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Thursday, March 26, 2009

BLACK LEGION (1936)



Warner Bros. Studios was always eager to hang a film on some incendiary topical issue and this tough, little pic about a factory town supporting a KKK-like secret lodge delivers the goods until the overstuffed third act. Archie Mayo, the dullest of the Warners’ house directors, loosens up considerably under the modest budget and starless cast. (Top-billed Humphrey Bogart was a mere 'featured player' until MALTESE FALCON & HIGH SIERRA in 1941, and fourth-billed Ann Sheridan largely became a star right here, you can see it happening.) Bogie is riveting as a good-natured skilled laborer who joins a pack of xenophobic ultra-patriotic hooded creeps when an expected job promotion goes to a hardworking Polish/American kid. The Black Legion’s retribution is swift, violent and sickeningly unjust. Events soon spin out of control and those who know Bogie’s Fred C. Dobbs from THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE/’‘48 will note similarities; yet seeing it all happen to the handsome, fresh-faced Bogie of 1936 makes it even worse. And though the film elides any reference to KKK violence toward Blacks & Jews (audiences of the time, no doubt, picked up enough clues to get the idea), the story remains unusually unforgiving toward Bogie’s character, offering no redemption, no face saving, no exit. It means to shock and, largely, it still does.

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