Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Edward G. Robinson in "Double Indemnity" (1944)

Scene from Double Indemnity
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes
Film: Double Indemnity (1944)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Supporting Actor category (1944):
-Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way) *Winner
-Hume Cronyn (The Seventh Cross)
-Claude Rains (Mr. Skeffington)
-Clifton Webb (Laura)
-Monty Woolley (Since You Went Away)

In the realm of film noir, there are few films that have been as vital as director Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity. Along with Sunset Blvd., the director was great at making crime films that had a dark and bitter conscience, but still had enough liveliness to not be a total drag. With help from Raymond Chandler, who penned a lot of iconic films such as Strangers on a Train and The Big Sleep, the story is full whimsical and immediate language that grabs the viewer. Add in great performances by Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, and you have a great example of what this genre film could be. Much like The Maltese Falcon prior, it managed to show up big at the Oscars. However, its seven nominations inevitably ended up empty handed. It was the year of Going My Way, Bing Crosby's hip preacher musical, and nobody was going to stop it from coming up big.

History has generally shown that Double Indemnity has withstood the test of time better. Many film schools still use it as the definitive film noir, or at least one to best understand its structure. One can easily flip through the IMDb page and find lines that still pop, free from the dated appeal of a Mid-Atlantic accent. However, there was a certain something that seemed unfair with the Oscar nominations. While Stanwyck deservedly so received a nomination for her now iconic role as Phyllis Dietrichson, neither of its main male characters received any recognition. In fairness, neither MacMurray or Edward G. Robinson would receive an Oscar nomination in their career - thus making them prime targets for The Runner-Ups. However, there's something that seems criminal (no pun intended) by not giving Robinson a nomination.

It's true that he received an Honorary Oscar in 1973 for his entire filmography. However, the tragedy is that he died two months beforehand, and none of his iconic roles as a gangster would ever be recognized. He was a character actor who, much like James Cagney, tended to embody criminal characters. Robinson's persona has been imitated for its high pitched yet menacing voice, most notably in The Simpsons character Chief Clancy Wiggum. Unlike Cagney, he never got much recognition for his work at awards shows during his prime. At best, the only time he ever showed up to awards shows was when he was a supporting player to someone else's nomination, such as Stanwyck with Double Indemnity or Cecil B. DeMille for The Ten Commandments. While his recognizable demeanor has serviced as a legitimate and worthy legacy, one cannot help but feel a little disappointed that he didn't get any notice for Double Indemnity.

It may be crass to say, but there's been dozens of Oscar nominated actors who received it solely because of their legacy. In later years, there was John Wayne (True Grit), Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Art Carney (Harry and Tonto), and even Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman). The amount of legacy Oscars handed out only makes ignoring the iconic character actors all the more egregious. While it could be that it was 1944 and The Academy was still figuring out what its purpose was, one cannot help but notice that there was favoritism in play. If it wasn't bad enough, Barry Fitzgerald's work in Going My Way garnered a lead and supporting nomination, which is conceptually wrong. While the Bing Crosby film is actually enjoyable, it should've seemed more likely to replace that with another nominee. It's here that I propose Robinson as Barton Keyes, which may be his best role to put up for consideration.

The genius begins in the casting. As mentioned, Robinson had a tendency to play the bad guys. In this film, he plays the good guy: an insurance salesman who does his best to uncover the truth behind Walter Neff's (MacMurray) scheme. The film opens with Neff dictating an apology note to his boss, who is mostly seen in flashback and is given a fair amount of growth as a character. Where he starts as a regular boss, Keyes develops into a far more interesting character. Once the scam goes off without a hitch, he begins to question everything. With the help of Chandler's witty language, he delivers countless monologues that reveal how much he suspects Neff of the crime. The writing is never flimsy enough to make it seem like an obvious fault. However, it does manage to help create animosity between the two.

True, I'd make the argument that MacMurray is also deserving of some attention here. However, Robinson's brief time on screen is even more impressive because of how immediate and familiar his character is. He notes that some people were raised in the front office of an insurance building. He isn't short on quips, and it only helps to strengthen his character. Admittedly, Keyes is likely the least memorable of the three characters because of his lack of screen time, but the idea of Robinson going against type is something that has unfortunately become accepted as a form of tougher acting (Oscar bait). There's not an ounce of this on Robinson, who manages to play the character with confidence and poise, never letting on that he knows that MacMurray did it. The tension between the two is inevitably the highlight of the film, especially as their friendship fades into the final grim finale.

If nothing else, this is a decent candidate for a legacy Oscar. By today's standards, it would be difficult not to see him getting at very least a nomination. Considering the film's cultural impact, the lack of nominations feels increasingly baffling in the way that all Oscar snubs tend to from any point in history. However, Robinson is one of those cases where it only seems right to give him the nomination for a career full of memorable performances that have highlighted why cinema is so great. Admittedly, it is hard to think of him making a film with as lasting of an impact as Double Indemnity, but that only drives the point home a little further. Still, he proved that he could be play a good guy just as well as a bad guy. He managed to do it while remaining menacing and fascinating. True, it could just be that the script he was given had a lot of weight, but there's no denying that like Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon, it was a performance that elevates the movie beyond its basic film noir structure.

Even if you think that MacMurray was a more deserving candidate for this piece (he never even got an Honorary Oscar), just know that this is partially the point of The Runner-Ups. As much as it is about recognizing great work, it's also about paying tribute to the artists who never received a nomination. My hope is to at least raise awareness of something that seems self-evident but isn't. Robinson is a prime candidate because of his impact on cinema beyond this film. While most people won't know his name, they will know his voice. If Double Indemnity is at all considered a representation of his career, then it's quite an impressive achievement. I only wish that he would've gotten his due within his lifetime.

No comments:

Post a Comment