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Monday, February 25, 2019

'Edmond O'Brien: Everyman of Film Noir' book review & author Q&A

He was the guy who frantically sought his own killer in D.O.A. (1949), the film publicity executive who sweat profusely in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), and the romantic poet Gringoire, who befriended Maureen O'Hara's Esmerelda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

I don't remember the first film I saw him in, but after watching his understated brilliance opposite James Cagney in White Heat (1949), Edmond O'Brien (1915-1985) rose quite high on my list of actors I just had to see more of. Luckily, coinciding with my watching more of his films was the publication of a complete study of his career and life, called 'Edmond O'Brien: Everyman of Film Noir'. The bio was written by Derek Sculthorpe and published by McFarland Press last year. I was pleased to be asked by McFarland to review the O'Brien book, and after I finished it, I contacted Sculthorpe to get more of his insights into O'Brien's unique experience in Hollywood, including dealing with a series of disruptive medical issues.

Sculthorpe states his objective is to "shine a light on his overlooked contribution to film and the art of acting." In this, Sculthorpe succeeded, as he dug deep into every film O'Brien made (and several he didn't) and shared the insights he gained for each one, in approximate chronological order. While the book focuses on the noir films made during O'Brien's most fertile period, it really covers his entire career, including glimpses into his stage, radio and TV performances, and his forays into directing (e.g. Shield for Murder, 1954) and producing. The book content is largely factual, and the extensive list of sources and complete credits attests to the depth of the research and credibility of the information. Of course, Sculthorpe injects his opinions of O'Brien's work which never stray too far to one side or the other, allowing the reader validation of their own opinions. Within the long stretches of movie capsules, Sculthorpe keeps your interest by inserting behind-the-scenes stories for each movie when applicable. There is also information about O'Brien's family heritage and early life as reported in government records and press sources during his career. I was surprised to learn that his older brother Liam was a screenwriter of some distinction with whom O'Brien collaborated whenever possible. Overall, the book presents a comprehensive picture of  O'Brien's career that would be of interest to any classic film enthusiast.

In many ways, O'Brien's career arc was similar to other character actors of the golden age, in that his versatility allowed him to work into his old age (he is brilliant, although almost unrecognizable, in the seminal Western The Wild Bunch (1969). He had a particular love of Shakespeare, and even worked on the stage as Marc Antony in an Orson Welles' production of Julius Caesar. In the star-studded 1953 film version directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, his turn as murderous Casca garnered great reviews at the time. (Note to self: I need to see this one!).
O'Brien and Deanna Durbin were paired in The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (1943);
definitely not film noir (photo from deannadurbindevotees.com)
While many actors of the golden era struggled with drug or alcohol addiction, O'Brien had a series of medical issues that could have derailed his career at any time. I was surprised to learn especially that O'Brien dealt with poor eyesight throughout his career, at times so severe that he required considerable assistance to move around on set or learn his lines. The eye problems dated to an accident during his active duty in WWII, and required many surgeries over the years. He also suffered heart attacks, and from his mid-life on, the effects of Alzheimers. Sculthorpe plumbed the records to uncover how these challenges impacted O'Brien, and what emerges is a portrait of an artist who, with help, was determined to give the best performance he could, and collaborators who helped make that possible. Even when severely compromised, he pulled it together on set, as in his small role in Orson Welles' last film The Other Side of the Wind, produced in 1970.

Q&A with author Derek Sculthorpe
Q: It seems O’Brien identified strongly with his Irish heritage (and obviously kept his last name such that his background was known) – can you comment on how his culture informed how he portrayed or adapted himself to his characters, if at all?

Sculthorpe: His Irish heritage was definitely important to him and informed his work, but I am not sure it was so evident as it was with others such as Spencer Tracy and Pat O’Brien. Edmond was frequently cast as a cop of course, but never as a priest, although he almost played one in the Pendergast story (a film called The Kansas City Story about corrupt senator Tom Pendergast) that was never made. He mostly portrayed Irish American characters, but there was a universal truth in his work that transcended all borders. 
O'Brien as undercover detective befriending unstable mob
boss James Cagney in the gangster noir White Heat
Q: Considering the broader culture at the time was not particularly advanced in supporting people with disabilities, was O’Brien an exception in how he was treated or typical of those in the business who found themselves with such struggles?

Sculthorpe: Certainly people with disabilities of any kind seemed to be invisible in that era. My guess is that he tried to hide or get around them somehow. By the time his eye trouble became apparent he was well-established and maybe they made allowances. Perhaps his heart trouble led to him losing more roles, but then again he wanted to keep working and he was still in demand. I wonder about the studio insurance in those days, but often health and safety did not seem to come into it. The actors and stuntmen did things then that I am sure wouldn't happen now. When you think of some of the alarming situations he endured while working on The Last Voyage for instance (blogger note: working in neck-high water with electrical hazards all around). Later, when he began to be afflicted by Alzheimers, it was not a disease that was understood at all. His co-workers just thought he was drunk, as they did with poor Rita Hayworth. Edmond was not diagnosed until long afterwards of course. Even at the end of his career with Black Sunday, the director was fully prepared to go out of his way to accommodate him even though he realised there would be times when he went blank and there might be lots of delays. In the event of course O’Brien wasn’t able to go through with it. But that’s a great testament to his ability and to the high regard in which directors and producers held him. 

Edmond O'Brien in his first film role The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
 and one of his last 
The Wild Bunch (1969).

Q: It was interesting to me that so many greater stars and/or show business people with broad influence had such great regard for O’Brien’s abilities. Why do you think he didn’t become a bigger star? Did you get a sense he regretted not rising to the ‘A’ ranks?

Sculthorpe: It’s an interesting question. He said he was satisfied as a supporting actor because he got the more interesting roles. However, in his early career I feel that he wanted to be a star. He was concerned about billing and status. The turning point was the Oscar. I think that meant everything to him, to have the approval of his peers. He seemed to relax after that in a sense, and by then he was becoming more and more a character actor anyway. Personally, I think it’s a shame he didn’t get more chances in Shakespeare, because he clearly loved that and seemed to come to life in his works.

Thank you to Derek Sculthorpe for the insights.

Read my review of the Western Warpath, with Edmond O'Brien in the leading role, here.

8 comments:

  1. How fascinating! I really sat up and took notice of O'Brien when I finally saw The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and then took an even greater liking to him when he starred opposite Alan Ladd in The Big Land, though I'd seen him in several things before those. How interesting to learn about his personal challenges behind the scenes!

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    1. Yeah, he was so different-looking in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but his magnetic persona was on display even then, and really lasted throughout his career. My favorite roles of his were in White Heat and also The Killers--both of those films I think he underplayed, which worked to his advantage. Of course it was a bonus to see him in The Big Land (since I watched it for Alan, of course!) Thanks for reading!

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  2. I've seen many of Edmund O'Brien's film noir performances. He's a personal favorite, and I very much enjoyed this book review. Thanks for posting!

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    1. Hi Marianne, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. What is your favorite noir performance of his? (I gave mine away in my response to Hamlette :-) The book is a great resource on O'Brien and these films. Thanks for reading!

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    2. Jocelyn, that's a tough question. I thought Edmund O'Brien was great in Shield for Murder. It's a lesser-known film noir but it skewers the American dream in its own noir way. He plays an insurance company investigator in The Killers, another noir that skewers capitalism (if you focus on O'Brien's role, which no one seems to do). So I guess his performances always seem to stand out for me, even when he's in a cast supporting Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner! That's impressive, at least for me.

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    3. Good to know, Marianne! I agree with you about The Killers. I remember watching Shield for Murder a while ago, but I don't remember too much about it. O'Brien has directing credits on that one as well. Yes, his work with the bigger stars was often where he shined most, as his natural talents came out perhaps when he wasn't pressured to 'carry' a picture.

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  3. Fascinating stuff. O'Brien always gave compelling performances.

    I believe it was the late Bob Clark speaking of Black Christmas. Edmund O'Brien had been cast as the cop eventually played by John Saxon. However, when he arrived for the shoot it was apparent he was in no shape to memorize the script and do the job. Everyone was heartbroken.

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    1. Thanks, CW. It was sad that O'Brien had to endure these kinds of issues at the end of his career. Sculthorpe does address the Black Christmas debacle in some detail. That everyone was so hoping he could do the role speaks volumes about the respect he had from his colleagues.

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