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Not Just Little Caesar

March 31, 2010

by John Farr

John Farr’s salute to the surprisingly versatile Edward G. Robinson.

Double Indemnity (1944)


Gorgeous schemer Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) enlists a besotted insurance salesman, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), to draw up a life-insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge – and then kill him. The murder goes as planned, but the two lovers lose faith in each other’s motives when they face suspicious claims investigator Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), whose queries trigger a fatal game of cat and mouse.


One of the quintessential noir films, Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity” is a masterpiece of stark atmosphere and carefully stylized suspense. The talented Barbara Stanwyck, a familiar face in the 1940s noir universe, assumes her role with feline deviousness, while “My Three Sons” TV dad Fred MacMurray – narrating the film via flashback – brilliantly plays against type. Raymond Chandler’s screenplay sizzles with hard-boiled repartee and the great Edward G. Robinson is aces as always as the dogged investigator hot on the lovers’ trail. Sinister, tense, and cynical, Wilder’s “Indemnity” is riveting film suspense.

The Stranger (1946)


Unbeknownst to his comely young bride Mary (Loretta Young), East Coast prep-school teacher Charles Rankin (Orson Welles) is actually Franz Kindler, a Nazi war criminal in hiding. When a German visitor to their sleepy Connecticut town turns up dead, federal gumshoe Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) begins poking around, threatening to bring Rankin’s crimes out of the closet.


The conventional wisdom is that Welles made “Stranger” to prove he could churn out a Hollywood studio picture on time and with little fuss. That he certainly does. And while the director himself was no big fan of his 1946 Nazi noir thriller, he underestimated his efforts here, as he coaxes fine performances from his stellar cast, especially Robinson (playing against type as a war-crimes investigator), Young, and Konstantin Shayne as the ill-fated visitor. If for no other reason, see this for the final scene at a clock tower, a well-engineered climax that will really leave you hanging!

Key Largo (1948)


One of the brink of a huge storm, WWII vet Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) visits a disheveled hotel in the titular island town to pay his respects to Nora (Lauren Bacall), the widow of a deceased war buddy. Run by Nora’s father James (John Barrymore), the hotel is playing host to some pretty seedy urban types, and Frank soon discovers why: infamous mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his men have slinked back into the country and temporarily seized control of the establishment.


Based on Maxwell Anderson’s play, Huston’s “Key Largo” is a classic 1940s noir featuring taut direction and indelible performances from Bogart and Robinson as the menacing Rocco. In a cast that also boasts Bacall, Oscar-winner Claire Trevor as Rocco’s drunken mistress, and Lionel Barrymore as the cantankerous hotelier, it’s Rocco’s sadistic, savage power that occupies center stage. Bogie is comfortably in star mode as the taciturn good guy who comes through in the clinch. Don’t miss that ending.

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