Bullets or Ballots – 1936


My Review

—Good Gangster Fun— 

Your Bogie Fix:

2.5 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  William Keighley

The Lowdown

A cop (Edward G. Robinson) goes undercover to bust up the organization of a big time racketeer (Barton MacClane).

What I Thought

After the Legion of Decency and the Production Code Administration started to give movie studios a hard time for glorifying gangsters, Warner Brothers tried to earn a little absolution by letting some of their most famous bad guys flips sides.  Cagney was an FBI agent in G-Men, and Robinson is a cop here.

Considering that this film was made more as a response to outside pressure than it was about making an artistic statement, it’s actually a very entertaining piece of work.  I have to hand it to Warner Brothers, though.  They found a sneaky workaround for Edward G. Robinson to still be a gangster even though he was a cop – let him go undercover!  We still get the punches, kicks, and sneering insults that we’ve grown to love from Robinson’s mobster characters, but now he’s just pretending to be bad, right?

The plot is nothing extraordinary, as it’s a simple story of an honest cop willing to risk it all to stop the crooks.  The real heart of this film comes from Edward G. Robinson’s ex-cop, Johnny Blake, and the loyalties he tries to live by as he works for, and against, old friends.

Racketeer Al Kruger (Barton MacClane) is an old friend of Blake’s, and at one time, he’d even offered Blake a job in his organization.  Even though Blake turned him down, they were still able to remain cordial, despite the fact that they chose to live on opposite sides of the law.  When Blake’s fired from his police job for inefficiency, Kruger is on him in no time, ready to give him another shot within his gang:

Kruger:  Why, I’ve heard guys that you’ve sent to prison say that if you ever made a deal, you’d see yourself dead before you’d go back on it.

It turns out to be true.  Despite Kruger’s crimes, Blake later laments to his police captain (Joe King) that he has never given Kruger a fair shake to straighten out and fly right.  Blake is a man caught between his allegiances to friends, and his job to uphold the law.

Fortunately for all of us, Blake doesn’t have to make a choice on how to handle Kruger, as Kruger’s number two in command, “Bugs” Fenner (Humphrey Bogart), is a loose cannon with an itchy trigger finger.  Fenner doesn’t like Blake.  Fenner doesn’t like how much Kruger likes Blake.  And Fenner certainly doesn’t like the thought that Blake might be his replacement within the organization.

The best bad guys are the ones that are able to make even the other bad guys nervous, and that’s certainly what Bogart does in this picture.  He’s a coiled snake, waiting to bite anyone who looks at him the wrong way.  It sets up a wonderful tension that builds to a climactic breaking point where Robinson and Bogart battle it out with pistols on a staircase at the end of the film.

The Bogart Factor

You have to give “Bugs” Fenner credit in this movie.  Out of a couple dozen gangsters in a room, he was the only one that really seemed to know that Blake was still working for the cops.  I found myself wanting to yell at his fellow heavies multiple times to just shut up and listen to him for a minute.

Bogart is able to take a pretty clichéd gangster role and elevate it here.  His portrayal of Fenner is intimidating, ruthless, and downright chilling.  Even though I was pretty sure that Robinson was going to come out on top (doesn’t he always when Bogie’s the bad guy?), I was surprised by how much tension was built between the two men as Fenner relentlessly chased down Blake in an attempt to exact revenge.

It’s roles like this that make me understand why the studio thought they should keep Bogart typecast as the bad guy.  The parts may not have utilized his full potential as an actor, but he was dang good in them.

The Cast

Robinson is very good as the undercover cop who’s trying hard to keep his cool in the middle of a dangerous job.  This is one of the more physical roles that I’ve seen him in, as he had multiple fistfights, and even kicked out a gangster’s knee before knocking him across the jaw and then throwing him through a window.  For an actor who supposedly abhorred violence, he looked like a real action star.

I thought it was a treat to see Barton MacClane as the thinking man’s gangster.  I’m used to seeing him as the grumpy and grizzled sourpuss so often, that I was very impressed to see him playing such a likable bad guy here.  Definitely one of his best roles that I’ve seen so far.

Have I mentioned that Joan Blondell was in this movie yet?  No?  Well, there’s good reason for that.  She doesn’t have much to work with, as her role is small and insignificant, barely tying into the overall plot.  Even when she finds out that her good friend Blake has muscled in on her numbers racket, she seems to take it in stride, and waits to talk it out with him.  She doesn’t even get to play the love interest, as her only kiss comes with Bogart, and she slaps him silly for it.

Character actor Frank McHugh, who’s appeared multiple times on this blog so far, shows up as Blondell’s lackey.  He doesn’t have a big role here, but every time he’s onscreen, he steals the focus like no other.  He’s very gifted comic actor.

Classic Bogie Moment

Bogart was famous for paring down his lines to trim away the chaff and only say what needed to be said.  With one or two word sentences, he could communicate everything else with the subtext he would create with his tone and expressions.  One of the best examples of his ability comes in this film when Barton MacClane warns him to stay away from a crusading reporter named Bryant that’s trying to shut them down:

MacClane:  Go get yourself a drink and cool off.

Bogart: Okay.

MacClane:  And forget Bryant.

Bogart:  Sure.

The way he draws out both words – ooooh-kay and suuuuure – leaves us with no doubt that he’s nowhere near ready to “cool off” anytime soon.  Bryant’s days are most certainly numbered.

The Bottom Line

If you like gangster films, Edward G. Robinson films, or Bogart films, you’ll enjoy this one.  It’s good work by both men in a genre that they helped define.

5 thoughts on “Bullets or Ballots – 1936

  1. Robinson has a great final death scene in Bullets Or Ballots. I think he says something to this effect “tell them mugs to tip their hat to a cop whenever he walks by.” Just a great film!

    It’s amazing that Robinson and Bogart worked in so many films together. Bogart also worked with Cagney in a few. Ironically Robinson and Cagney just made one picture together called Smart Money, a quite forgettable film. But I guess Jack Warner knew what he was doing because Robinson and Cagney just took over every film they were in. No point in knocking heads with these two screen giants.

  2. Pingback: Frank McHugh | The Bogie Film Blog

  3. Pingback: Edward G. Robinson | The Bogie Film Blog

  4. Pingback: Barton MacLane | The Bogie Film Blog

  5. Pingback: The Gangsters | The Bogie Film Blog

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