Remembered for his tough guy films, most notably as Rico in Little Caesar (1931). That role became a caricature of the snarling gangster, an image that followed him despite moving on to a variety of film roles. This film opened the door for violent portrayals and the gangster as cult hero even though he dies in a hail of police bullets.
I never really knew much about Edward G. Robinson, like many fans, associated him with his tough, gangster image. He wasn’t a handsome man and he was short, but he was a respected actor and accumulated a tremendous film legacy. In his later roles I noticed a more grandfatherly man, hardly the cold-blooded killer of his early films. The film that got me thinking about him recently was The Stranger, a film I will talk about later. In the film I saw a very skilled and resourceful actor, who communicated much, by saying so little. Since then, I’ve paid attention to films he appears in. I am planning on watching Double Indemnity this weekend.
A number of actors were identified with gangsters and film heavies in the 1930’s and 1940’s. George Raft, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart made careers on crime films. All but Raft successfully made the transition to more positive and versatile film roles.
Robinson was a successful stage and radio actor before finding regular work in films. Although he started in silent films, he quickly made the transition to the sound medium. After bouncing around various studios, he agreed to a contract he landed at Warner Bros. which specialized in films with wisecracking, Tommy gun packing gangsters.
Over the course of his career he made over 100 films, 31 of which came during the 1930’s, including Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Robinson was an outspoken crusader against fascism in his personal life, his family having immigrated from Europe early in his life after they suffered antisemitism. His activities would later impact his career.
Robinson didn’t always play gangsters in fact he found many good roles in film noir of the 1940’s, dark, psychological dramas that allowed Robinson to stay deep in dramatic roles but keep above typecasting.
In the early 1950’s, he was caught up in accusations of having communist sympathies, although was ultimately cleared, his career suffered, and good roles dried up. He wasn’t blacklisted yet producers shied away from him, relegating him to the “graylist”. He had to rebuild his career as he lost work and friends. Television and B movies kept him employed.
Cast in The Ten Commandments (1956) by director Cecil B. DeMille, Robinson was able to restart his career. “It restored my self-respect,” Robinson would say.
Robinson never had to dance with a Tommy gun to own the screen. As leading roles evaporated with aging and the graylisting, Robinson had already established a steady stream of featured roles.
“It was, in fact, the third lead (Double Indemnity). I debated accepting it. Emanuel Goldberg told me that at my age it was time to begin thinking of character roles, to slide into middle and old age with the same grace as that marvelous actor Lewis Stone . . . The decision made itself ,” Robinson once said.
Robinson the animated, snarling personality was replaced by a quieter, more refined gentleman, who used silence, nods, use of a pipe, and other devices to portray his characters. Even when portraying criminals, Robinson was a well-dressed, stylish gangster.
Here are several films where he had outstanding featured roles.
Double Indemnity (1944) – Robinson plays an insurance investigator, whose friend and colleague is part of an insurance swindle and murder. Robinson takes a backseat to Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as the guilty lovers. Robinson has the smaller part but serves as the moral compass of the film.
The Stranger (1946) – A war crimes investigator on the trail of a Nazi. Robinson is cool, a bit mysterious and cunning in his tracking of the Orson Welles character, who has carefully erased almost all information about his identity. Robinson followed him from Europe to Connecticut where the Welles character has established a perfect life for himself. It is a dark game of cat and mouse with a Hitchcock-type ending.
Key Largo (1948) – Robinson takes a supporting role to Bogart, playing a gangster that holds Bogart and party prisoner during a tropical storm. The film is considered a classic and Robinson chose his tough guy roles carefully at this point in his career.
A Hole in the Head (1959) – The brother of Frank Sinatra’s character, he tries to convince him to let Robinson’s character take and raise his son. The older brother continues to give the Sinatra character money for his dreams and is tiring of bailing him out of financial problems. The Robinson character is established and can provide a more stable home for the boy, but in the end, Sinatra rises to the occasion. Not one of Robinson’s flashier roles, in fact he’s pretty square next to the hipster Sinatra.
The Cincinnati Kid (1965) – Steve McQueen was already a huge star and this was a big studio production with a fine supporting cast. Robinson is Howard, a legendary poker player being challenged by McQueen’s Kid. It comes down to Howard and the Kid in the big game. Robinson is confident and condescending as he beats the Kid and rubs it in. Robinson has the gangster mentality without the guns or snarl. One of Robinson’s best remembered roles.
Soylent Green – This was his final role, he died shortly afterward. He is the roommate of Charlton Heston, Roth, in a future world of a grim existence. While investigating a murder, Roth helps with clues that allows Heston’s character to solve the crime and the mystery of Soylent Green. Roth is tired of living and decides to end his life. Roth is an educated and cultured man who has clearly outlived his time. Robinson died within days of the end of shooting.
Robinson also appeared on television, which during lean periods provided work, and returned to Broadway. One of his best performances was in a 1971 episode of Night Gallery, the anthology series created by Rod Serling. “The Messiah on Mott Street” is the story of a boy searching for the messiah to aid his dying grandfather (Robinson).
Robinson’s early career was built on playing tough, street guys, but in fact, he was cultured and quite refined. His passion was art and he accumulated a vast art collection but had to sell much of it as a result of the divorce in the 1950’s. He did manage to continue collecting and according to actor Robert Wagner, Robinson once had a Cézanne painting but had so much trouble trying to get it to fit into the his apartment that he moved to another apartment.
“I have not collected art. Art collected me. I never found paintings. They found me. I have never even owned a work of art. They owned me.”
The same could be said of his films, he may have inhabited the roles, but the performances owned him.