Archive for Edmund O’Brien

Damon and Pythias in Van Nuys

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2020 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer Chris Schneider always makes me happy when he writes something for me–

“I thought I knew the wheat from the chaff,” go the words of the song, “what a laugh!” The song is “Can’t We Be Friends.” It can be heard in two Vincent Sherman-directed crime dramas, NORA PRENTISS and BACKFIRE.

NORA PRENTISS is SISTER CARRIE, sort-of, only reworked for a post-war Warner Brothers world of chantoozies and criminal intent. BACKFIRE has other things on its mind.

BACKFIRE, which I saw for the first time a week ago, is more concerned with traumatized WW2 vets and a “Damon and Pythias” friendship — not to mention gambling and alcohol and murders being committed by a hand-with-a-gun-in-it whose identity we’re unable to see. Compare it to DEAD RECKONING for the “Damon and Pythias.” Compare it, too, to Sherman’s earlier THE UNFAITHFUL as an example of b-team noir used as an excuse for location shooting (Glendale, Van Nuys, Olvera St.) and showing off the talents of contract players.

Gordon MacRae, who’s in a Van Nuys hospital, seeks out fellow soldier Edmund O’Brien with the aid of nurse Virginia Mayo. Viveca Lindfors, who appears like a phantom at MacRae’s bedside, encourages this effort. Lindfors, who turns out to be a singer kept in niceties by an unseen gambler, is also concerned about O’Brien. Dane Clark, another friend from military days, looks on from the sidelines.

The main problem with BACKFIRE is that the putative hero and heroine, MacRae and Mayo, are so dull. Lindfors comes off best. She gets star close-ups, a Milo Anderson gown, and a French song. One reads about how, when the film’s release was held back a few years, posters and publicity were finessed so that they favored Mayo. Was the (SPOILERS ahead) off-camera death of Lindfors’ character a hasty reshoot designed to play down her importance?

DEAD RECKONING had Bogart and his soldier pal, and BACKFIRE has O’Brien and MacRae. The question this kind of story provokes — at least in LGBT viewers — is whether things are “homosocial” or actually homosexual. I ain’t sayin’ yes and I ain’t sayin’ no. Let’s just say that MacRae is awf’lly concerned about his absent beloved. Midway through, when a low-level masher keeps asking Lindfors to dance with him, O’Brien asks the guy if he wants to dance with *him*. When the film’s happy end occurs, with a truck riding off into the horizon, that truck contains MacRae and Mayo and O’Brien — like an obverse of the three-way ménage at the end of DARK VICTORY.

Too bad that the Mayo/MacRae relationship is strictly from Snoresville. Also that Dane Clark falls victim to an ill-considered plot-twist and is saddled with an unplayable final scene. Or that a servant played by Leonard Strong speaks in egregious “velly solly”-style Asian Stereotype-speak.

Oh well. At least the post-war Warners zeitgeist is in evidence. And Lindfors, who has a moment or two reminding us that she was capable of MISS JULIE (“Didn’t you know? I like it here. It’s gay and exciting. I have all I ever dreamed of as a girl.”), does look splendid.

I have seen The Other Side of the Wind

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2018 by dcairns

I took Netflix up on their “first month free” offer to do it. It’s really at least my second month, because I did this before in order to see Community. I kept the service for a few months that time, and may do so again — they deserve something for finishing THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.

It stars Noah Cross, Sammy Michaels, Sally Groves, Marty ‘Fats’ Murdock, Emma Small, Max Morlan, Carl Evello, George Washington Cohen, Frank Booth, the Masterblaster. Yes, some of those are quite obscure, but they are almost as obscure, some of them, when called by their right names. It’s a very odd cast, made up of people Welles had met and liked, or worked with in the distant past, anyone he could lure into his web. In this film structured around an unending party in which every hand seems to come clutching its own whisky glass and cigar, the real-life alcoholics abound: if you’re acting with Welles, your career/life must be in trouble.

I think it’s fantastic. While I was watching it, I was already fantasising about watching it AGAIN. Instead I watched one of the making-of documentaries, the erratic but fascinating THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD. But I still have a fantasy about rewatching it every day of my free Netflix month. That seems quite appealing.

All those actors. Welles gets variable results from them, but it’s a variable film in every way. And he was never a great unity guy — what school of performance unites Joseph Cotten, Welles, Everett Sloane and the hyperventilating Erskine Sandford of CITIZEN KANE, and yet there they were in one scene. Here we have striking, delicate work from Dan Tobin and Tonio Selwart, who both look like scarecrow cadavers but do beautiful things, jostling against Edmund O’Brien, who is just a big drunk (“Eddie is a magnificent ruin,” said Welles, perhaps missing an irony?) but certainly REAL. We get into stranger territory with Norman Foster, a lousy, charmless second-string leading man in the early thirties, who became a fairly good, peppy director in the forties, helming JOURNEY INTO FEAR for Welles at RKO, then returning to acting for a few things in the 70s, including this. I find it hard to assess his performance, which seems to draw upon the pathos of his oddly young/old face and his uncertainty (about how to say a line; about what the hell’s going on) to create a synthesis of good acting, bad acting and non-acting. His abused flunky character is basically Joseph Calleia from TOUCH OF EVIL, but with Hank Quinlan’s sweeties addiction (“It’s either the candy or the hooch,”) and I found myself enjoying him but not knowing whether to feel more sorry for the actor or the character, and unsure if it was a good thing or a bad thing that he never lived to see the movie.

Cameron Mitchell is awfully good — another drinker, one who seems to have been in more posthumous films than anybody (I guess a hard-working agent got him cameos in whatever cheapo production was rolling, including this. And I guess he’s playing some version of Welles’ pet make-up genius, Maurice Seiderman.

A lot of these excellent people are redundant in story terms, scene-swellers as well as scotch-swiggers. The magnificent Mercedes McCambridge doesn’t really have any dramatic material to work with, just exposition delivered with a world-weary or universe-weary gloom. But they had to create a convincingly populated party. The fleeting glimpses of Dennis Hopper, Curtis Harrington, Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom et al really help sell this.

The leads, of course, hold it together: Huston (with son Danny voicing some lines: you’d never know) and Bogdanovich are terrific. All kinds of real-life tensions perhaps in play, with Welles perhaps resenting his leads’ success as Hollywood directors — and even if it wasn’t like that, the casting invites us to imagine it.

This is a party filmed at multiple locations over years, with actors coming and going (Rich Little, ejected from his leading role, still turns up in the background) and using a deliberate patchwork of film stocks (it looks BEAUTIFUL) — cohesion would seem like a drunkard’s dream, and yet it hangs together. The mockumentary angle should disintegrate at once, since you can’t imagine some of these scenes being enacted in sight of a camera, but the movie lets us forget the device whenever it needs to, reminds us of it when appropriate. We have to praise Bob Murawski to the skies and beyond for cutting the movie in a way that seamlessly matches the few scenes Welles had already put together: a jagged, frazzled, jazzy frenzy (Fiona got tired out and went to bed midway, but wants to come back and see it all).

It IS enervating and exhausting — it has an authentic long-party feeling, trundling on past the point anyone wants, fuelled by inebriated inertia. We’re all going to regret this.

MORE SOON!

A Week Can Be a Long Time in Politics

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2015 by dcairns

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7 DAYS IN MAY (1964) — one of Frankenheimer’s very best, I’d say. It’s taken me ages to get around to it. Maybe the opening scene put me off, since I think the handheld, jagged cutting and multiple inserted red frames (Frankenheimer admired Hitchcock enormously, so he’s riffing on SPELLBOUND — there’s a good story about his Hitch idolatry, if you remind me) was a little overdone. And then there’s a very long build-up in which most of the terrific cast have little to do but repeatedly explain to us who they are and what their jobs are and what got done before the movie started. A slow pressure starts to build though as Colonel Kirk Douglas, all clenched reptile features and micro eye-darting, suspects something is up. When he reports to President Fredric March that General Burt Lancaster is plotting a military coup, at last the film takes off and begins to generate serious tension.

Frankenheimer commissioned the script from his old TV colleague Rod Serling, who does lay on the exposition a bit thick at the start, and the speechifying even thicker at the end, but it evolves into a cross-cut pattern of escalating, nerve-biting, nail-raising, hair-shredding excitement. We got this the same year as STRANGELOVE? No wonder FAIL SAFE failed. You can only have so many of these things in a year, I expect. Otherwise the nervous strain would be too great.

Serling’s exposition isn’t exactly bad, it’s just more obvious than I like it, with characters showing off unnecessarily just to shoehorn a little more information into their speeches, calling each other by name multiple times, and so on. But the groundwork is laid effectively enough so that once the plot really gets moving, you’re never confused despite the complexity. The speech-making is rendered more excusable by the fact that Sterling gives his villain convincing motivation — noble cause corruption, where the ends justify the means — making him as much a patriot as March.

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Edmund O’Brien, typecast as a drunk, is very enjoyable too. Every time I see him now I think of the story in WORKING WITH ORSON WELLES, Gary Graver’s shambolic but fun documentary — a couple of assistants on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND had the job of helping O’Brien (“Eddie is a magnificent ruin,” quoth Welles) pack his luggage after the shoot. And he had all this weird shit in his hotel drawers — raw meat and light bulbs and stuff. “Are you sure you want all this packed?” “Yeah yeah.” So every time we See O’Brien we make a crack about his meat ‘n’ light bulbs.

Having gotten his ebullient, experimental side out of the way early, Frankenheimer goes almost classical, eschewing his Dutch tilts but exulting in Kubrickian symmetry, deep focus and the frequent use of the “A” composition ~

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He has a lot of fun with TV monitors, a recurring device of his from MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE on. Easy to see why they figured in his imagery, given his years spent barking into a microphone in front of an array of glasse screens. He also has some shots here that are just expressively wonderful.

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Being a political drama of its day, the story is very male-driven (Martin Balsam: “I have a feeling this time next week we’ll all be laughing.” Fiona: “On the other sides of our faces. Which will have been blown off”). But there’s room for a lusty turn from Ava Garner, and a very very shiny one from Colette MacDonald, who turns out to have been Preston Sturges’ daughter-in-law. We both thought it was Karen Black.

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We correctly identified John Houseman, though, in his first screen appearance since TOO MUCH JOHNSON twenty-six years previously. In that one he was a Keystone Cop, in this one he is an admiral. Natural Authority.