Bernie pic

Bernie pic

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Eddie coils to strike in noir

ONE name won’t spring to the lips of critics naming the most accomplished classic noir actors. As you may recall, classic noir usually refers to stylised Hollywood crime films made from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Robert Mitchum who is universally recognised as an essential noir anti-hero, or maybe ant-hero, responded to the exotic title of film noir in laconic noirish fashion. “We used to call them B-pictures,” he said.
       Humphrey Bogart is the other icon of male leads in noir acting. After this duo, the picture gets a little fuzzy with the names Sterling Hayden and Dick Powell likely to rise from the mist. Maybe Kirk Douglas. James Cagney, George Raft and Edward G. Robinson if you want to stretch it to the gangster guys. No Edmond O’Brien.
       Oh, yair, Edmond O’Brien. Eddie O’Brien. Forgot about him. O’Brien starred in maybe a dozen or more noirs, including four of the most famous, The Killers (1946) White Heat (1949) The Hitch Hiker (1953) and the movie we will enjoy later D.O.A. (1950). He also played Winston Smith in the first cinematic adaptation of George Orwell’s novel 1984.

Edmond O'Brien in D.O.A

O’Brien started out as a Shakespearean actor with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre.
       He ended up doing anything that paid in radio, television, film and theatre. He had a great generosity of spirit and an inquiring mind but also a fondness for alcohol and food. Bad health forced O’Brien out of acting in the mid-70s. He died from Alzheimer’s in 1985. The disease had been diagnosed two years earlier but doctors surmised O’Brien contracted it well before that. Perhaps all these life events conspired for critics and fans to forget his contribution to film noir.
       In 1950, the year of D.O.A. O’Brien’s weight and health problems were mostly ahead of him. According to his LA Times obituary writer, Bob Baker, a 1949 national poll by the Young Women's League of America declared O'Brien to have more "male magnetism" than any other man in the country. (I tried to find info  on the Young Women's League but largely failed. Baker wrote it was a group devoted to single living”. If you know any more about the league, please share.) For all his testified attractiveness to women, O’Brien was regularly cast as a regular guy, not a sex symbol. In D.O.A. he is small town accountant Frank Bigelow.
       The film begins with the most memorable opening in noir, a genre which likes to grab the viewer by the throat early. European exile Rudolph Maté directs. Maté had worked in Hollywood for more than a decade as a multiple-Oscar nominated cinematographer before he turned to directing. Photography and playing with light and sound are the ultimate triumphs of the film.
       The manic scenes in the jazz club are captivating and introduce the beat sub-culture to the world. Filming of newcomer Neville Brand turns his supporting role into a tour de force.        As with many great noirs, supporting characters are mesmeric. Theatre actor Luther Adler is superb in one of his rare forays into film. B-grade noir has a rich history of luring talent from theatre where you did not have to pay actors huge amounts. Sydney Greenstreet made his film debut at the age of 62 in the noir The Maltese Falcon in 1941. Adler performed in numerous guest roles on top rating television shows from the early 1950s to the late 1970s.

THEATRICAL SIBLINGS: Luther Adler and sister Stella in 1936

       In 1931 Adler had become one of the original members of the Group Theatre (New York), along with Cheryl Crawford, Harold Clurman, and Lee Strasberg. In D.O.A. Adler plays a man much older than his 47 years. He and his five siblings comprised a theatrical dynasty from the 1930s. At one point in D.O.A. Adler’s character Majak says he probably has only 10 years left of his natural lifespan. Life did not imitate art and Adler was 81 when he died in 1984.
       Pamela Britton plays Paula Gibson, the secretary and girlfriend of commitment-shy Bigelow.

Pamela Britton in D.O.A.

       She went on to have success on television as the ditzy landlady Lorelei Brown in the situation comedy My Favorite Martian (1963-66). Britton died of brain cancer in 974. She was 51-years-old.
       The writers of D.O.A. are Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene. They teamed up to write five more films noir and branched into directing (Rouse) and producing (Greene) together.        The partnership was committed to making films that were different, even tackling social issues at a time when cynics quipped the only “ïsm” Hollywood believed in was plagiarism. One D.O.A. poster described the film as “entertainingly different”. The promo for the 1952 noir The Thief goes further, declaring it “the only motion picture of its kind”. 
       I could say the Bent Banana Books tag line “books that are different” was inspired by Rouse and Greene. I could say that but it would not be true as I only recently discovered the enterprising duo. Still, it is serendipitous to have a production connection with noir as well as my emulation of the genre with my novel Iraqi Icicle.
       Russian émigré Dimitri Tiomkin scored the film. Tiomkin won four academy awards and was nominated more than 20 times and his work on D.O.A. is often cited as exemplary. I found his co-operation with the director for the scenes in the jazz club produced extraordinary sound and sight but, at other times, the pounding music was too intrusive for my liking. The sounds created to express Bigelow looking at attractive women really jarred with the ambience of the film.
       Believe it or not, there is a through-line in O’Brien playing the roles of Hamlet and Bigelow. The philosophical question that D.O.A. and many noirs address is whether tragedy springs from Dumb Bad Luck, aka Fate, or personal shortcomings. Almost all of Shakespeare’s tragedies ponder the same question. See how O’Brien posits the proposition at various stages of the film.

You think I am going to play Foo Fighters’ DOA as our song. Am I that transparent? Perhaps not.

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