BLACKMAIL. MGM, 1939. Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Hussey, Gene Lockhart, Bobs Watson, Guinn Williams. Director: H. C. Potter.

   In a typically strong but not entirely successful performance from him, Edward G. Robinson plays John Ingram, a successful oil-field firefighter — the best there is for miles around, as a matter of fact — but even with a wife and young son now, he has a secret from his past that he does not want known, and that is where the title comes in. Someone from his previous life (a perniciously loathsome Gene Lockhart) knows that secret, that several years before he had been unjustly convicted of robbery but had managed to escape from the chain gang he was on.

   And as Lockhart manages to work it, not only does Robinson end up back on the chain gang, but he (Lockhart) gets control of the oil well his victim has been hoping would come in. The only thing on Robinson’s mind — well, two — are escape and revenge.

   This was, of course, MGM’s belated answer to I Was A Fugitive from A Chain Gang, which was released by Warner Brothers in 1932. It tries to be as gritty as he earlier film, but it just doesn’t make it. As good as Edward G. Robinson was in almost everything he did, watching his not so lean wiry body sloshing through the swamp surrounding the prison farm he escapes from a second time is a cinematic image that will stay with me for a long time, and not for the right reason.