Royal Flush: THE CINCINNATI KID (MGM 1965)


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There are movies about the high-stakes world of poker, and then there’s THE CINCINNATI KID. This gripping look at backroom gambling has long been a favorite of mine because of the high-powered all-star cast led by two acting icons from two separate generations – “The Epitome of Cool” Steve McQueen and “Original Gangster” Edward G. Robinson . The film was a breakthrough for director Norman Jewison, who went after this from lightweight fluff like 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE and SEND ME NO FLOWERS to weightier material like IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR.

The film revolves around a poker showdown between up and coming young stud Eric Stoner, known as The Kid, and veteran Lancey Howard, venerated in card playing circles as The Man. This theme of young tyro vs old pro wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, having been hashed and rehashed in countless Westerns over the…

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Pre Code Confidential #28: Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR (Warner Brothers 1931)


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Gangster movies were nothing new in 1931. Josef von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927), Lewis Milestone’s THE RACKET (1928), and Bryan Foy’s LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (1929) had all dealt with urban organized crime onscreen (and Foy’s drama was the first “all-talking picture” to hit cinemas). But when Edward G. Robinson rat-a-tatted his way through Mervyn LeRoy’s LITTLE CAESAR, the gangster genre had finally arrived – with a vengeance! This highly influential flick opened the floodgates for a variety of films about mobsters, killers, and other assorted no-goodniks, and made an unlikely star out of the pugnacious Eddie G.

The film concerns the rise and fall of Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello, a small-time hood from the sticks who, along with partner in crime Joe Massara, moves to the big city and blasts his way up the ranks to become a gang boss. The diminutive Robinson exudes star power as the psychotic sociopath…

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Fever Dreams: Fritz Lang’s THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (RKO/International Pictures 1944)


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Back in 2016, I did a post expounding on one of my favorite films noir, 1945’s SCARLET STREET . This dark masterpiece of corruption starred the titanic trio of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea in a sordid tale directed by German legend Fritz Lang, with moody cinematography courtesy of Milton Krasner. Recently, I viewed a film this team made the year previous, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, with a screenplay by producer Nunnally Johnson. Comparisons were inevitable, but though there are certainly similarities between the two films, this one stands on its own as a powerful entry in the film noir canon. With all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Robinson plays college professor Richard Wanley, an intellectual lecturing on the psychology of homicide to his students. He’s a happily married father of two kids, left alone while the fam visits relatives. Whaley goes to his…

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30 Days of Noir #30: The Stranger (dir by Orson Welles)


“No, you must not miss the newsreels. They make a point this week no man can miss: The war has strewn the world with corpses, none of them very nice to look at. The thought of death is never pretty but the newsreels testify to the fact of quite another sort of death, quite another level of decay. This is a putrefaction of the soul, a perfect spiritual garbage. For some years now we have been calling it Fascism. The stench is unendurable.”

Those words were written in 1945 by director Orson Welles.  He was writing about the footage that had been filmed at the Nazi concentration camps during the final days of World War II.  These films not only revealed the crimes of the Third Reich but they also proved the existence of evil.  With World War II finally ended and Hitler dead, many people were eager to move on and forget about the conflict.  Many even claimed (and some continue to do to this very day) that the reports of the Nazi death camps were exaggerated.  Writing in his syndicated column for the New York Post, Welles told those doubters that the reports of the Nazi death camps were not exaggerated and that, unless people confronted the horrors of the Nazi regime by watching the newsreels and seeing for themselves, history would repeat itself.

A year later, Welles would use that documentary footage in a key scene of his 1946 film, The Stranger.  A government agent named Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) shows the footage to Mary Longstreet Rankin (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.  Wilson is hoping that, by showing her the footage, he’ll be able to convince her to help him bring a Nazi war criminal to justice.  Complicating things is that Wilson believe that the Nazi war criminal is Mary’s new husband, Professor Charles Rankin (played by Orson Welles, himself).

In this shot, the horrors of the Holocaust are literally projected onto Edward G. Robinson’s face, a reminder that is on us to prevent it from ever happening again.

Rankin’s real name is Franz Kindler.  One of the architects of the Holocaust, he escaped from Germany at the end of World War II and, after making his way through Latin America, he ended up in a small town in Connecticut.  He got a job at the local prep school, where he instructs impressionable young minds.  He also found the time to work on the town’s 300 year-old clock.

When we first see Kindler/Rankin, he’s walking out of the school and it’s obvious that all of his students love him.  Rankin has a quick smile, which he uses whenever he has to talk to Mary or any of the other townspeople.  However, that smile disappears as soon as he’s approached by another Nazi fugitive, Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne).  Rankin assures Meinike that he’s merely biding his time until he can establish a Fourth Reich.  Meinike, meanwhile, announces that he’s found God and he suggests that Rankin should turn himself in.  Correctly deducing the Meinike is being followed by Wilson, Rankin promptly strangles his former collaborator and spends the rest of the movie trying to cover up his crimes.

Welles was best known for playing characters who had the potential for greatness in them but who were ultimately brought down by their own flaws.  Think about Charles Foster Kane or Harry Lime or the detective in Touch of Evil or even Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight.  The Stranger is unique as one of the few instances in which Welles played an outright villain.  Unlike Kane or Falstaff, there’s no greatness to be found in Rankin/Kindler.  He’s fooled the town into thinking that he’s a good man but, instead, he’s a soulless sociopath who is even willing to murder his wife if that’s what he has to do to protect his secret.  Franz Kindler is the Third Reich and, by having him thrive under a new name in America, Welles argues that the Nazi threat didn’t end just because Hitler killed himself in Berlin.

And that’s an important message.  It was an important message in 1946 and, I would argue, it’s an even more important message today.  Anti-Semitism is on the rise in both America and Europe, with activists on both the Left and the Right embracing the type of bigotry and conspiracy-mongering that previously allowed madmen like Adolf Hitler to come to power.  Just today, I read a story about a Jewish professor at Columbia who arrived at work on Wednesday, just to discover that someone had vandalized her office with anti-Semitic graffiti.  Watching The Stranger today, it’s important to remember that the Franz Kindlers of the world are still out there and many of them are just as good at disguising themselves as Charles Rankin as Kindler was.

The Stranger was Welles’s third completed film as a director.  It was a film that he reportedly agreed to direct in order to prove that he was capable of bring in a film on budget and ahead-of-schedule.  Because Welles was largely acting as a director-for-hire on this film, there’s a tendency to overlook The Stranger when discussing Welles’s films.  While that’s understandable, The Stranger is clearly a Welles film.  From the use of shadow to the skewed camera angles, the film has all of Welles’s visual trademarks.  Thematically, this is another one of Welles’s films about a man who is hiding a secret underneath his ordinary facade.

It’s a good film, with Welles giving an appropriately evil performance as Kindler and Loretta Young providing strong support as Mary.  That said, the film’s soul is to be found in Edward G. Robinson’s performance.  Robinson was born Emmanuel Goldenberg in Romania.  In 1904, his family fled to America after one of his brothers was attacked by an anti-Semitic mob.  As someone who had experienced anti-Semitism firsthand, Robinson brought a righteous fury to the role of Mr. Wilson.  Wilson isn’t just pursuing a fugitive in The Stranger.  Instead, he’s seeking justice for the six million Jews who were murdered by men like Franz Kindler.

The Stranger is an important film and it seems like the right film with which to end my 30 Days of Noir.  Noirvember is ending and so ends our 30-day walk through the shadowy streets of noir cinema.

Pre Code Confidential #18: FIVE STAR FINAL (Warner Brothers 1931)


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Tabloid journalism has been around far longer than the cable “news” channels of today, with their 24 hour a day barrage of nonstop sleazy scandals and “fake news”. A circulation war between publishers Joseph Pulitzer (New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) in the 1890’s, filled with sensationalized headlines and mucho muckraking, gave birth to the term “Yellow Journalism”, derived from Richard Outcault’s guttersnipe character The Yellow Kid in his comic strip Hogan’s Alley, which appeared in both papers. This legacy of dirt-digging and gossip-mongering continued through the decades in supermarket rags like The National Enquirer and World Weekly News, leading us to where we are today with the so-called “mainstream media” stretching credibility to the max and bogus Internet click-bait sites abounding. All of which leads me to FIVE STAR FINAL, a Pre-Code drama about headhunting for headlines starring Edward G…

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Fool’s Gold: BARBARY COAST (United Artists 1935)


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BARBARY COAST probably would’ve been better had it been made during the Pre-Code era. Don’t misunderstand; I liked the film. It’s an entertaining period piece directed by Howard Hawks , with his trademark overlapping dialog and perfect eye for composition, rivaled by only a handful (Ford and Hitchcock spring immediately to mind). But for me, this tale of rowdy San Francisco during California’s Gold Rush was too sanitized by Hays Code enforcer Joseph Breen, who demanded major script changes by screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

The result is a film that’s just misses the classic status mark. It’s 1849, and Susan Rutledge arrives in Frisco to marry her rich boyfriend, who has struck it rich in the gold strike. When she finds out he’s been killed by gambling czar Luis Chandalis, owner of the Bella Donna saloon, avaricious Susan sets her sights on him. Chandalis becomes enamored of her…

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Moanin’ Low: On Claire Trevor and KEY LARGO (Warner Brothers 1948)


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John Huston’s filmnoir KEY LARGO is a personal favorite, and a bona fide classic in its own right that works on many different levels. Much of its success can be credited to the brilliant, Oscar-winning performance of Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn, the alcoholic ex-nightclub singer and moll of gangster Johnny Rocco (played with equal brilliance by Edward G. Robinson ). The woman dubbed by many “Queen of Noir” gives the part a heartbreaking quality that makes her stand out among the likes of scene stealers Robinson, Humphrey Bogart , Lauren Bacall , and Lionel Barrymore .

Claire Trevor (1910-2000) arrived in Hollywood in 1933, and almost immediately became a star. Her early credits include playing Shirley Temple’s mom in BABY TAKE A BOW (1934), the title role in the Pre-Code drama ELINOR NORTON (also ’34), Spencer Tracy’s wife in the bizarre DANTE’S INFERNO (1935), and the reporter out…

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