Edward G. Robinson
Photo: Public Domain | Wikimedia

Film Noir Trio Showcases Edward G. Robinson on All Sides of the Law

The films in Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XVII are united by one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, the almost casually brilliant and magnetic Edward G. Robinson.

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XVII
Arnold Laven, Hugo Fregonese, Maxwell Shane
Kino Lorber
27 February 2024

Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema XVII marks the 17th in Kino Lorber’s series of Blu-ray boxes that assemble three miscellaneous films apiece. Most titles in the series are B films from the flood of shadowy crime thrillers released in the 1950s. Their minor status doesn’t prevent them from being entertaining, well-made, and revealing.

This trio is united by one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, the almost casually brilliant and magnetic Edward G. Robinson. He may have resembled the offspring of a frog and a fireplug, but Robinson was at home in any role. Playing a criminal, a cop, a man in the street, or anything else thrown at him, his mastery rivets our attention. Even his most flamboyant roles betray the depth of a human living inside the character’s head – someone who hears, thinks, and responds with fear, anger, humor, or love. The three films here display that range.

Vice Squad (1953) Director: Arnold Laven

Vice Squad is a police procedural presenting one eventful day at the office for Captain Barnaby (Robinson), who’s not actually in charge of the vice squad. That’s just a saucy title hung around the film instead of the name of Leslie T. White’s source novel, Harness Bull (1937). In other respects, as film historian Gary Gerani explains in his commentary, Lawrence Roman’s script is very close to the book.

In the wee hours of the morning, a patrolman notices two fellows who appear to be stealing a car from a parking lot. After calling for backup, he gets shot in a suspenseful and well-staged scene where his killer waits in the deep-focus distance of an apartment stairwell, with the killer himself watched by a cringing character who’s even farther back in the shadows.

We’ve just witnessed our mousy little middle-aged citizen emerge from a tryst in a blonde girlfriend’s apartment. He clearly hopes to get away without being noticed, but his torn conscience causes him to respond to the dying officer’s calls for help, and so his troubles begin. He’s one Jack Hartrampf (Porter Hall), an undertaker who told his wife he was out of town. In other words, he’s a very reluctant eyewitness to a cop killing. He and his smarmy attorney (Barry Kelley) become one of many moving parts in Vice Squad.

The major story is the imminent bank heist planned by the same killers responsible for the stolen car, which they need for the robbery. Barnaby has caught wind of the robbery plans through a sleazy informant (Jay Adler) who’s got troubles of his own. To investigate the suspected robbers, Barnaby calls in favors from a special network, the “legally licensed escort service” run by Mona Ross (Paulette Goddard). This is a very advanced plot device for 1953.

The shakedowns, threats, bargains, and manipulations presented as part of the daily routine of the jaded police are shown in laconic “just the facts” style, and that’s before we get into truly illegal and immoral shenanigans perpetrated by the police in the name of protecting the public. It all looks like a series of con games within con games, with everyone on both sides of the law forever masquerading and evaluating each other’s performance. Barnaby can never be entirely honest with anyone, and few are honest with him.

Along the way, he deals with a possible “marriage bunco” by a man who claims to be an Italian count and a squeaky-voiced little pest (Percy Helton) who claims that he’s constantly persecuted by the shadows from everyone’s televisions. That’s a little nod to the film industry’s then-enemy, a medium greeted with much suspicion until the studios learned to co-opt it.

As if all this isn’t enough, Barnaby must show up on that same medium for a live interview at 2 PM, which is when the big setpiece of the botched violent robbery occurs. A young bank worker (Mary Ellen Kay) gets kidnapped by the surviving robbers, and this turn of events leads to a suspenseful, shadow-laden climax in which the resourceful woman tries to get away from her dangerous watchdog.

Vice Squad is a low-budget United Artists indie from director Arnold Laven and producers Jules Levy and Arthur Gardner, a trio of partners who parlayed a string of features into a long successful run on television with westerns like The Rifleman and The Big ValleyVice Squad was their second feature. Like their debut, Without Warning (1952), it gets lots of mileage (literally) from location filming around Los Angeles and a brisk, suspenseful, low-key style.

As you may guess from this summary, Vice Squad has many characters played by reliable and busy actors, and we haven’t mentioned most of them. The crooks are played by Edward Binns, Lee Van Cleef, Adam Williams, Roscoe Karns, and Charles Tannen, who played about a million crooks and/or cops. Most famous is Van Cleef, who looks like a butcher knife wearing a hat, but all are endlessly recognizable. Williams, for example, played the killer in Without Warning, and he falls spectacularly off Mount Rushmore in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959).

The many women in the cast include third-billed K.T. Stevens as Barnaby’s efficient secretary, Joan Vohs as the undertaker’s gold-digger, Christine White as the daughter concerned that her mother is about to marry a swindler, and Wallace Earl Laven (the director’s wife) as the unctuous mortuary receptionist who tries to sweet-talk people into expensive options. In systematically presenting a modern world of flim-flam and civilized appearances over predatory behavior, Vice Squad could justify the noir label.

Black Tuesday (1954) Director: Hugo Fregonese

While Vice Squad casts Edward G. Robinson as a self-effacing yet effortlessly efficient manager who is quietly in charge of everything within his web, Black Tuesday evokes his gangster personas to present one of his scariest portrayals. As icing on this very dark cake, we get the gorgeous black and white photography of Stanley Cortez, who renders shot after shot as an Expressionist masterpiece of high-contrast shadows and silhouettes.

An unusual pre-credit sequence establishes the vivid Expressionist theatrics and the visual and existential notion of being caged. After an establishing shot of the high barred entrance to the death house, we see a close-up of a bald African-American (Don Blackman) who turns his back and sits before a stool that he begins beating like a bongo as he sings a song written for the film, “Black Tuesday Blues”. Continuing the shot, the camera pans to the cages with Robinson’s pacing and scowling character, then on to three more inmates until the last one screams at the singer to shut up.

Robinson plays King Canelli, a mob boss responsible for at least 17 deaths. In the next cell, scheduled to be electrocuted with him in a “double header”, is Peter Manning (Peter Graves), a handsome, tall, taciturn fellow who killed a cop while relieving a bank of $200k. He’s building a bridge out of matchsticks in prison because he always dreamed of building bridges. He’s an object of interest because nobody knows where the money is, and the state wants to bargain with him over it, but he’ll accept nothing less than a commutation to life.

If that scenario rings a bell, it’s because Graves played virtually the same situation one year later in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. It’s reasonable to guess that one role got Graves the other. Underlining the similarity, both films are shot by Cortez. In his commentary, Gerani notes that Cortez was excited to use a new type of high-speed film stock (Kodak’s Tri-X) that allowed lower light levels, and he used it in both films with mastery and majesty. Speaking of doubleheaders, Black Tuesday and The Night of the Hunter would be terrific.

With the precision of a heist film, Sydney Boehm’s script details an audacious breakout on the night of the execution. Boehm had much experience with heist films and noirs, and Black Tuesday is a perfect example. It’s designed and directed with care as the first indie from producer Robert Goldstein in a deal with United Artists.

Great character players grace the images in beautifully lighted, constricting compositions. Warren Stevens, James Bell, and Russell Johnson (famous as the Professor on Gilligan’s Island) are in Canelli’s mob, while hostages are played by Jack Kelly (future star of television’s Maverick), Milburn Stone as the priest, Vic Perrin as the doctor, Hal Baylor as a guard with whom Canelli has a beef, and Sylvia Findley as a guard’s daughter. The prolific Frank Ferguson and William Schallert are seen elsewhere.

The most surprising character is Hatti (Jean Parker), Canelli’s age-appropriate moll, who planned the breakout that transfers a hothouse of cross-purposed characters from one prison to another. There’s a nice interlude as Manning and Hatti go to fetch Manning’s dough from a safe deposit box. While Canelli would just as soon kill anybody in savage bursts of violence, his mutual love and sexual attraction for Hatti is that redeeming human quality that allows Robinson to shine.

Canelli is a wild card who keeps the action unpredictable. In contrast to Manning’s cold, bitter reason, he’s sometimes incapable of containing himself for his own good. Both characters express similar ideas about the value of life, at least their own, and their contempt for the society that would kill them.

Director Hugo Fregonese, who was neglected among auteurists, made films in Argentina, Hollywood, and Europe. Several of his films are about men in prison and his sympathy for them. PopMatters reviewed his 1962 epic Marco Polo here. As we noted, a 2022 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art cited his themes of “claustrophobia, entrapment and imprisonment”, and that might be the logline for Black Tuesday. It’s a small masterpiece.

Nightmare (1956) Director: Maxwell Shane

Yet a third United Artists indie starring Edward G. Robinson, Nightmare is an example of that phenomenon where a director remakes his own film. For Pine-Thomas Productions, writer-director Maxwell Shane had adapted Cornell Woolrich’s story as Fear in the Night (1947), starring future Star Trek actor DeForest Kelley. PopMatters reviewed it here. Pine-Thomas must have retained the story rights, but ten years later, Shane remade it as Nightmare for Pine-Thomas-Shane Productions.

The promotional art reproduced on Kino Lorber’s DVD promises a freaked-out Robinson as a common man plunged into literal nightmares. This aspect of his persona was seen, for example, in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945), in both Joan Bennett’s femme fatale hangs him out to dry, and again in John Farrow’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), in which psychic visions besiege his character.

The artwork’s promise in Nightmare is false, a bait-and-switch. Robinson’s character is cool and collected, while Kevin McCarthy plays the freaked-out hero in the very same year he was freaking out in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Film history is full of these odd synchronicities of zeitgeist.

After psychedelic opening credits by Howard A. Anderson, Nightmare goes into its surreal nightmare sequence, as narrated by jazz clarinetist Stan Grayson. We gaze into an amazing room composed entirely of mirrored doors. Stan enters to find a man and woman up to something in a corner. The man attacks Stan and tries to strangle him, and in the fracas, Stan stabs his attacker with an icepick. The woman screams and flees while Stan stashes the body in one of the many closets. All this is scored with woozy jazz, and it turns out Stan hears it too.

Then Stan awakens in a frantic sweat in his apartment. At first, he’s relieved it was all a crazy dream, but when he looks in his bathroom mirror, he’s startled to see bruises and cuts. Then he finds a button and a key from the mirrored room. Dazed, he wanders around New Orleans in actual location shots. He skips his recording date with Billy May and his orchestra (as themselves) and with his concerned girlfriend, their singer Gina (Connie Russell).

Stan goes to the house of his sister Sue (Virginia Christine, also in Vice Squad) and behaves evasively with her. He wants to speak to her husband, Rene (Robinson), who’s working on his new boat in the garage. Rene brushes off Stan’s story as a dream brought on by overwork and booze, and this is how we learn Rene is a homicide detective.

Going into a bar, Stan is startled to imagine that a lonely woman named Madge (Marian Carr) is the woman from his dream, but he discovers his error. She promptly invites him to her apartment, and we realize he’s about to cheat on Gina. Then, a distorted reflection reminds him of his terror and sends him fleeing, and we never see Madge again.

We must discuss Stan and women. He’s got twin beds, which means the empty bed represents a void in his life. (Rene will fill the other bed for one night.) He avoids Gina for several reasons, including career frustration, and tells her she should forget about him. Unable to perform, he flees Madge, who is an easy pick-up. He’s even squirrely around his sister.

All this is very Woolrichian, as is the scenario of a man who wakes up haunted by the thought that he may have committed murder last night. Woolrich used variants of this idea several times. At the risk of being reductive, critics intuit that he was mining his own anguish and neurosis as an alcoholic closeted male questioning his masculinity.

Woolrich’s pulp fiction output reflects the female-centered gothic suspense narratives, sometimes called Had-I-But-Known stories. In that tradition, the often hysterical narrator finds herself in a wild situation and baits the reader with remarks like “Had I but known the awful consequences, I never would have opened that letter” or something of the sort.

In Woolrich’s world, the hysterical narrator is a man. Stan even faints twice over the course of Nightmare, like a standard faint-hearted heroine. We’re not even mentioning his suicide attempt. So he’s constantly waking up in this heavily dreamlike, disorienting, surreal story where events don’t quite connect, and he’s so weak that others must always rescue him. He’s far from the typical two-fisted noir he-man.

In Nightmare, Stan is implicitly diagnosed as an hysteric when someone discovers a book on Freud and hysteria and another book on “narco-analysis”. This is Nightmare‘s halfway point, when Stan mysteriously leads Rene, Sue, and Gina to a remote house where he finds the mirrored room. On a Freudian level, this house and room are Stan’s unconscious mind, where he enacts a libidinal wrestle with another man, leading to penetration by icepick as Stan rejects the woman’s presence. The man’s attempt to open a safe with an acetylene torch could refer to a deeper unconscious secret, or it might be a sexual symbol. Or maybe we’re reading too much into it.

This summary addresses only half of an over-the-top, fever-pitched story. Rhys Williams, Barry Atwater, Gage Clark, and jazz pianist Meade “Lux” Lewis also appear in Nightmare. As with Vice Squad, Joseph Biroc is the photographer, and Herschel Burke Gilbert scores the score.

As film scholar Jason Ney clarifies in his commentary, the opening mirror scene will instantly remind film buffs of Orson Welles’ mirror scene in The Lady from Shanghai (1948). Yet, the original scene in Fear in the Night dates from one year before Welles’ film, and it’s a faithful rendition of Woolrich’s description of an octagonal mirrored room. Ney also discusses Shane, Freud, and Pine-Thomas Productions. He even reveals that Virginia Leith plays the woman in the dream, something even IMDB doesn’t know. Now that’s research.