I love you, Edward G. Robinson

The great actor Edward G. Robinson was born on this day in 1893, in Bucharest, Romania. He lived to be 89, dying January 26, 1973 in Hollywood. Just before his death, he had been chosen to receive an Honorary Academy Award at the upcoming Oscars; his widow accepted it on his behalf. Though he never won or was even nominated for an acting Oscar throughout his career, I am of the opinion that his brilliance cannot be denied. With a voice and face teetering on giving the impression of a claymation figure, he somehow embodied characters so that their depth, their undertones, and their motivations were subtle.

My two favorite roles of his could not be more different characters, yet I can hardly pin down what magic Robinson uses to depict them each so convincingly, hardly changing his expressions or the pitch of his voice. In 1944’s Double Indemnity (a brilliant noir from Billy Wilder that has been on my mind lately since discussing it with Allen for an as-yet-unaired MacGuffin piece: stay tuned), Robinson is Barton Keyes, a curmudgeon of an insurance man with a heart of gold and a deep affection for his friend and employee Walter Neff, who has unfortunately committed insurance fraud. We meet Keyes as he’s confronting a man who he simply knows has lied on his insurance claim.

Later in the film, Keyes will struggle as suspicions he wishes he didn’t have tell him again and again that his friend has done something terribly wrong. Another actor might have let Keyes’ pain over this situation be something much bigger and flashier, but Robinson keeps everything just under the surface.

Four years after Double Indemnity, Robinson played gangster Johnny Rocco in another great noir, John Huston’s Key Largo. Rocco and his gang take shelter in a hotel during a hurricane, harassing the owners in a truly bizarre hostage-type situation. As they pass the time, he heaps abuse upon his girlfriend-of-sorts, an alcoholic former stage singer.

In each of these incredible scenes, Robinson plays a man using his power in the situation to get the better of someone for whom he has contempt. But the scenes, and the impression he leaves in each of them, end similarities there.

If you are unfamiliar with Robinson, or with these films, I highly recommend a double feature. It will leave you wanting much more of him.


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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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