Noir Nook: Oscar Omission – Edward G. Robinson

Noir Nook: Oscar Omission – Edward G. Robinson

One of my favorite times of the year is awards season. For years now, as soon as the Academy Awards are announced, I set upon a quest to see as many Oscar-nominated films and performances as possible. And I’m pleased to say that in 2022, because of streaming, I was able for the first time to see every film in each of eight major categories!

But I digress. The point of this month’s Noir Nook is not to discuss movies or performers that received Oscar accolades in the past but, instead, to shine the spotlight on Edward G. Robinson, a noir vet who was never a recipient of that golden statuette.

It’s hard to fathom, but Robinson was never even nominated for an Academy Award – this, despite a career that spanned seven decades and gave us versatile performances in such films as Little Caesar (1931), The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), Sea Wolf (1941), and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945). Today, I’m taking a look at three of his noir performances that, in my opinion, should have been applauded by the Academy.

Barton Keyes: Double Indemnity (1944)

Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity (1944)
Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity (1944)

This feature – my all-time favorite, incidentally – centers on the deadly duo of housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and insurance agent Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). These two team up for a little hanky-panky and a little murder, and intend to collect a big insurance payday after they do away with Phyllis’s hapless husband.

Robinson played Walter’s boss, a claims adjuster who houses a “little man” inside his gut that renders him capable of detecting all manner of subterfuge and wrongdoing. As Barton Keyes, Robinson serves up a master class in acting and gives us a character who is shrewd and relentless, compassionate, funny, and admirable. By all accounts, Robinson was initially reluctant to take on this supporting role, but he turned it into one of noir’s most memorable performances. He’s a standout from his first scene, where he outsmarts a luckless truck driver trying to collect on a fraudulent claim, to his last, full of pathos as he tenderly lights the cigarette of his doomed co-worker and friend.

Christopher Cross: Scarlet Street (1945)

Edward G. Robinson in Scarlett Street (1945)
Robinson in Scarlett Street (1945)

Robinson stars here as an unassuming cashier whose life is turned upside down when he saves the alluring Kitty March (Joan Bennett) from what appears to be an attack in the street by a stranger. Turns out that the stranger is Kitty’s no-good boyfriend, Johnny (Dan Duryea), who sees nothing but dollar signs when he and Kitty mistakenly believe that Chris is a wealthy artist. It’s an error that will ultimately lead to disaster for them all.

For my money, Chris Cross is one of Robinson’s most fascinating characters. He’s completely sympathetic, if a bit pitiable; he shows himself at the start to be an upstanding citizen, and when we meet his shrewish wife, we don’t blame him for stepping out with another woman. His primary joy in life (before meeting Kitty, that is), is putting his rather unusual point of view on canvas. And, unfortunately, once he falls for Kitty, he makes decisions that he otherwise would never have considered. Bad ones. And Robinson plays all of these facets to believable perfection.

Gino Monetti: House of Strangers (1950)

Edward G. Robinson and Luther Adler in House of Strangers (1950)
Edward G. Robinson and Luther Adler in House of Strangers (1950)

In this feature, Robinson is the strong-willed patriarch of an Italian family and the proprietor of a bank that he operates in the same way that he runs his family – with his own rules and an iron fist. Gino’s questionable banking practices land him in hot water with the law, but after years of being browbeaten by their father, three of his sons refuse to help. Only his favorite son, Max (Richard Conte), is willing to step up, but when Max bribes a jury member, he winds up serving a seven-year prison stretch – and, fueled by his father’s bitterness, emerges vowing vengeance against his siblings.

Robinson plays Gino as the despot you love to hate. We’re introduced to him as he’s taking a bubble bath, loudly belting an Italian song. When his eldest son, Joe (Luther Adler), enters, Gino commands him to scrub his back, barking out directions (“Higher! Harder! A little lower!”) before flicking suds in Joe’s face. We see further evidence of Gino’s treatment of his sons during one of the family’s weekly dinner gatherings. At Gino’s insistence, the meal is delayed in favor of the tardy Max, and when the youngest son, Pietro (Paul Valentine), eats a piece of bread, Gino orders him to spit it out, repeatedly referring to him as “Dumbhead.” Outside of the home, Gino’s king-like persona is demonstrated at the bank where each morning he hosts a throng of community residents, all seeking money from him, which he doles out in cash from a strongbox after listening to their various stories – a man who signs a note for $150 for a new horse is only given $120 (“Interest,” Gino explains. “I take it out in advance.”), while a woman who wants $62 train fare to send her sick child to Denver is given a fistful of money. When the woman tells him he has given her too much, Gino shrugs. “So I make a mistake.” In scene after scene, Robinson skillfully brings to life a character who embodies tyranny, ambition, and compassion, and – at the very end, an all-consuming resentment toward the three sons who turned against him.

I can’t think of another performer from Hollywood’s Golden Age who exhibited such talent and versatility yet was never recognized by the Academy. For my money, Edward G. Robinson should have, at the very least, been nominated for these three performances, if not received an Oscar for all three. What do you think? And can you think of any other noir performances that deserved Oscar recognition? Leave a comment and let me know!

– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

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11 Responses to Noir Nook: Oscar Omission – Edward G. Robinson

  1. M.T. Fisher says:

    I love EGR in his comedies more than anything, especially LARCENY, INC. Of the Warners gangsters, no one did comedy as well as he did. The man was a master at what he did. If you’ve ever read Richard Fleischer’s memoir (which is a must), his tales of EGR on the set of SOYLENT GREEN are outstanding.

    • Karen says:

      I’ve never seen Larceny, Inc., but I’m glad you mentioned it! It’s being screened at the upcoming TCM film festival — you just convinced me to check it out. Thank you! And thank you for the recommendation on Richard Fleisher’s memoir — I will definitely check it out.

    • Hi, M.T. — I just wanted to circle back to tell you that I did see Larceny, Inc., at the TCM film festival, and I enjoyed it immensely! Robinson was first-rate. Thank you so much for mentioning it!

  2. Stephen D says:

    best film 5 Star Final

  3. Vienna says:

    Absolutely incredible that he was never even nominated. I’d add Key Largo. What a career he had.
    I love the fact that IMDB lists 848 photos of Edward. Must go through them sometime.

    • Key Largo is another great one — he transformed into a completely different person! I didn’t know there were so many photos on IMDB — thanks for the heads-up, Carol; I will have to check them out too! Fun!

  4. a says:

    Should have won for The Sea Wolf,

  5. Joanith says:

    One of my fave classic actors and yes, no Oscar was a tremendous oversight. “The Woman in the Window” was good too, though similar to “Scarlet Street.”

    • It’s still hard to believe that he was never even nominated. He’s one of the best actors of the Golden Age! I agree that he was good in Woman in the Window — and I think I like his Chris Cross in Scarlet Street even better!

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