Blackmail (1939, H.C. Potter)

Edward G. Robinson (eight years and twenty movies later, still being billed on posters as “the screen’s Little Caesar”) has a lovely wife (Ruth Hussey of The Philadelphia Story), an annoying son, and an assistant named Moose (Big Boy Williams of Lucky Star and City Girl). Ed and Moose run a thriving company putting out oil-well fires with explosives. But Robinson has a secret past – convicted of a robbery a decade earlier, he escaped from the chain gang and changed his name. This being 1939, we wouldn’t be allowed to root for a crook, so it turns out Robinson was innocent, wrongly imprisoned.

Check the well-fire reflection in the car next to Ruth:

The real thief (a broken-down-looking Gene Lockhart of Meet John Doe, The Devil and Daniel Webster) tracks Robinson down and blackmails him for all he’s got, including his new oil well, and gets Robinson sent back to the chain gang as well. A few hardass prison scenes and depressing letters from home later, Robinson escapes again – his fellow escapee getting shot to death in the process, but no matter – sets fire to his own well and waits for Lockhart to call Moose to put it out. A punchout, a coerced confession, and Robinson’s name is cleared.

Slimy Lockhart:

Tight little thriller. Loved the infernal opening and closing scenes in front of well fires. Wonder how much fuel was burned up while making this movie. I also dug the chain gang singing “Take This Hammer”. This has nothing at all in common with the other HC Potter movie I’ve seen, Hellzapoppin’, besides that they’re both really good. Actually there’s a scene at the beginning where so-called fireman Big Boy sets a trash can ablaze while on the phone, setting a comic tone that is immediately lost when the sinister Gene Lockhart arrives.

Also enjoyed the superimposition showing Robinson digging his prisoner’s pick into the grinning face of Lockhart, and Robinson’s Cape Fear-style escape clinging beneath a truck.

Whole pile of writers, including Hertz & Ludwig (Love Crazy), Dorothy Yost (The Gay Divorcee) and Brown Holmes (I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, unsurprisingly).

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