Edward G. Robinson. His forehead slopes from an evenly receded hairline, settling on dark, rodent-like eyes. His nose juts forward like a fat knuckle over lips that have conspired to remain perpetually horizontal. Here is a face that, when relaxed, tends toward a scowl. In happier moments, the corners of the mouth stay put while the eyebrows and cheekbones lift slightly, the chin cramping downward. Any other decade and Robinson’s mug might have kept him from stardom, but the 1930s weren’t exactly pretty either. To a stranded American public circa Black Tuesday 1929, the dapper swashbuckling of his contemporary nemesis, Errol Flynn, came across as the antics of an escapist dreamer. Are the days gone when an actor can embody the spirit of a nation? Perhaps more than any other Hollywood stars of the decade, it was Robinson’s stray-dog physiognomy that conveyed the vitality of Americans’ daily existence.
Born Emanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest in 1893, Robinson belonged to a handful of actors of the old studio system (mostly Warner Bros. staples) whose snarling faces defined the great era of Hollywood gangster films—Muni, Raft, Cagney, Bogart, and Robinson. None of these were handsome in the strict sense. Their popularity was a new kind of masculine glamour. It began with the celebritization of gangland figures like Al Capone and John Dillinger. The idea of taking what one likes, living on one’s wits even if it means flaunting the law, appealed to the fantasies of the out-of-work American male in a decade when self-sufficiency was largely unavailable. This allure had everything to do with the rags-to-riches tendency of gangster screenplays. Little Caesar (1931) is quintessential in this respect. In Robinson’s breakthrough role, he plays Rico, a small-time crook whom we follow up the ranks of the underworld until he becomes a kingpin, only to self-destruct. As a film, Little Caesar is among the very best of the gangster genre, typifying the familiar “pride cometh before the fall” motif. The gangster’s insatiable want for money and power eventually does him in at the height of his success. Even today, with flicks like the upcoming Depp film, Public Enemies, or even the impressive Godfather trilogy, this tried-and-true liturgical formula endures.
The prevalence of gangster roles in the 30s brought Robinson’s unlovely face—in Bullets or Ballots, The Last Gangster, and Little Caesar—to the forefront of the genre. However, his persistent lobbying for parts in which he could play against that type offset that trend. Like James Cagney, Robinson’s best performances are ones he is least remembered for—ones furthest from the gangster roles of the 30s. Off-screen, Robinson was more bohemian than Mafioso. Johnny Depp comes again to mind. In the same way Cagney was originally a song and dance man (as seen in Yankee Doodle Dandy, for which he won Best Actor), Robinson was cerebral. He was a serious collector of fine art and an amateur painter himself. Robinson was most impressive (and fun) when playing an intellectual or some manner of learned expert. This can be seen as early as 1938’s The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse. Later, in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window, Robinson plays a gentle professor of psychology who falls down the noir rabbit hole after getting mixed up with Joan Bennett. And best of all, Robinson played insurance claims investigator Barton Keyes in Billy Wilder’s, Double Indemnity. It gave him third billing beneath Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, but MacMurray wilts to the side under one of Robinson’s most bombastic soliloquies. These roles took the revolver out of Robinson’s hand and allowed him to be a brainy protagonist that gets over on the other guy with rhetoric instead of bullets. His monologues in Double Indemnity are the film’s most memorable scenes, leveling off the morbid screenplay with wry humor. Apparently, the gangster had a heart.
By the time Edward G. Robinson was blacklisted in the late 40s and dragged numerous times before the House Un-American Activities Committee, his finest work was behind him (HUAC, by the way, never found any evidence that Robinson was anything but a liberal Democrat who revered Franklin Roosevelt—precisely what he had told them). Throughout the 50s and 60s, Robinson only took occasional roles, more and more eschewing feature films in favor of one-night-stand television and radio gigs. He did famously turn up in C.B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, playing opposite Charlton Heston (and delivering his famous “Where’s your messiah now?” line). But it’s Robinson’s work in the shoot-'em-up flicks of the 30s that continues to define his career, justly or unjustly. In our current economic turbulence, a throwback might feel nice once in awhile. Public Enemies seems to promise some of the old, gritty flair. Some of us would willingly trade in the glossy facelift of digital Hollywood in favor of some ungainly face that looks like it’s survived a generation or two.