Monday, 21 October 2013

Alternate Best Supporting Actor 1944: Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity

Edward G. Robinson did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity.

There are supporting performances that leave no impression, there are those that serve there purpose, there are those that make their mark, there are those that really make a mark, but even past that there is Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity. Edward G. Robinson plays Barton Keyes the lead insurance claims adjuster who works at the same company as Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) the man who plans to ripoff the company by killing the heavily insured husband of the femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Keyes and Neff are friends and Keyes often discusses the insurance game with Neff or at least in Neff's presence.

Edward G. Robinson pops in and out of the picture as the deliverer of wisdom Keyes who has a "little man" inside himself to let himself know when something is not quite right. Robinson from his first scene, where Keyes quickly handles a fraudulent claim, shows exactly how he will be for the rest of the picture which in a word is amazing. Robinson gives a highly energetic and enthusiastic performance as Barton Keyes and makes every frame he is in something special. Everything that Robinson does just adds something to the proceedings of the film. Robinson is simply on as Keyes, and I mean on as he sets out to give a supporting performance one won't forget.

On one level this is the type of performance that is just wonderful to watch plain and simple. Robinson glows in the role like few actors ever do on screen as Barton Keyes. Every time he is on screen there is something worth watching. Robinson's part by nature did not even necessarily need to be entertaining, but Robinson is incredibly entertaining simply through his non-stop style he brings to Keyes. Robinson is often always talking and even more often moving. He is always making some gesture as his arms never seem to sit still as he is either pointing something out, searching for a match, or preparing to smoke his cigar.

The manner Robinson takes never feels mannered in the least but instead it shows part of the brilliance of this performance where he implements all sorts techniques that are fun to watch. They are not only fun to watch though as Robinson's performance is always natural and they do wonders in creating the portrait of Keyes. Robinson settles down indicating the way Keyes never settles down, and the way that he is a man whose always thinking of some different angle in the insurance game. The great intelligence of Keyes is a given as Robinson's performance so adeptly brings it to life through the way Keyes just seems always at least slightly impatient as he is always on the verge of figuring something out.

Naming a best scene for Edward G. Robinson in this film is a foolish task to partake in. The life that Robinson brings to every one of his scenes is stunning and really I could listen to Robinson talk about insurance all day. One of his great scenes is when Keyes completely rejects down the idea that a man died by committing suicide via a train. Robinson delivers the monologue about Keyes's knowledge of the possibilities of suicide in what seems like a single breath. Robinson does not stop and it is fascinating how Robinson does not lose a single step during the whole speech. It is a beautiful moment just to watch and listen to and once again Robinson is just terrific in portraying that unshakable confidence of Keyes.

There are few instances where the writing and the actor come together as perfectly as the way Robinson handles every word of Billy Wilder's and Raymond Chandler's script. All of the insurance talk in the film just seems like some of the most interesting information one could ever hear because of Robinson's exuberant delivery. It is not just that he says every word with such precision while saying it all so quickly but the way Robinson just owns the screen through his physical movements as well. He does not just say a line he put his while body into the delivery. When Barton Keyes says he is having a problem because his little man has a problem, we really see the little man because how just how good Robinson is here.

Of course flourishing in every scene just is not enough for Robinson and he just has to make himself the heart of the film too. The only relationship with any warmth in the film is found in the friendship between Keyes and Walter Neff. Robinson is excellent in making the friendship always an underlying factor even when Neff is actively trying to deceive Keyes. Robinson is able to make us believe the always astute Keyes would not suspect Neff by showing the certain ease that Keyes always has when talking to Neff. Robinson never says it out loud but always so effectively indicates the respect Keyes has for Neff. One of Robinson's best moments is when Keyes starts to go on a theory that suspects Neff, and Robinson shows Keyes force himself to shrug it off as an impossibility.

The ending of Double Indemnity is remarkable in that we have the bad end to a murderer, but it is not a cold ending. Instead we get the surprisingly poignant last words traded between Keyes and Neff as Keyes finally sees why he could not solve this one case. Robinson is outstanding in this scene as he shows Keyes as a man finally without that same pep, and Robinson subtly shows that really Keyes is heartbroken to see that it was his friend all along. Robinson is quite moving in his portrayal of Keyes's simple disappointment with Neff. Robinson brings such heart when Keyes responds to Neff statement that Keyes could not see it because the man was only right across desk with the simple "Closer then that Walter".

Edward G. Robinson does not steal the film so to speak, as Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck are in top form too, but what he does do is pretty much anything he can do to further the strength of the film. There is not a wasted glance, a gesture, a word in Robinson's performance. Robinson was a great actor but this just might be his very best performance. With the wrong actor Barton Keyes and all his insurance talk could have been easily ignored when compared to the intrigue of fraud and murder, but Robinson never lets that happen with his all or nothing performance. All I can say is Edward G. Robinson gives it his all and delivers in being perfect example of a perfect supporting performance that only ever adds to the greatness of this great film.


Michael McCarthy said...

Wow this review is glowing, looks like one of the top 10 supporting performances reviewed so far.

Mark said...

Mother of mercy, is this the end of Barry Fitzgerald being number 1 for this year?

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Ha, you love this performance with the same amount of enthusiasm I do!

Michael Patison said...

I'm afraid it looks that way, Mark. I still think Fitzgerald will be runner-up, plus he also has his win for The Quiet Man.

Matt Mustin said...

Wow. This is like Robert Shaw in Jaws-level praise here.