Edmond O’Brien: Everyman of Film Noir (2018) Derek Sculthorpe
Includes an appendix of O’Brien’s filmography, theatre, radio, television, and recordings, chapter notes, bibliography, list of names and terms (not to be confused with an index, at least not in the Kindle edition), and photos
ISBN 9781476674438 (print)
(The following images are not taken from the book.)
Even during a brief sojourn through the dark world of film noir, you’re bound to run into Edmond O’Brien, either as an everyman simply trying to mind his own business but finding trouble anyway (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953), an ordinary insurance investigator (The Killers, 1946), or a guy trying to find out who poisoned him just before he dies (D.O.A., 1949). An everyman for sure, but O’Brien could also play crooked cops (Shield for Murder, 1954), undercover agents (White Heat, 1949), or even a bigamist (The Bigamist, 1953). He certainly did much more than film noir, but for many fans, noir is the gateway to the larger world of Edmond O’Brien.
Derek Sculthorpe has certainly done his research in chronicling O’Brien’s life and career. Although we don’t get much of O’Brien’s early life, the author provides an extensive road map showing how the actor first fell in love with Shakespeare, worked in theatre, and landed his first screen role as Gringoire in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) with Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. Not a bad beginning.
O’Brien’s first venture into the shadowy streets of noir came in 1946 with his appearance in The Killers, a move that would help solidify his presence in film noir. O’Brien seemed well-suited to noir, not just as an everyman, but also in playing characters audiences could relate to, imagining themselves in his place. Yet when playing the villain, O’Brien might cause audiences to wonder, “What went wrong in this guy’s life?” Perhaps it was O’Brien’s lifelong devotion to performing the works of Shakespeare, which tend to get deep into heart issues and motivation, that pulled audiences in and made them care about O’Brien’s characters. O’Brien certainly seemed to channel those issues into many of the roles he played.
For those who are already fans of the actor, this journey through O’Brien’s work will serve as a valuable resource, particularly for his television appearances, which I hope become more available in the coming years. (Of O’Brien’s two TV series, some episodes of Johnny Midnight  are currently available on YouTube, and Sam Benedict [1962-1963] is available on DVD from Warner Bros.) Even beyond his two television series, O’Brien’s small screen resume is extensive, as are his appearances in theatre, radio, and other venues.
Sculthorpe’s passion for O’Brien’s work is unmistakable and contagious, yet the book suffers somewhat from a straightforward reporting style (O’Brien did this, then he did that, etc.) and frequent subjective excursions that seem to reflect the author’s personal opinions. I enjoyed learning about which roles O’Brien turned down or was passed over for, yet “and this project fell through” is an all too frequent refrain. Sculthorpe is at his best when he describes what drew O’Brien to certain projects, his work ethic, and relationships with his fellow actors.
Sculthorpe also does a fine job of chronicling the unfortunate deterioration of the actor, first presenting his struggles with failing eyesight, followed by other maladies which limited the roles he was able to accept and the amount of time he could devote to them. Yet the book also celebrates O'Brien's later work such as his appearance in The Wild Bunch (1969) and the recently restored Orson Welles film The Other Side of the Wind (filmed between 1970 and 1976, released in 2018).
Edmond O’Brien: Everyman of Film Noir provides a good overview of the actor’s life and work and will no doubt make fans want to check out as much of his performances as possible.
This review is part of the 2021 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!
Next up: A look at acting during Hollywood's first half century.