Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XVII Blu-ray Review: The B-Sides of Edward G. Robinson

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how when I was growing up I had a pretty decent knowledge of my parents and even my grandparents’ cultural touchstones. I knew who the Beatles were, and Simon & Garfunkel, Buddy Holly, and Bill Hailey. I might not have liked them, but I knew their names, and I had heard their music. I used to watch The Monkees, Good Times, and Perry Mason after school. I have fond memories of watching Old Yeller on television and can remember a school teacher putting on Swiss Family Robinson at the end of a semester to give us something to do. I don’t think I’d ever seen any movies starring James Cagney, Peter Lorre, or Edward G. Robinson but I certainly knew who they were. Probably because they were parodied in Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Buy Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XVII Blu-ray

But do younger generations have that same knowledge of cultural history? I don’t think my pre-teen daughter could pick out Edward G. Robinson from a lineup. She’s probably heard me speak of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead and surely her ears of had their music pass through them, but would she be able to hum a bar from them? I don’t think so. It is easy to blame YouTube and Tick Tock for these things. And I’m sure it’s true that young people spend more time on social media now than they do consuming older TV shows and movies. There’s also the realization that there have been some 30 years of cultural history come and gone since I was a kid. We can’t really expect younger generations to know all the culturally important things from the last 100 years. And my daughter has seen Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Goonies so that’s something.

I don’t know if any of this means anything. I’m not trying to say the death of culture is nigh or something like that. But I would love to find ways for the younger generations to find and love art that was made long before they were born. I absolutely love that modern media has given everyone more access to older art than ever before.

I can’t say that this new Film Noir set by Kino Lorber featuring three films starring Edward G. Robinson will turn anyone into a fan of the actor. In fact, I’d argue these films are really for folks who are already fans as their quality isn’t the sort of thing to create new converts. But I’m sure glad they are being made available to anyone and everyone.

These three movies fall within a dark period in Robinson’s career. He had been grey-listed during the McCarthy-era witch hunts. Robinson was vocally anti-Nazi during the war and gave financial support to numerous war-relief organizations, some of which had Russian ties. Once World War II was over and the Cold War had begun, this was frowned upon by politicians looking for Communist sympathizers. He was questioned by HUAC and afterward was not able to find work with any major studios. Luckily for him (and for us), he continued to act for Poverty Row studios. As you’ll be able to see from these three films, these movies don’t present his best work, but for fans, there is plenty to enjoy.

Vice Squad (1953) is a pretty standard police procedural from the time. There are clear influences from Night and the City (1950) and He Walked by Night (1948), which itself inspired the long-running television series Dragnet. Robinson plays Police Captain Barnaby and the film follows him through a harrowing day at the office. The day’s biggest cases involves a robbery in which a policeman was killed and news that a big jewelry heist is about to take place. But there are multiple small things that beg for Barnaby’s attention throughout. There is a recurring gag about a man who witnessed the initial robbery but doesn’t want to testify for he was with his mistress at the time. Barnaby keeps finding humorous ways to keep bringing him back to the police station. A young Lee Van Cleef has a minor role as one of the robbers.

Robinson gives the role heart. His Captain Barnaby is tough, he’s not afraid to slap someone around if it gets results, and his constant arresting of the witness borders on harassment, but he’s always willing to listen and shows kindness to criminals and wayward citizens as well. The film doesn’t break new ground, but it’s an enjoyable watch.

In Black Tuesday (1954), Robinson is back to the snarling, menacing gangster type of role that made him famous. Here, he plays Vincent Canelli, a prisoner on death row awaiting execution in a few days. His pals on the outside kidnap one of the prison guards’s wives and convince the guard to help with a prison break. The crash-out is exciting despite the fact that the plan is utterly ridiculous. They successfully get out of prison, but wind up stuck in an abandoned warehouse surrounded by cops.

Stuck inside with Canelli are a few of his gangster pals, his doting moll, the prison priest, the prison guard and his wife, and a doctor. The film tries to create some heady tension with this hostage situation with Canelli becoming increasingly erratic and violent and the hostages trying to keep anyone from dying. But the film strains under its low budget and b-tier craftsmen. I love Edward G. Robinson when he snarls and he elevates the material as best he can, but not near enough.

Lastly is Nightmare (1956), my least favorite in the bunch. Kevin McCarthy (who was terrific in Invasion of the Body Snatchers that same year) plays Stan Grayson, a musician who awakens from a dream in which he killed a man inside a strange mirrored room only to find out that maybe it wasn’t a dream after all. Robinson plays Rene Bressard, a homicide detective who is also Grayson’s brother-in-law. When Grayson tells Bressard about the dream and how he awoke from it with blood on his face and a key from the dream in his hand, Bressard brushes it off as drunken hallucinations. But Grayson won’t give up and soon enough, the two of them discover the house, the mirrored room, and signs of violence.

All of this plays out well enough except that the film telegraphs its conclusion way too early. It doesn’t help that the back of the box clues us into the fact that Grayson does what he does because he was hypnotized by a nefarious neighbor. All of which eliminates any tension the film has to build before it even begins to build it. I suspect hypnotism as a method for murder was pretty hokey even in the 1950s, now it borders on ridiculous.

Neither of these three films will likely create new converts to Edward G. Robinson. I certainly wouldn’t use them to introduce the younger generation to the actor or to film noir in general. But as I seem to say every time I review one of these Kino Lorber Film Noir sets, I’m so very glad this exists. For fans of Robinson, it’s a real treat to get some of his “lesser” films with nice transfers on Blu-ray.

Kino Lorber presents each film with brand new 2K Scans of the 35mm Fine Grains. Extras include audio commentaries for all three films and lots of trailers for similar films.

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Mat Brewster

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