One was born into an aristocratic Austro-Hungarian family. The other was born in the Bronx. Both had busy Hollywood careers but never quite reached the highest rungs of stardom.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, talking about a pair of our favorites, Paul Henreid and Edmond O’Brien, and two largely forgotten movies that provided both actors with unusually prominent roles.
Both movies were filmed on the cheap outside the studio system. But the actors made silk purses out of sow’s ears, rendering both titles worth watching and re-watching today.
In Henreid’s case, we are referring to the dreadfully titled Hollow Triumph, directed by Steve Sekely, and filmed by Eagle Lion Films in 1948 — a few years after the actor shared cigarettes with Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, and his signature role as Resistance hero ‘Victor Laszlow’ in Casablanca.
Hollow Triumph was different, a dark film noir superbly photographed by John Alton about a criminal mastermind (Henreid) who evades police capture by taking on the identity of a psychiatrist (also Henreid) whom he resembles. A key plot point is the facial mark distinguishing the two (the movie was later retitled, The Scar).
There’s a bungled gambling joint robbery, there’s violent retribution, murder, shootouts and late night car chases and — Joan Bennett. In one of her best roles, she portrays the beautiful, efficient but doomed secretary to the psychiatrist who become Henreid’s romantic plaything (no swapping of cigarettes here). Her character’s motto: It’s a bitter little world full of sad surprises, and you don’t let anyone hurt you. Need we tell you the movie ends unhappily for both?
What continues to fascinate is how and why Henreid — born as Paul Georg Julius Hernreid Ritter von Wassel-Waldingau, the son of a wealthy banker who was also a Baron — wound up in this somewhat down and dirty little film noir.
However it happened, we are glad it did. Hollow Triumph, a trim, economically-made thriller that wastes no one’s time, least of all the audience’s. After his movie career faded, Henreid became one of Hollywood’s busiest film and TV directors. He died at 84 in 1992 in Santa Monica, California.
O’Brien, born Redmond O’Brien in 1915, began his career as a stage actor including a stint as a member of the famed Mercury Theater, before making his movie debut in 1939′s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by William Dieterle.
British writer-critic David Thomson writes: Built around the heavy-jowled, anxious frown of someone in pain, O’Brien had been barred from lead parts. But as a supporting actor, he was vigorous, imaginative and often brought more subtlety to a part than was expected. There’s a reason O’Brien won a best supporting actor Oscar for his role in director Joseph Mankiewicz’ glossy 1954 melodrama, The Barefoot Contessa.
O’Brien was the star, not a talented supporting player, in 1950′s D.O. A., an independently made noir-ish title about a hapless notary public expiring from a slow-acting radioactive poison someone slipped into his drink at a San Francisco dive. As worthy as D.O. A. is, it’s not our pick of O’Brien’s all-too-infrequent starring performances.
It was in the 1953′s The Bigamist, a melodrama directed by Ida Lupino, that O’Brien delivered one of his best turns ever as a loving husband, ignored by his driven, businesswoman wife Joan Fontaine. ( Jane Greer had agreed to take the lead in the picture but backed out at the last minute.) The husband finds comfort in the arms of another woman (played, unfortunately, by Lupino, who was too old for the part).
The movie may sound like soap opera but isn’t — at least in front of the camera. Shot on a shoestring, it was produced by screen writer Collier Young, who was at the time married to Fontaine (her third husband) and had been married to Lupino.
I felt it was my wifely duty to leap in and save the day (by taking the part Greer turned down), Fontaine later wrote in her autobiography.
She also took this poke at Lupino: After shooting all my scenes, director Ida saw the rushes, didn’t like the photography, and changed cameramen before actress Ida began her own scenes! (It was the only time Lupino directed herself.)
Whatever, O’Brien stands out in this little picture. It’s not a great, we wouldn’t rate it a classic but The Bigamist is well worth another look for the actor’s credible and sympathetic portrayal of a man who falls genuinely in love with two women simultaneously. After a career covering some 120 movies and TV parts, O’Brien died in 1985, at the age of 69.
Two fine actors, two unsung but eminently watchable movies.