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Blackmail (1939)

The career paths of Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni crossed quite often during their conjoined tenures as the top leading men on the Warner Brothers lot. The pair had even gone to the same high school - Lower Manhattan's PS 20 - and Muni made his professional stage debut replacing Robinson in a 1926 production of the Max Siegel-Milton Herbert Gropper play We Americans. Though the actors detested one another, to studio executives they were all but interchangeable: Robinson was offered the starring role in the fact-based Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940) only after Muni turned it down. (The rivals would later reconcile in solidarity over the persecution of Jews by the Third Reich, both having ended their respective relationships with Warners.) Prior to shooting Ehrlich, Robinson accepted work from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, starring in the crime melodrama Blackmail (1939). Cast as a fugitive from justice who takes a job on an oil field, Robinson was treading cinematic ground trammeled earlier by Muni in his Academy Award-nominated performance in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). The actor was chided by the critics of the day for turning his hand to such derivative work but Blackmail remains enjoyable, in particular for Robinson's central performance as a wrongly accused man attempting to put his life right, but also thanks to the vivid character work of Gene Lockhart (in an uncharacteristically slimy performance), Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, John Wray, Charles Middleton, and Victor Killian.

By Richard Harland Smith

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