Frank's Movie Log

Quality reviews of films of questionable quality.
Backdrop placeholder

Black Legion

3 Stars (out of 5)

You’ve never seen Humphrey Bogart like this.

He plays Frank Taylor, a senior machinist and family man who loses an expected promotion to a younger co-worker from an immigrant family. Feeling angry and cheated, Frank falls in with the titular Legion, a black-robed hate group.

The Legion run Frank’s co-worker out of town and Frank ascends to foreman. Things are great until Frank's Legion-mandated recruiting sees him demoted in favor of his neighbor. Again, the Legion intervenes.

The secrecy and violence wear on Frank. He drinks to excess. His family leaves him. He takes up with a local floozy.

One night, drunk and despondent, Frank confesses everything to his longtime friend Ed. After sobering up, Frank panics and informs the Legion. The Legion kidnap Ed, but things don't go as planned, leaving Frank with blood on his hands and nowhere to turn.

Early in his career, most of Bogart’s roles were hard-nosed gangsters. Later, he would personify the tough loner. Here, Bogart plays a weak man with a wife and young child.

Rather than a one-dimensional racist, Bogart portrays Frank as a weak-willed man driven by a sense of entitlement. Bogart’s fearless performance doesn’t generate any sympathy for Frank, but it does engender pity.

The script’s biting look at the Legion's recruiting scheme helps. We’re shown how radio demagogues cultivate resentment and fear, driving Legion membership. New members buy mandatory uniforms and revolvers, fattening the wallets of a small group of profiteers who, in turn, fund the demagogues. This exposé gives the film a docudrama feel.

But I couldn’t swallow Frank's abrupt transformation from honest family man to drunken womanizer. It feels disingenuous. Racism and hate don't hit you like a freight train, they eat at you like a cancer. That's what makes them so insidious. Making things so obvious diminishes Bogart’s performance and undermines the film’s still-relevant social context.

Grade: C

Black Legion (1937)D: Michael Curtiz & Archie Mayo1937 | USA | 83 mins.I've seen it 1 time.