Saturday, April 13, 2024

Favorite Stars in B-Movies Blogathon 2024: Graylisted

It is easy in film critic land to ascribe the shape and form of most films to an overriding artistic impulse on the part of the filmmakers, but this is only true in a small number of films. Most films are at the mercy of social and commercial forces that are well outside the control of directors, producers, and even studios. Back in the day, B-films were particularly susceptible to these forces. The function of these movies was to make money, after all, not plumb the depths of the human condition. If they sometimes managed to exist as actual art, it was often entirely accidental. Whatever their artistic aspirations may be, most of the people who do the nuts and bolts work of making a film are there because it's a job. This includes actors, who may appear in films for entirely mercenary reasons. There are plenty of B-movies starring A-list actors or directed by A-list directors who for one reason or another needed a paycheck at the time. It's a cruel twist of fate that Michael Caine couldn't accept his first Oscar in person because he was busy making Jaws 4: The Revenge. Caine got a lovely house out of the deal, or so he says. The commercial and social pressures on the art of movies were especially strong in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when making a living in movies often depended on one's politics.

For example:

In the 1930s and early 1940s, Edward G. Robinson was one of the cinema's biggest stars. He was principally known for playing gangsters, co-equal with James Cagney as an attraction in such roles. He was also able to expand into more varied roles where he played against the tough guy image. There is a wide gulf of difference between Caesar Rico Bandello in Little Caesar and the morally righteous insurance investigator, Keyes, in Double Indemnity or the henpecked and pussy-whipped artist, Chris Cross, in Scarlet Street. He had a broad range, which was often ignored by the studios who cast him. His range was certainly ignored by Warner Brothers where he made his breakthrough films. They cast him in a long succession of gangsters and tough guy parts. When Robinson was entertaining the troops on a USO tour during World War II, he found he got no response from the GIs unless he started his bits with an in-character speech by Rico, Little Caesar himself, before speaking as himself as a strident anti-fascist. The real Robinson was an intellectual, a famed art collector, a lion of the Hollywood Left, and an immigrant Jew. He put his money where his convictions were, too, donating to over 800 left wing and anti-Nazi and anti-fascist organizations in the 1930s. He was among the first big stars to make openly anti-Nazi films, starring in Confessions of a Nazi Spy well before the United States entered the war. After the war, he agitated for racial equality in the workplace and campaigned for civil rights. But no good deed goes unpunished.

As happened to many a leftist after the war, Robinson found himself in the sights of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who were hellbent on rooting out Communist influence in Hollywood. The first rumblings of HUAC arrived in Hollywood in 1947, and Robinson was among the most prominent actors in the committee's sights. Some of the organizations he supported in the 1930s and throughout the war were identified as Communist fronts. He himself had been identified as a Red in the press in 1950. He appeared before the committee at his own request to clear his name. In his comments to the committee, he confessed to having been duped by bad influences and Communist agents. He said that he didn't know that some of the groups he had funded were fronted by Communists or were backed by the Communist party. Whether or not he actually believed any of this is a matter of speculation. It is true that Robinson had never been a member of the Communist party--the Committee found absolutely no evidence of this--but he was regarded as a fellow traveler or a useful dupe from the get go, which was almost as toxic. In any event, his testimony satisfied the committee, though committee chair Francis E. Walter told Robinson that he was a "very choice sucker." Robinson himself used the word "sucker" in an editorial he wrote for the October 1952 edition of the American Legion Magazine. His testimony and his mea culpa kept Robinson from being completely blacklisted. He kept his career. But that career had already started to change dramatically in the late 1940s. His politics were already so well-known when the Red Scare started to swell that he was already radioactive long before he went to Washington. Moreover, Robinson had aged out of the roles that made him a star. He was already struggling to be considered for lead roles in A-pictures. He was already well into a career as a character actor by 1947 (though you could probably argue that he was a character lead a la Lon Chaney from the outset of his career). After his bouts with the committee, his horizons shrank. It was B-pictures for Robinson, or exile on the stage or in Europe. He had been graylisted. He was still employable, but only just. Meanwhile, his life was falling apart. His wife, Gladys, was in and out of sanitariums and the two eventually divorced. His son had become an alcoholic and had been accused of armed robbery, eventually serving time for a DUI. Robinson was compelled to sell his art collection to make the divorce settlement with Gladys. He was at a low ebb.

And yet, of the notable actors who had been demoted to the Bs because of their politics, Robinson is the one whose legacy seems undimmed. It helps that the films he made during this period were mostly tinged with shades of film noir, an idiom that has endured well past its era. It also helps that the filmmakers who hired him used him in a narrow range of roles that were already part of his long repertoire. Moreover, he had already been making these kinds of pictures during the peak years of film noir. He's one of the key stars in one of the most famous films noir, after all. There is only a shade of difference between films like The Stranger, The Night Has 1000 Eyes, or The Woman in the Window and the graylist films he made between 1952 and 1955. Sometimes there was no difference at all. These are films like Vice Squad, The Glass Web, Black Tuesday, Nightmare, Illegal, and Tight Spot. Some of these films are pretty good--often because Robinson made them good--but none of them is an A-picture. Robinson's reputation endures, too, because he was rescued from the graylist and from the B-pictures by Cecil B. DeMille, who cast him in The Ten Commandments. The patronage of DeMille, a culture warrior and right-wing demagogue if ever there was one, was good enough to give Robinson a third act in movies. He made the most of it.

Robinson barely worked in 1950 and 1951. Like many a blacklistee, he had gone to Europe to make a film in 1950 (Operation X), and he made no films at all in 1951. His sole film appearance in 1952 was in a segment of Actors and Sin, a quasi-anthology film. Not a starring role and the film is an obscurity. The first film he made after his last HUAC appearance was Vice Squad (1953, directed by Arnold Laven), in which he played harried police Captain Barnaby, who is juggling a particularly busy day. His unit is chasing a cop killer while dealing with a variety of other cases. The sole witness to the killing is an undertaker who was leaving his mistress's apartment and is reluctant to say anything without the presence of his lawyer for fear of exposing his affair to his wife. The cop killing, for its part, is related to information that has come to the precinct from a lowlife informer who says that there's a bank heist in the offing. That line of inquiry leads Barnaby's unit into cahoots with escort service madam Mona Ross (Paulette Goddard, who was also blacklist-adjacent, having been married to blacklistee Burgess Meredith). One of Mona's girls is seeing a man who is bragging about a big score. That man is Marty Kusalich, who chickens out on the bank heist when he gets word that his partners have killed a cop. The heist itself goes spectacularly wrong when the cops stationed in the bank shoot it out with the robbers. The ringleader, Al Barkus, gets away after taking a bank employee hostage. The manhunt is on.

Vice Squad is a case study in the changing face of American cinema in the 1950s. It's cheap. It was made by an independent production company and sold to United Artists. This practice of small production companies feeding the big studios became increasingly the norm as the United States vs. Paramount antitrust consent decrees started to dismantle the studio system during this period. Vice Squad is at the point where the practical realities of low-budget filmmaking collide with the idiom of film noir and the innovations of Italian neo-realism. Both of these would eventually spark the cinematic "New Waves" of the late 1950s/early 1960s. There is a lot of location shooting throughout Los Angeles in Vice Squad. The film was shot by Joseph Biroc, who was soon to be Robert Aldrich's favorite cameraman, and his photography creates distinct visual textures throughout the film. The footage shot on the streets of LA has a documentary feel, while the sequences in the police station and the robbers' hideout have the stark high key noir look. The film also has a bevy of familiar faces from mid-century cinema in the cast, including Lee Van Cleef as one of the heisters and Porter Hall as the reluctant undertaker.

Robinson is central to the film. Everything orbits around his performance. This is Robinson at his most benevolent. Like Keyes in Double Indemnity, Barnaby is first and foremost an efficient bureaucrat. He never loses his cool. He's equally gentle with a woman who is afraid a mountebank is trying to con her mother into marriage, with a man who is convinced that shadows given off by television have attached themselves to him without his consent, and with the parents of the girl kidnapped in the bank heist. He's unflappable in a television interview that he'd rather not give. He fences with Mona Ross like they're old friends and adversaries. Without Robinson, I doubt there's a film. It was a modest success. It's not a world-beater, but it's a pretty good film. Its success, modest though it was, indicated that Robinson could still sell a film. The producers were diligent in making sure an audience was seeing something "in the tradition of Little Caesar" in the trailer, even though the film has almost no resemblance to Little Caesar at all. Robinson got to make more films.

The Glass Web (1953, directed by Jack Arnold) doesn't have a resemblance to Little Caesar, either. Henry Hale, Robinson's character in this film is a crime expert who works as a technical advisor on a television show called "Crime of the Week". He's sweet on Paula Rainer, a bit actress who is using him to get roles and move on to better things, mostly without success. Paula is also attached to Don Newell, the head writer on Crime of the Week, but her hooks into Don are more sinister. She's blackmailing him. Worse, her grifter ex-husband is back in town and she needs to skip, so she leans on Don for a $2500 payoff. Henry, for his part, is stricken and enraged and when she ultimately gives him a humiliating blow-off, he strangles her. Don, who is outside the apartment when this happens, hears the argument and when it's over and Henry leaves, he finds the body. But he doesn't see Henry. He doesn't know the identity of the murderer. Henry, for his part, wants to use the murder on Crime of the Week to bolster its ratings. Henry's version of the script implicates Don, and Henry suggests that it might be a good idea if Don took his family and left town. Don stays. At the dress rehearsal, Don realizes that the only way that Henry could know the specific details of the crime is if Henry is the murderer. Unfortunately, Henry knows he knows...

The Glass Web is what a contemporary critic would call metacinema. It is film commenting on itself by presenting competing versions of the same reality on the screen. The opening scene, in which a man pushes a woman down a well in the middle of the desert, only for the camera to dolly back and reveal a sound stage sets its expectations. We see the murder of Paula Rainer twice: once as it happened in "real" life, and once again as staged by the murderer in Crime of the Week. It's almost as if Hayes has to reenact it with an alternate murderer in order to absolve himself. It's a complicated narrative construction even though the through line of the plot is fairly simple. The detail that gives the show away--a record player repeatedly playing "Temptation" by Bing Crosby--seems almost arbitrary given that any number of people heard it at the scene of the crime. Newell (John Forsythe) seems to snap to attention when he recognizes the dialogue in Hayes's script, too, but the film never grasps that as a more essential revelation. It's not as tightly constructed as it might be, but it juggles a lot of things in the air.

The Glass Web was shot in 3-d. It was director Jack Arnold's second of three 3-d films. The other two--It Came from Outer Space and The Creature from the Black Lagoon--are much better known. Universal tested The Glass Web in both 3-d and standard format and got a better response to the standard format. It was never released in 3-d even though a 3-d print of the film still exists. Most of the film doesn't read as 3-d because Arnold restrains from poking things at the audience. The exception to this is during Newell's walk home after discovering Paula's body, when a ladder on a fire truck, some tumbling rocks at a construction site, and a motor vehicle are conspicuously aimed at the audience. This is so visible it becomes a bit of a laugh. Perhaps more vexing: as of this writing the film has never been released in the United States on home video. Music rights have dogged it since its original run. There is a version online if you want to look for it, but it's not ideal.

The version of Robinson in The Glass Web is familiar, too. He's an obsessive driven mad by his unrequited love for a woman who exploits him. It's a variation on the characters Robinson played in his movies for Fritz Lang a decade earlier. Henry Hayes is a much more cunning criminal in this film, though, and more actively malign in his intentions once his crime has been committed. He's not the central character of the show here even if he is top billed. That's a pattern among Robinson's graylist films.

If there's a role among Robinson's films from this period that truly hearkens back to Little Caesar, it's the death row escapee in Black Tuesday (1954, directed by Hugo Fregonese). Vincent Cannelli, the racket boss on death row, is a snarling psychopath who will do anything to escape his fate, no matter how many people have to die. The opening of the film has Cannelli and fellow convicts waiting their turn as one of them sings a blues song about what awaits them, each man pacing in his cell like a caged animal. Hatti, Cannelli's girlfriend on the outside, has a plan to spring him on the eve of his appointment with the electric chair: She kidnaps the daughter of one of the guards to coerce him into substituting one of Cannelli's men for a reporter covering the executions. Cannelli for his part has his eye on Peter Manning, the prisoner in the next cell. He's a bank robber who refuses to give up the location of his loot in exchange for even a little clemency. When the breakout happens, Cannelli scatters the other inmates to their own fates, but keeps Pete close. Because Pete has been shot, Cannelli takes along the prison doctor as one of his hostages, as well as the warden, one of the screws, and a few of the witnesses. They hide out in a warehouse that's been set up as a fortress. Cannelli tells the doctor that if Pete doesn't live, there will be two graves. The kidnapped daughter is being held there, too, and she pleads for her release and for the lives of her fellow hostages. She forms a bond of sorts with Pete. When Pete is recovered enough, he takes Hatti to the bank where he's hidden the loot in a safe deposit box, a box that only he can open. He suspects that Cannelli will kill him once he gets what he wants. Unfortunately, they're spotted. Soon, the hideout is under siege. Cannelli is willing to kill all his hostages unless he gets what he wants...

The most striking thing about Black Tuesday is how it reworks the Little Caesar archetype for a more brutal post-War era. Cannelli is a character without much sympathy. He's as hard-boiled as they come. The only comparable character in the cinema of the day was Cody Jarrett, the mad dog anti-hero played by James Cagney in White Heat. Cannelli is more brutal than any other character the actor played, and he was all in on the portrayal. Moreover, this was a film in which he was the center, and he held it in a death grip. The narrative construction of the film is distinctly theatrical. There are only two main locations and they both look like they're the same set, redressed to turn death row into a fortress warehouse. The giveaway is the cast concrete of the walls, which is the same in both locations. This is a film that could be played live on stage without a lot of trouble. For all that, it's a film that has a lot of action. It's a mean film, one that probably wouldn't have made it out of the Breen office if it had been an A-picture. B-pictures were often viewed as disposable and of no consequence to the censors, who sometimes let them get away with stuff. As a result, these films sometimes had a pulp vitality that has let them linger in the fringes of cinema.

This is another film with a cadre of familiar faces from mid-Century entertainment. Background actors here include Warren Stevens, William Schallert, and Russell Johnson. Peter Graves plays Manning, and his storyline is eerily similar to his part a year later in The Night of the Hunter. In both films he's an escaped death-row inmate with hidden money. This film, like The Night of the Hunter, was shot by the great Stanley Cortez. It's unusually good-looking as a result. Cortez is a baffling artist. He shot some of the most beautiful movies ever made, but wound up working on junk food like They Saved Hitler's Brain later in his career. He never lost his touch, though, as his work for Sam Fuller in the 1960s attests. Black Tuesday is more in the line of the films he made with Fuller than it is the ones he made with Orson Welles and Charles Laughton, but you can see a conversation between the influences. He absolutely understood the assignment with this film. It's full of inky shadows, characters in silhouette in the foreground, and interesting faces that bounce light in unexpected ways. It's a beautiful film. It's worth seeking it out in a good edition rather than the crap version you can find online.

Tight Spot (1955, directed by Phil Karlson) was the second of two films Robinson made under a deal with Columbia Pictures, which suggests that Robinson was beginning to crawl out of graylisted obscurity even before The Ten Commandments. The other film on that contract was The Violent Men, a Cinemascope western that's beyond the remit of this post, but it's good and you should seek it out. Tight Spot is purely a B-picture, though, one designed to capitalize on the Kefauver hearings in Congress ahead of the 1956 election, in which Senator Estes Keffauver went after organized crime. If you want another pop-culture reference point for this, the congressional hearings where Michael Corleone testifies in The Godfather Part II are also based on the Kefauver hearings. This has been fictionalized here, and its scope limited somewhat, but the aim of deporting gangsters who the government couldn't otherwise prosecute was a key tactic of Keyfauver's committee and gets a workout here.

In this film, Ginger Rogers plays Sherry Conley, gangster's moll, who is plucked from her nice, safe prison and stashed in a hotel by crusading District Attorney Lloyd Hallett, in the hope of convincing her to testify to a grand jury about the crimes of gangster Benjamin Costain. Other prospective witnesses have met sticky ends, so Hallett platoons a squad of cops to protect her, led by Lt. Vince Striker. Striker and Mrs. Willhouby, a prison matron, keep Conley company as Hallett makes his pitch. Conley is mainly interested in the food she can get from room service. She forms a bond with Striker, though, which is unfortunate. Striker is in Costain's employ. Costain doesn't know where they are, though, and the longer Hallett keeps Conley secret and alive, the longer he has to convince her...

Robinson is second-billed in Tight Spot, but he's mainly a supporting player in this film. This version of Robinson is the same morally upright character from Vice Squad, more or less, and he has the same task: convincing (or coercing) a witness to testify. This is the Ginger Rogers show all the way, with Brian Keith's Striker as a foil, not Robinson. This is the kind of wise-cracking bad girl that won Rogers an Oscar in Kitty Foyle. It's well inside her range, though she's hampered somewhat by an unflattering hairstyle. Keith is fine as the morally conflicted Striker. He reminds me a bit of Dana Andrews's character in Where the Sidewalk Ends, though I can't quantify that in any meaningful way. Katherine Anderson has the thankless role of Willhouby, whose main job in the film is to get murdered and provide motivation for Conley, but she's not a floor lamp when she's on screen. She holds her own before the plot notices her. Lorne Greene plays Costain, a role that couldn't be farther from his roles as Pa Cartwright on Bonanza or Commander Adama on Battlestar Galactica. I don't know how many heavies Greene played in his career, but he had the voice for it.

Like Black Tuesday, this is a film that could be staged for live theater. It's mostly confined to the hotel-room set and its main plot engine is dialogue. Director Phil Karlson had a reputation for hard-nosed noir films, but this one is far less brutal than the likes of Kansas City Confidential or The Phenix City Story even accounting for the multiple assassination attempts. There's a flatness to this production that I don't think I could quantify, but it reminds me of television. This feeling is reinforced by strange interludes where the characters watch a telethon that resembles an early version of Hee Haw.

Robinson plays another crusading lawyer in Illegal (1955, directed by Lewis Allen), though one whose ideals cause him to take a steep tumble from his place in the world. DA Victor Scott is ruthless in his pursuit of justice. As such, he has a perfect record in death-penalty cases. He has ambitions for higher office. That all comes tumbling down when he convicts an innocent man. When the true murderer confesses to the crime, Scott is too late to stop the execution. He resigns as DA and crawls into a bottle. At rock bottom, he's brought before a judge for drunk and disorderly conduct. In court, he sees the plight of his fellow defendants, none of whom have good representation. He resurrects himself as a defense attorney. His first case finds a man accused of killing a boxer in a drunken brawl. Scott gets him off on self defense, given that a boxer has to register his hands as deadly weapons. His second case sees him representing an embezzler. He settles the case for $50,000, taking an additional $10,000 as payment. That payment attracts the attention of gang boss Frank Garland, who takes a shine to Scott, and invites him to join his stable of lawyers. Scott demurs, but winds up in bed with Garland anyway when he gets a poisoner off in a spectacular courtroom stunt in which he drinks the poison to show the DA's case is based on bad analysis. Then he runs to get his stomach pumped. He knows the poison is real, but he also knows that it takes a while to take effect. Meanwhile, Ellen Miles, Scott's protege at the DA's office has married fellow assistant DA Ray Borden. When Scott unwittingly gets a defendant off with information provided by Garland's agents, Ellen is convinced Scott has a pipeline into her office. Scott denies it, but starts to look around. Unfortunately for Ellen, the mole is Borden. When she discovers his perfidy, he attempts to kill her. She shoots him in self-defense. Scott takes her case, but it's in Garland's interest to have Ellen take the fall. Scott cannot bring himself to be the agent of her fall...

Illegal is probably the closest any of Robinson's films of the 1950s comes to replicating the films of his golden age in the 1930s. This is the third version of this story, originally filmed as The Mouthpiece and starring Warren Williams in 1932 and again as The Man Who Talked Too Much in 1940. It's a well-worn story, enlivened by Robinson's lead performance. Of Robinson's old films, it most resembles Bullets or Ballots, another film about a gang-adjacent lawyer. More than that, though, this film has a screenplay co-authored by W.R. Burnett, whose credits include Little Caesar (natch), High Sierra, and The Asphalt Jungle. Burnett is one of the prime creators of the gangster film and of film noir after it. His touch is evident in the screenplay of this film, which doesn't waste time on anything that doesn't move the plot forward. There's a theme of anti-capital punishment in this film, but in the best tradition of Samuel Goldwyn, there's no overt message. (Goldwyn memorably told his writers that if they wanted to send a message, they should use Western Union.) The subtext here is a strong contrast with Black Tuesday, which is arguably an argument on the side of capital punishment, given that all of the convicts in that film deserve their rewards. This is a film that's rich in compelling scenes, whether it's the race against the electric chair at the outset or Scott running rings around the prosecution in his first trial as the defense. Scott's little stunt with the poison is a highlight, but the film saves its best for Scott's final argument at the end of the film, with a bullet in his gut. This occasionally seems like a string of disconnected incidents--a picaresque as it were--but director Lewis Allen does a fine job of tying it all together in the end. This is no small feat, given the number of narrative threads involved.

Victor Scott is another classic Robinson character type, morally compromised but upright man who vies against his own corruption to do right in the world. Earlier iterations of this character type appear in Five Star Final, Bullets or Ballots, A Slight Case of Murder, Larceny Inc., and Brother Orchid. Were it not for the world-changing influence of Little Caesar, this type would be Robinson's dominant character archetype. Robinson is matched with another cast full of "that guy!" actors, with appearances by Nina Foch, Hugh Marlowe, Albert Dekker, and the film debut of Jayne Mansfield. DeForest Kelly--Dr. McCoy himself--appears as the innocent man whose execution kicks things off. In other words, the raw materials for this film are unusually strong for a film on this budgetary scale. There are lots of more expensive films than this one that aren't half as fun to watch. This makes the best use of Robinson's screen presence of any film he made in the 1950s.

Robinson's last film during what he called his "b-movie era" was Nightmare (1956 directed by Maxwell Shane). Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich under his famous "William Irish" pseudonym, this was also familiar territory for the actor. He had already starred in The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, another film based on Woolrich with a similar dream logic. In this film jazz clarinetist Stan Grayson wakes up from a dream in which he kills a man in a room full of mirrors. When he wakes up, he discovers bruises that suggest it may not have been a dream. He wanders the streets of New Orleans in a daze trying to remember a snatch of music from his dream, music that might be the key to his memories. His girlfriend, Gina, is in a panic because Stan hasn't shown up to the recording session where he's employed. Eventually Stan wanders to his sister's house and confesses his troubles to his brother in law, Rene Bressard, who is also a homicide detective. Rene dismisses Stan's fears. Gina eventually tracks Stan to his sister's house, and the next day they decide to go on a picnic. Rain causes them to cut this short and they take shelter in a nearby house, a house with a room full of mirrors and evidence of a murder...

The dream fugue at the heart of Nightmare is typical of Woolrich, who used similar plot constructions in his novel, The Black Curtain, and in several of his short stories. Woolrich was never interested in a naturalistic plot, and many of his stories are absurd on their face--or would be if they weren't so feverishly written. That feeling of being trapped in a dream makes the jump to the screen here, in part because lead actor Kevin McCarthy had such a face for panic. A year later, he would star in the paranoid masterpiece, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which has elements in common with this film: the sense that something is desperately wrong without any hard evidence, the fact that no one will believe you when you tell them your fears, and McCarthy's panicked face. This film isn't nearly as good as Invasion, but it speaks of a mid-century atmosphere of paranoia that infects all kinds of movies. This is also related to the rash of psychiatric noir films that ran concurrently with the mainstream of film noir. The motif of murder and amnesia is common to films like Spellbound, Somewhere in the Night, Shock!, and The Snake Pit. Indeed, this is the second film version of this particular Woolrich story; the first was Fear in the Night, also directed by Maxwell Shane.

This film was partially shot on location in New Orleans. It's a kick to see McCarthy wandering around the French Quarter--I like to think he's looking for alien seed pods--but in truth, this film squanders its location. No actual scenes are played in the city, just b-roll. The fatal house where the crime took place has an interior that could be any stock set in Hollywood for all its distinctiveness. Ditto the hotel room where Stan is living. There's a genuine Gothic lurking in the negative space of this film that never once intrudes on the action. One hopes the production got a good tax rebate for filming in Louisiana.

As Bressard, Robinson is very much in the background in this film. He's convinced of Stan's guilt once the evidence starts to pile up, but starts to question things once Stan tries to throw himself out a fifteenth-floor window, so he functions as an antagonist at the outset. His role in this film changes to become both detective and psychoanalyst. This is a harder version of Robinson's heroic characters, one that needs convincing in the face of an absurd set of plot twists. The center of the film is McCarthy, though. He's in almost every scene. The camera gets right up in his face. He mostly carries the film when he's on stage alone. The film improves dramatically every time McCarthy shares the screen with Robinson, though. But then, that's why the producers hired him. Robinson's name still had some box-office value, sure, but he was also a generous and electrifying actor with the right material. I don't know that this material is right for him, but it's not egregiously wrong, either. So it works well enough.

In later years, Robinson always credited DeMille with his career resurrection. Although his part in the film was small, The Ten Commandments was such a massive cultural phenomenon that it lifted all of the boats that were tied to it. Even so, Robinson wouldn't work again for another three years. His third act commenced with A Hole in the Head in 1959. In truth, I think Robinson was wrong about DeMille's role in his subsequent career. Even during his penance in B-Movies, his movies made money. On a smaller budget, true, but money is money in Hollywood, and it's not like the door to a comeback was closed forever for him. It wasn't. Around the time The Ten Commandments conquered the cinema, some of the blacklistees were already edging their way back into theaters, either by making movies in Europe like Jules Dassin or Joseph Losey, or through fronts who took the credit for their work. The blacklist ultimately toppled when Otto Preminger gave Dalton Trumbo on-screen credit for writing Exodus in 1960 and when Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick acknowledged that Trumbo had also written Spartacus the same year. The American Legion and the John Birch Society picketed both films, but it didn't hurt their box office. It might have helped it. Trumbo, it should be noted, was one of the people Robinson "mentioned" to HUAC, but others had mentioned him before Robinson. So Robinson probably would have come all the way back regardless. The B-films gave him an income to carry him through to that point. What he gave back to the B-films he made is beyond price.

This is my contribution to the second annual Favorite Stars of B-Movies Blogathon, hosted by Brian over at Films From Beyond the Time Barrier, who once again graciously extended an invitation to your humble bloginatrix. This was a substantially more difficult piece to write than last year's post, so it's running a little late. I hope Brian will forgive me. In any case, check out the other posts by the writers he's assembled and enjoy.

Christianne Benedict on Patreon
This blog is supported on Patreon by wonderful subscribers. If you like what I do, please consider pledging your own support. It means the world to me.


Brian Schuck said...

Christianne, Thanks so much for joining the blogathon with this highly interesting and meticulously researched piece on Robinson and his films from his graylist period! Robinson is one of those actors whose mere presence, even in a smaller role, greatly elevates a film. I've seen most of the films you cover, two of them recently (Illegal and Tight Spot), and in spite of the modest budgets they're crackerjack entertainment (to use an old-timey phrase). I'm intrigued with the one I haven't seen, The Glass Web, directed by Jack Arnold (another favorite!) in 3D no less! A pox on those elusive music rights! I will just have to seek out the sub-optimal online version.

Silver Screenings said...

Thank you for such a thorough look at Robinson's gray list period. Sometimes people dismiss his HUAC appearance and subsequent films, but you've shown that he still had a viable career with these noirs. Like you said, money is money, and Robinson was a bankable actor.

MichaelWDenney said...

This is an amazingly detailed and well-researched article. Thanks so much for all the interesting information about Robinson and his gray-listing. Of course, I know of Robinson and some of his most famous roles but I was not familiar with this part of his life and career. Somebody needs to release a Gray-List Collection BluRay set.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Michael,

Three of these films are available on blu-ray in a box set from Kino.

MichaelWDenney said...

Oooh! Thanks for the tip, Vulnavia!