This Monday, Turner Classic Movies kicks off my favorite annual tradition: Summer Under the Stars. Each day for 24 hours, one star’s films are featured. This week and all through August each week I’ll be writing about a featured star. The first day of Summer Under the Stars has me so excited I can barely put it in words. But I’ll try. The star kicking things off is one of my favorites: Edward G. Robinson.
Robinson, though never nominated for an Oscar (an epic fail on the part of the Academy, although he did get a posthumous lifetime achievement award) was one of the most versatile stars of his generation. Most people probably known him from the film that made him a star: Little Caesar. While there had been gangster films before, none had been as gritty or powerful. While the 1931 film may seem a little dated in the story department, it endures because of Robinson’s tour de force performance. Little Caesar is absolutely ruthless in his quest to be the top gangster. He’s menacing right from the word go. But the key moment in the film is when he’s supposed to shoot his best friend Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). As terrifying as he is, he can’t shoot his best friend. He cares about him too much. There’s a shot where Robinson says nothing, and it’s just a closeup of his face. You can see all the anguish and conflict of emotion without him saying one word. That’s acting.
While the gangster tough guy is the image most people have of Robinson, he also had great comic chops. In some of his best comedies he got to lampoon his bad guy image. My favorite of all of them is A Slight Case of Murder. Based on a Damon Runyon play, Robinson plays a former bootlegger trying to go legitimate with comic results. He’s being foreclosed on and suddenly corpses start turning up while his prospective son-in-law, who happens to be a cop (because of course) is visiting. But the plot summary doesn’t do the film justice. My favorite scene is the one where Robinson is test tasting his beer (he just sells what he used to, but under a new name). For years he hasn’t known how bad it tastes. His facial expressions in that scene alone are hysterical. But the whole film is just a riot and really gives him a chance to show off his comic acting chops. I should also mention a film e made called Larceny, Inc. It was remade by Woody Allen (his film was called Small Time Crooks). It’s about three ex-cons who buy a luggage store after they get out of prison to tunnel into the vault of a bank next door. They expect the store to fail, but it ends up prospering. It’s a hidden gem worth seeing.
In addition to being able to do drama and comedy, Edward G. Robinson proved himself to be a great character actor later in his career. His first real character actor role was a home run. It was playing Barton Keyes in the film noir classic Double Indemnity. In a film that stars such great actors as Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, it’s Robinson who steals the show as a dogged insurance claims investigator. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but he steals every scene he’s in. While he gets a lot of laughs (Robinson does get many of the funniest lines), he’s also the conscience of the film. The murder plot, insurance fraud scheme, and relationship between Stanwyck and MacMurray are all important plot elements. But it’s the relationship between Keyes and Neff (MacMurray) that’s the heart and soul of the movie. That makes the ending of the film where Keyes finds out *spoiler alert!) that Neff is mixed up in murder and fraud all the more heartbreaking. You can hear it in his voice and see it on his face. Robinson turned in may Oscar-worthy performances, but that one should have at least earned him a nomination.
There are two other character actor roles I want to mention. One is The Cincinnati Kid, which I discovered last year during Summer Under the Stars. Robinson plays card shark Lancey Howard. The whole film builds to a poker showdown between established card player Howard and up and comer The Cincinnati Kid (Steve McQueen). *spoiler alert!* The predictable thing would have been for rising star McQueen to win the last hand. But Howard wins and goes out with one of my favorite lines in movie history,”you’re good, kid, but as long as I’m around, you’re only second best.” He looks McQueen right in the eyes and leaves.It’s pretty great.
Finally, there’s Edward G. Robinson’s last performance in Soylent Green. In it he plays Sol Roth. He’s the partner of NYPD detective Thorn (Charlton Heston). The two investigate the death of the CEO of the Soylent Corporation. Soylent of course makes Soylent Green, used to feed people in an overpopulated NYC with depleted resources. Of course, we find out later that Soylent Green has a deadly secret. Soylent green is people! But before we learn that, there’s a great dynamic between Robinson and Heston. The scene where Sol goes through assisted suicide (it becomes commonplace in the overpopulated future) is all the more emotional when you know it’s the last thing Robinson filmed. Ten days after filming wrapped, he died of cancer. He was brilliant right up to his last performance.
I could write volumes about my appreciation for Edward G. Robinson. He could play gangsters, menacing sea captains (see the vastly underrated film The Sea Wolf), comic variations on his gangster character in films like The Little Giant, a compassionate father (Our Vines Have Tender Grapes), a frustrated college professor seduced by a femme fatale (The Woman in the Window)…his range knew no bounds. Originally a stage actor and a very cultured man (he was a rare art collector and spoke seven languages), Robinson proved his versatility time and again on-screen. What he may have lacked in matinée idol looks he made up for with talent. As Robinson said,”I know I’m not much on face value, but when it comes to stage value, I’ll deliver for you.” Boy did he ever! Edward G. Robinson may never have been nominated for an Oscar, but he deserves to mentioned along with the likes of other greats like Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant. He’s that good.