A Double Life and I was completely blown away. It’s a film where everything comes together; Cukor’s direction, Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin’s script, Krasner’s photography, and the performances of the three principal actors. I’m looking forward to seeing it again some day, and I highly recommend it if you’ve never seen it.

The Web (May 25, 1947)

The Web
The Web (1947)
Directed by Michael Gordon
Universal Pictures

The Web is a classic case of mediocre material made incredibly entertaining by an excellent cast and a good director. The film’s plot may be run-of-the-mill, but the film itself is never boring.

The exciting opening takes the viewer along the busy Manhattan streets and overpasses that lead to Grand Central Station and culminates in a tearful reunion between an old man, Leopold Kroner (Fritz Leiber), and his daughter Martha (Maria Palmer). Kroner has just been released from prison, and he is surprised that “Mr. Colby” didn’t come to meet him at the train station. The viewer immediately knows that something sinister is going on, because we see a mug trailing Kroner and his daughter through the train station.

Next, we meet brash young attorney Robert Regan (Edmond O’Brien), who’s trying to force his way into Andrew Colby Enterprises to see the man in charge. When he pushes through several sets of doors and finally meets Noel Faraday (Ella Raines), he demands to see Mr. Colby. When she’s asks what his business with Mr. Colby is, he says, “Well, he’s been carrying on with my grandmother, and I’d like to find out what his intentions are.” When Noel tells him that she’s Mr. Colby’s personal secretary, he responds, “Well that just goes to show you how far a girl can get if she keeps her stocking seams straight.”

Their dialogue continues in this vein for the rest of the picture. Regan is the kind of person who would be known today in some circles as a “jerk,” and if he said half the things he says in The Web during working hours he’d be sued for sexual harassment.

But he’s also a tireless crusader for his clients, which becomes clear when he finally comes face to face with Andrew Colby, who’s played with smooth, villainous charm by the one and only Vincent Price. Regan is there to serve him with a summons on behalf of his client, Emilio Canepa (Tito Vuolo). As a result of Colby’s negligent driving, Canepa’s pushcart and load of bananas were damaged to the tune of $68.72.

Raines and O'Brien

Colby sees in Regan’s bullheaded doggedness an opportunity, and offers Regan a $5,000 retainer to come and work for him. Colby tells Regan that five years ago, his business associate Leopold Kroner took nearly $1 million worth of bonds belonging to Colby’s firm, made duplicates, and sold the counterfeit bonds. He was caught and sent to prison, but now that Kroner has been released, Colby claims he’s been threatening him. Colby has a big deal coming up, and he doesn’t want it known that his life is being threatened. If he hired a bodyguard, it would become public knowledge.

If he just hired another lawyer, however, no one would think twice. All Colby asks of Regan is that he work for him for two weeks as a bodyguard and tell no one what he’s doing.

If you know what the word “patsy” means, you’ll probably have no difficulty figuring out what Colby really wants Regan for.

Rounding out the excellent main cast is William Bendix as Lt. Damico, Regan’s friend on the force. Bendix was equally adept at playing tough guys and clowns, and he gets to flex both his dramatic and comic acting muscles as the long-suffering Damico, who’s a lot wiser than Regan gives him credit for.

Even though he’s the protagonist, O’Brien is probably the weakest link in the film. Regan isn’t a very interesting character, and he’s mostly only good for one-liners, but at least they’re decent one-liners. O’Brien’s innuendo-laced banter with Raines isn’t quite Tracy-Hepburn or Bogie-Bacall, but it’s clever and fast-paced enough to satisfy discriminating noir fans, and Raines’s dark beauty and way with a retort elevate their exchanges.

The screenplay by William Bowers and Bertram Millhauser (based on a story by Harry Kurnitz) really crackles in the dialogue department, which makes up for the pedestrian plot. Director Michael Gordon keeps things moving along nicely, and delivers a satisfying final product. The Web might not be a classic film noir, but it’s thoroughly entertaining.

The Killers (Aug. 28, 1946)

The Killers (a.k.a. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers) was the screen debut of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster. It was also an early but significant role for another legend, the beautiful Ava Gardner, who had been appearing onscreen in uncredited parts and small roles since 1941.

Lancaster plays a former boxer named Ole “Swede” Andersen and Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who ensnares him.

The film is based on Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which features his recurring character Nick Adams, who sits in a diner and witnesses two hit men come in and wait for a Swedish boxer, whom they are there to kill for unstated reasons. Nick and the black cook, Sam, are tied up in the kitchen, but eventually the killers leave when the boxer doesn’t show up. Nick gets out of his bonds and runs to the rooming house where the boxer lives. He warns him about the men who are there to kill him, but the boxer is resigned to his fate.

At first glance, the less than 3,000-word short story seems a strange choice to be adapted as a feature-length film. Hemingway once said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.”

Instead of just using the title and Hemingway’s name to sell the picture, as many producers would have done, Mark Hellinger’s The Killers takes the story as a jumping-off point, and spends the rest of the picture filling in the details of the boxer’s life, and eventually we learn why he was murdered. The first 12 minutes are a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, except that the killers (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) don’t constantly use the N-word to describe Sam, the cook. Otherwise the dialogue is largely unchanged. It’s a reminder of how much Hemingway’s clipped prose and naturalistic dialogue influenced the hard-boiled school.

When Nick (Phil Brown) runs to the rooming house to warn the Swede about the killers, we get our first glimpse of Lancaster’s big frame, indolently lying in bed, his face in the shadows. Nick can’t understand his passivity. The Swede refuses to even get out of bed when Nick tells him that he’s about to be murdered. “I did something wrong once,” he mutters.

There’s no twist ending to this section of the tale. Conrad and McGraw walk into the Swede’s room with their revolvers drawn and calmly pump ten bullets into him.

Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an investigator for the Atlantic Casualty & Insurance Company. Nick and the Swede worked together at a gas station owned by Tri-States Oil, which carries a group policy on its employees. (It’ll be hard for fans of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar not to think of O’Brien’s run on the show when he announces his profession, since O’Brien played the insurance investigator with the “action-packed expense account” from 1950 until 1952.)

Reardon’s investigation leads him to a payroll robbery that was masterminded by crime boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Reardon believes the Swede was involved, and his boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), grudgingly gives him a week to solve the case.

The story stops and starts, which sometimes keeps the viewer at a distance from the Swede, but in exchange we are introduced to one interesting supporting character after another; a chambermaid who once stopped him from committing suicide (Queenie Smith), a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) who grew up with the Swede and married the girl he left behind, the Swede’s elderly, astronomy-obsessed cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett), as well as some of his former partners in crime.

Watching this film today, it’s hard to separate Burt Lancaster from the role he is playing. Lancaster had such a long, interesting career, and he was never type-cast (except possibly as a large guy with a square jaw and big teeth). Lancaster portrayed many intelligent and sensitive characters, so it’s easy to forget what a big, dumb brute the Swede is. He feels pain, both physical and emotional, but he has no depth of character. Once he falls for the alluring Kitty, he will do anything to have her, but he probably doesn’t even understand why.

Reardon may appear onscreen for nearly as much time as the Swede, but he makes less of an impression. Lancaster’s tortured performance is the dark soul of the film.

The expanded story of The Killers has a lot of moving parts, and could have been a complete mess, but the screenplay is excellent, and keeps everything moving without becoming confusing. It’s credited to Anthony Veiller, but Richard Brooks and John Huston also worked on it. (Huston’s name was left off the credits because he was under contract to Warner Bros.) Robert Siodmak’s direction is crisp and assured. He and his cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, create a dark, beautifully lit world full of shadows and smoke. Miklós Rózsa’s score is top-notch — free of the treacly strains of neo-Romanticism that dilute the effectiveness of too many film noirs from the ’30 and early ’40s.

This is a must-see for all fans of noir.