Sunday, October 25, 2009

At the (old) movies: 'White Heat'

The local cinephile society shows a lot of forgotten films, but “White Heat” (Warner Bros., 1949), presented recently, certainly doesn’t fall into that category.

The James Cagney film, directed by Raoul Walsh, is so well-known that it’s hard to find anything new to talk about. Who doesn’t know about killer Cody Jarrett, his catchphrase – “Top of the World, Ma!” – and his odd relationship with his mother, played by Margaret Wycherly?

And that literally explosive ending.

The film still holds up, still moves along quite nicely.

But there’s one aspect of it that perhaps has not been mentioned enough:

Edmond O’Brien.

O’Brien plays the cop who pretends to be a convict and wins Jarrett’s confidence in prison. It’s a solid performance by an actor who I fear has been overlooked in recent years.

Perhaps I feel this way because I’ve also recently heard some episodes of the radio series “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar” that featured O’Brien. He was one of several actors who portrayed the lead character, a crime-solving insurance investigator "with the action-packed expense account." O’Brien played Dollar as a tough guy who, under all the toughness, was a bit of a softie – but just a bit.

O’Brien, particularly in the 1950s, was a master when it came to playing guys who were hard-boiled but not glamorous, and maybe not all that heroic. The typical O’Brien character was not larger than life; he was more like you and me, and sometimes maybe uncomfortably so. (I’m particularly thinking of his Oscar-winning portrayal of Oscar Muldoon, the glib but craven press agent in “The Barefoot Contessa.”)

Then there’s “The Comedian,” a “Playhouse 90” episode (written by Rod Serling from a story by Ernest Lehman), in which O’Brien plays Al Preston, a desperate TV comedy writer who steals material from another writer. (“The Comedian” used to be on VHS. I hope someday it’ll be on DVD, because it’s too good to miss, with other outstanding performances by Mickey Rooney, Kim Hunter and Mel Torme and direction by John Frankenheimer. All done on live TV, too.)

(Update, 4/26/10: I'm very happy to report that a DVD of "The Comedian" is now available as part of a box set that is titled "The Golden Age of Television" and also features kinescopes of "Marty," Rod Serling's "Patterns" and "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "No Time for Sergeants," "A Wind from the South," "Bang the Drum Slowly" -- starring Paul Newman -- and "Days of Wine and Roses.")

As O’Brien got older, his performances could go a little over the top, though sometimes endearingly so – I’m particularly thinking of the senator in “Seven Days in May.”

I don’t know much about O’Brien as a person, but he seemed like the kind of actor who enjoyed acting and wasn’t in it just for the bucks.

And in “White Heat” he more than holds his own against Cagney.

Let’s not forget him.

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