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Tag Archives: Edward G. Robinson

Larceny Inc. (1942) – A Gangster Christmas Film

larceny-inc-movie-poster-1942-1020417894Larceny Inc. isn’t officially a Christmas movie, it isn’t specifically about Christmas, but it takes place during the Christmas holiday with the finale occurring on Christmas Eve, so I think it should count. Sometimes, I get a little tired of watching the same Christmas films every year, so it was refreshing this year to watch some unconventional Holiday films. That, and I would watch Edward G. Robinson in anything.

It is the story of three crooks who become small time business owners in their attempt to rob a bank and quite accidentally make a success of their business. Edward G. Robinson is J. Chalmers “Pressure” Maxwell, a crook just released from prison and determined to go honest. He wants to buy into a dog racing track in Florida. The only problem is that he has no money and the bank won’t loan him any (he has no securities). So, he has brainwave: in order to go legitimate, he will first rob the bank.

He notices that there is a luggage shop right next door to the bank and he and his two friends, Jug and Weepy (Broderick Crawford and Edward Brophy), discover that the basement shares a wall with the bank vault. Pressure buys the shop (acquiring money through illegal means) and they begin a tunnel that will go under the alarm systems in the wall and come up in the vault, using the luggage to hide the dirt in.

Barbara Jo Allen (lingerie lady), Broderick Crawford, Edward Brophy, Edward G, Robinson, Jack Carson and Jane Wyman

Barbara Jo Allen (lingerie lady), Broderick Crawford, Edward Brophy, Edward G. Robinson, Jack Carson and Jane Wyman

Of course, Pressure has no use for real costumers and is always trying to discourage them, wrapping luggage badly, being rude, hurrying them out of his shop, selling everything for a flat rate of $9.75. Meanwhile, the street that his shop is on is a very friendly street of small time business owners who want to welcome him and enlist his aid in getting the torn-up streets repaired quickly so that shoppers will return to the street in time for the Christmas season. The lady who owns the lingerie shop is particularly friendly, asking him to come over some time and take a look at her lingerie. As he hustles her out, he replies that he will and she should stop by again sometime and take a look at his trunks.

Pressure’s girlfriend, Denny, is played beautifully and humorously by Jane Wyman. They have a somewhat platonic relationship, really. He’s her ‘daddy,’ but he’s always so busy that he’s also hustling her out of the shop and into the arms of luggage salesmen, Jeff Randolph (Jack Carson), who proposes after fifteen minutes of acquaintance because he believes in saving all that time of wooing, misunderstanding, and expenses (she refuses). But when Denny realizes that Pressure is trying to break into the bank, she and Jeff work together to concoct all sorts of advertisement and publicity stunts to keep the shop full of people, so Pressure and his cohorts can’t drill in the basement. To add to Pressure’s complications, they picked the very same bank that fellow crook, Leo (Anthony Quinn), was trying to interest them in robbing while they were both in prison.

But despite all his best (or worst intentions) the shop does prosper and he earns the gratitude and friendship of his neighbors, whether he wanted it or not. He even begins to think that there’s more money to be made in expanding his business than in robbing banks. There is a big showdown with Leo, which takes place on Christmas Eve, where at one point Pressure dresses up as a cigar smoking Santa.

Edward G. Robinson and Edward Brophy

Edward G. Robinson and Edward Brophy

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I have a weakness for comedic gangster films and Robinson – known for playing mean gangsters – has excellent comedic timing and actually made at least four spoofs of his own comedic image. He is a tough, but a quick-talking con artist in this one. He literally wheedles the suit off the back of the prison warden and talks Jug and Weepy into doing all sorts of crazy stuff for him. Jug is the less-than-brilliant brawny stooge of the group who gets to do most of the digging while Weepy gets to come out for air more often (he steals a drill and hides it in a Christmas tree) and gradually gets turned into a salesmen and finds himself a girlfriend on the street.

And what is hilarious is that despite his repeated intentions to become honest, Pressure will probably always remain a crook at heart. He just can’t help himself, even if he does help people or make friends or try to do the right thing; it’s how he operates and thinks. In fact, that is true for all the criminals encountered in the film. It is highly illustrative that at the beginning, all the crooks in prison are waiting for their sentence to be over so they can pick up where they left off, planning their crimes and making contacts before they are even out. Prison, for them, is just a temporary hiccup to an ingrained way of life. It actually strikes Pressure as a brilliant idea when it first occurs to him to borrow money from the bank (not that it works) instead of trying some form of larceny. They are incorrigible.

 
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Posted by on December 17, 2014 in Movies

 

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A Slight Case of Murder (1938) – Gangster Comedy

still-of-edward-g_-robinson,-jane-bryan,-ruth-donnelly,-harold-huber,-allen-jenkins-and-willard-parker-in-a-slight-case-of-murderEdward G. Robinson is best remembered for his gangster roles, his most famous being Little Caesar (1931) and Key Largo (1948) and there were quite a few gangster roles in between. However, when I actually came to look at his filmography, there weren’t as many as I expected, though there were quite a few variations on the gangster-style story: as G-man, cop, doctor, good guy, bad guy. One variation was the spoof of his gangster image and he made four of them: The Little Giant (1933), The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), A Slight Case of Murder (1938), and Larceny, Inc. (1942).

A Slight Case of Murder begins with the end of prohibition. Robinson is Remy Marco, the bootlegger who is going “legitimate” now that it is legal to sell alcohol. He has all his guys lay down their guns and he tells them that they are now salesmen. And he’s going to call his beer “Gold Velvet Beer: it’s the tops.”

Unfortunately, his beer tastes like assorted chemicals. Not that this was a problem during prohibition; people took whatever beer the mobs gave them. Now, however, with capitalistic forces at work, his beer is losing out and his company is about to sink. Everybody knows his beer is bad; even his men know it’s bad, but no one ever told Remy because he doesn’t drink beer and they didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

Laying the guns down - they are now legitimate salesmen

Laying the guns down – they are now legitimate salesmen

So, he’s about to go broke. He sends for his daughter to come back from her school in Paris and it turns out that she’s engaged to a cop, which appalls Remy and his wife, Nora (Ruth Donnelly). He and his wife, his daughter, three of his henchmen and an orphan that he has staying with him for the month, all go up to his vacation home. It is the last night before the bank is going to foreclose on him and he is also going to have a big party, meet the fiancé and the fiancé’s hypochondriacal and upper-class father and deal with assorted bodies of murdered gangsters and a bag full of money that is floating around the house. It’s all delightful mayhem.

The movie is based on a play by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay. Runyon was a reporter, but also is known for his stories about gangsters and other low-lifers, all with a very light and comedic touch. He is most famous are his Broadway Stories, which the musical “Guys and Dolls” is based on. I can tell that A Slight Case of Murder is based on a play. The action happens almost exclusively in his vacation home, with a delightful cast of characters entering and exiting, up to no good, sneaking around, partying, trying to find some peace and quiet.

Drinking his lousy beer - Edward Broph, Edward G. Robinson, Allen Jenkins, Harold Huber

Drinking his beer, or spitting it out – Edward Brophy, Edward G. Robinson, Allen Jenkins, Harold Huber

One of the things I love about many Warner Bros. movies from the 1930s and early ’40s is their wonderful and colorful cast of supporting character actors. Remy’s henchmen are played by Allen Jenkins, Harold Huber, and Edward Brophy – actors I’ve seen in many genres, but mostly in gangster movies. His wife is played by Ruth Donnelly, another fine character actor, who decides that when Remy goes legitimate, she will go posh. She affects the most incredible fake, “upper class” accent, only to revert back to slang whenever she has an aside comment to make.

Even Margaret Hamilton makes an appearance – immortalized forever as the Wicked Witch of the West. Here, she is the head of the orphanage where Remy grew up. He comes back every year to speak to the kids about success and to choose an orphan to spend a month with him. It is very evident that she is as pleased as punch at her most successful alumni, evidently not considering the legalities of his success.

The orphan that Remy chooses is Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom, a real delinquent and a half: mouthy, likes beer, wants to shoot pool or craps, and Allen Jenkins is always chasing him around the kitchen and having to put him to bed. He is played by Bobby Jordan, a member of the Dead End Kids, who were a group of kids in a play called “Dead End” and who later appeared in many movies, such as Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) as juvenile delinquents who take care of themselves in the street.

Ruth Donnelly, Edward G. Robinson and Bobby Jordan

Ruth Donnelly, Edward G. Robinson and Bobby Jordan

The ending is sheer hysteria, with Paul Harvey as the fiancé’s father thinking he has come to a mad house with all of Remy’s friends partying up a storm. Remy’s henchmen find several bodies in the house (gangsters who were going to kill Remy, but were murdered by another gangster who wants all the money they stole from a bookie) and dump them in various locations around the city, only to discover that there’s a reward for their capture and so they rush out and bring the bodies back, right during Remy’s party. Remy is trying to find a way to keep the bank from foreclosing and his wife and daughter are trying to reconcile him to having a cop in the family.

One really great way to enjoy this movie is to do a double feature with Robinson’s defining role in the 1931 Little Caesar, followed by A Slight Case of Murder. Neither movie is very long and you could watch both in less time than it would take to watch all of The Hobbit.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2014 in Comedy, Gangster Films

 

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Double Indemnity (1944) – Reflections on a Perfect Noir

double_indemnity1Double Indemnity is for me one of the most perfect movies ever made. It has the perfect cast, direction, music, lighting, perfect story told perfectly. It is a taut movie, with no wasted motion and where every word spoken and hand gesture has a purpose. I never tire of watching it, proving that an unhappy story with an unhappy end can be just as satisfying as a happy one.

When I first saw it, I was watching it for Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray and they are superb, but I was completely blown away by Edward G. Robinson. I had never seen him before in a movie and I couldn’t understand why I had not heard of him previously. It seems like outside of the classic film world, he is undeservedly unknown.

The story is fairly straightforward: an insurance salesman and a psychopathic housewife plan the murder of her husband and the collection of $100,000 dollars from the double indemnity clause in his accident insurance they tricked him into buying. Fred MacMurray is the salesman and Barbara Stanwyck is the femme fatale to beat all femme fatales. Seriously, I doubt there is anyone more cold-blooded than she is. Edward G. Robinson is the claims manager at the insurance agency MacMurray works at, who is convinced that “something has been worked on us,” but does not see MacMurray’s connection in the case.

Double Indemnity is a film noir, though I haven’t found a satisfactory definition yet. Many people do not even acknowledge film noir as an actual movie genre. Whatever it is – dark shadows, human weakness, seediness, low passion and desire, crime, murder, filmed in black and white – Double Indemnity is one of the ultimate examples. I once read of somebody complaining that the movie was clichéd, but someone else rightly pointed out that that is because Double Indemnity wrote the clichés.

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Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson

The score is excellent. It was composed by Miklos Rosza, who I knew best for his music in Ben-Hur. If you close your eyes during the opening credits of Double Indemnity, you can almost see Romans marching by. It is so portentous of doom and, at the end of the movie, the doom that has arrived. The music enforces another common film noir theme: fatalism. There is very little sense that people are choosing their actions. Walter Neff, as played by MacMurray, is going to succumb to Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson and he is going to be undone by it. It is a gloomy view of human nature, where temptation is always given in to and destruction is inevitably the result.

The movie isn’t all gloom, however. It is considerably lightened by the presence of Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, a man who may look irascible while chomping his cigars, but has a warm heart and real affection for Walter. I’ve read of the story described as a triangle, between Walter and Phyllis representing lust and Walter and Keyes representing genuine friendship.

One aspect of the movie I’d like to explore are the motivations of Phyllis Dietrichson at the end. There is much ambiguity regarding whether or not Phyllis Dietrichson really falls in love with Walter Neff. He is planning on killing her, but she is ahead of him and shoots him in the shoulder. She has him in her power, she could have shot him again and finished him off, but she doesn’t. She lets him walk up and take her gun away. Then she says that she couldn’t fire that final shot. She admits that she’s been using him all along, but now, somehow, she’s realized that she loves him. Walter doesn’t buy it and shoots her dead.

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Hiding a gun in the chair, always a good place to hide one, if you have to

So the question is: was she speaking the truth or wasn’t she? I have puzzled over this one for many months now. She certainly sounds convincing, but it seems out of character for her not to shoot him. Even if she did love him, she seems like the type to bury her emotions and kill him anyway. But if she wasn’t in love, why didn’t she finish him off? I think I finally have the answer…or at least, an answer…or a theory. Speculation.

I always wondered what she meant to do with Walter Neff’s body after she shot him. She could blame the boyfriend of her step-daughter, but there would still be the problem of Walter’s body being found at her house and any connection between her and Walter would probably bring the whole house of cards down on her because their greatest asset is that Keyes doesn’t have any idea that Walter is in on the plot.

But my thought is that since she never says or does an un-premeditated thing in the whole movie, why assume that she is suddenly speaking spontaneously at the end? It’s a slightly kooky theory, but might she have been trying to win him back? She shoots him in the shoulder and then suddenly finds that, although she has never loved him (something she is safe admitting because he’s already figured it out) she can’t bring herself to kill him now. She has a sudden burst of ‘true’ emotion and tries to carry him away on that emotion. Since she had succeeded before in carrying him away on emotion, why not now? And she’s a nurse, so she could probably fix his shoulder so he need never go to a hospital (which would probably also give them away). This way, she gets him back without the fuss of having to take care of a body…until she decides later to do away with him.

Her mistake, in my theory, would be in underestimating how strongly Walter has recoiled from her. She knows he’s feeling guilty about her step-daughter Lola, but she doesn’t realize just how guilty he feels. After shooting Phyllis he could have hung it on Lola’s boyfriend Nino, but he chooses not to because Lola loves Nino and Walter wants to help her. This highlights the essential difference between Phyllis and Walter. She is amoral, but he is only immoral. He does have a conscience. If they had both been amoral together, then they would have probably gotten away with murder. The reason they fail is not because they are found out, but because Walter’s nerves aren’t as good as Phyllis’ and because he does feel guilty. And that’s partly why he shoots Phyllis at the end.

Double-Indemnity1

Phyllis is now very dead

It seems a travesty today, but although Double Indemnity was nominated for seven Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography of a black and white film, Best Music, Best Recording, Best Screenplay – it lost in every single category. And just as bad, Robinson and MacMurray weren’t even nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor respectively. Going My Way ran away with most of the Oscars – much to director Billy Wilder’s chagrin – and although it might seem like an injustice today, in retrospect there was just no way in 1944 – when America was fighting evil murderers like Hitler – that the Best Actress award was going to go to a cold blooded killer like Phyllis Dietrichson instead of the innocent victim played by Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Psychologically, it just seems wrong. But I still believe that Barbara Stanwyck’s was the stronger performance.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in Film Noir

 

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