There is no point in denying the truth here, I only watched “The Last Gangster” because of my constant goal to see every film in which James Stewart appeared. I knew going into this one that it was before Stewart became the actor that everybody loves, and therefore I wasn’t expecting too much from him in this role or film, and that is exactly what I got. I was, however, surprised by the film overall, and in particular with Edward G. Robinson’s magnificent performance.
For those who haven’t seen this film, the story revolves around a bootlegging gangster named Joe Krozac (Robinson) who has recently returned from Europe with a young bride, Talya (Rose Stradner). She speaks very little English and knows nothing of her new husband’s work or violent past. She soon becomes pregnant, but before they become a happy little family, Krozac is arrested for income tax evasion. He is sentenced to serve 10 years in Alcatraz, and subsequently misses the birth of his son.
Talya brings Joe Jr. to California to be near his father, but she has now learned about his unsavory past. She also has come to realize that Krozac doesn’t have much use for her now that she has given him an heir. Around this same time a newspaper reporter, Paul (Jimmy Stewart), meets Talya, and the two develop a relationship that is much more promising for her, but is constantly haunted by an uncertain future that will one day see Krozac return to reclaim his son.
Like I said before, “The Last Gangster” is not a great film, and leaves much to be desired. The story just kind of meanders along, waiting for something exciting to happen, but this isn’t really much of an action film. The heart of the story is that of a gangster coming to grips with the fact that his time as the ruler of the criminal underworld has come to an end. Krozac had never even thought about having to deal with the future, such as being sent to prison, the lack of special treatment while there, the end of prohibition, and most importantly perhaps, having a wife that wants to keep his own son hidden away. The changes he endures, not only as a gangster but also as a man, are monumental.
The reason this film works is because Edward G. Robinson does a monumental job portraying these changes to the audience. The script doesn’t give him much to work with, so he has to do it through his gestures, glances, and just the emotional boiling anger inside of him, trying desperately to stay under control. Obviously Robinson played a gangster several times in his career, and almost always he did it with a panache that few other actors could achieve, but in “The Last Gangster” Robinson reaches a new height of sadness that many of his other films avoid touching completely. We, as the audience, know that this is a bad person, but to see the way he looks at his son, and to understand how much he wanted to raise this child as his own, is heartbreaking. It is a wonderful performance from Robinson, and it is he that elevates this entire film above obscurity and mediocrity.