There are character actors and there are CHARACTER ACTORS. Edmond O’Brien was definitely in the latter group.
Even when he had small roles in films, the Bronx native made a big impact, adding another standout performance to his mantle and your memory.
Coming to DVD for the first time, courtesy of Olive Films, is Denver & Rio Grande, one of three collaborations O’Brien made with director Byron Haskin, best-known as the helmer of the 1953 George Pal production of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and the cult favorite Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
The film offers O’Brien a rare opportunity to share a leading role in a movie, this time with Sterling Hayden. The colorful and exciting sagebrusher stars O’Brien as a former Calvary officer in charge of guiding the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad across the Rockies. Facing off against him is Hayden, the unscrupulous supervisor of the Canyon and San Juan line who will pull just about every lowdown trick so his railroad will trump the D&RG. By the way, the film has been much-desired by train fans because of its action-oriented sequences spotlighting the competitive rail lines.
The film showcases O’Brien’s versatility and his expertise at playing both larger-than-life and intimate at the same time. It was a trait that not only was evident here, but in the other two movies he made for Haskin as well. In Silver City (1951), also coming to DVD via Olive, O’Brien essays the part of as a mining expert romantically involved with Yvonne De Carlo while going up against treacherous silver lode honcho Barry Fitzgerald. Warpath (1951) (which Olive had scheduled to be released, but has been delayed for technical reasons) finds O’Brien as a former soldier on a hunt to find the two men who killed his fiancée. This pursuit for revenge eventually motivates him to join the Cavalry to find the culprits, and his path leads him straight to General Custer’s battle with Native-American tribes led by Sitting Bull at Little Bighorn.
O’Brien had lead roles in all three of these pictures—all of which, incidentally, were penned by pulp fiction ace Frank Gruber—but major screen time for the actor was rare. Of course, his turn in 1950’s noir classic D.O.A. is probably his best known lead role.
O’Brien also dabbled in directing, going behind the camera in 1954 for the “dirty cop” noir Shield for Murder with John Agar, Marla English, Claude Akins and Carolyn Jones and 1961’s Man-Trap, in which Jeffrey Hunter and David Janssen are Korean War vets who team to pull off a heist of a South American dictator. Co-starring Stella Stevens as Hunter’s heavy drinking shrew-of-a-wife, this tough and unusual crime drama, from a story by John D. MacDonald (Cape Fear). will be issued by Olive some time later this year.
For more on the great O’Brien, read our tribute to him here.
Also on the way from the ever-ambitious folks at Olive is Nicholas Ray’s complex western saga Run for Cover (1955), with James Cagney as a drifter and John Derek as his younger associate. After being mistaken for outlaws, Cagney and Derek are shot, and Derek becomes handicapped. Soon, Cagney is named sheriff of a town and Derek his deputy, but Derek’s resentment runs deep, and the townsfolk and bad guys, including Ernest Borgnine, add to Jimmy’s problems. Viveca Lindfors and Jean Hersholt also star in this film filled with common Ray themes of youthful rebellion and (surrogate) father-son relationships. Ray helmed this effort between the more well-known Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause, but it’s no less fascinating than his other work.