Bullets Or Ballots
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Get two gangster-movie icons for the price of one as tough police detective Edward G. Robinson faces off for the first time against Humphrey Bogart, the ambitious enforcer for a big-time racketeer. Bogart's effectively the co-star--virtually a one-man crime wave--though he rates only fourth billing behind Eddie G., Joan Blondell, and Barton MacLane. Still, no question it's Robinson's movie; the former "Little Caesar" walks the line beautifully as an honest cop who, unjustly jettisoned from the force, agrees to go to work for the mobster (MacLane) he's long pursued. A fascinating air of fatalism attaches to Robinson's character, whether shrugging off his betrayal by the new police commissioner (and his oldest friend), trading polite threats with his new criminal colleagues, or dismissing the possibility of happiness with the nightclub operator (Blondell) who clearly cares for him.
The title is a bit of a misnomer: Despite a rhetorical reference to "ballots" as the public's means of expressing outrage over the costs of crime, it's bullets that get the job done. Bullets and fists: the movie makes clear that Robinson has beaten confessions out of people on many occasions, and in best hardnosed Warner Bros. tradition, it has no illusions about the empty symbolism of crime commissions and grand juries. There's a nice subplot involving Blondell creating the numbers racket as off-hours distraction from her main occupation; her territory is Harlem, and Louise Beavers, usually relegated to maid roles, has spirited fun with the chance to strut as Blondell's partner. William Keighley directed. --Richard T. Jameson
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So it's preachy. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating gangsterism. But it's not skillfully done here. The points are driven home thru semi-documentary style narration or plot-halting on-screen explanations, rather than subtly through incident and dialogue. The story starts slow, with the main events not beginning until we are nearly a third of the way in. The direction is only adequate. And it badly needed music to propel things forward.
The plot is hoary, but yet retains some interest. Robinson is fired from the force as part of the Commissioner's plan to get him in with the racketeers and break them from within, by tipping the police off as to their activities. But to really deal the rackets a blow Robinson must find out who the top guys are, men few ever see. And he must avoid the suspicions of the the trigger-happy Bogart and his allies.
I love movies from this era: there are cool cars, fedoras and pinstripes, tough talk (though not enough), and a couple of nifty studio sets to be seen here. But there are also some really dated things about it, including a couple of fistfights only Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson could be proud of. What's more, the internal dynamics of the gang are never too believable, so suspense surrounding Robinson's tenuous situation is slight. And not to make light of what was a serious problem (and may still be in some locales), but there is something less than fearsome about Bogey running the milk and produce rackets. I mean, slicing a tomato and putting it in someone's bed just doesn't have the same brutal panache. (Kidding, I'm Kidding!)
The ending is good but not to the degree it could've been: it's too small in scope and rather polite. Still, Robinson's performance after he is shot by Bogart elevates at least these closing scenes to near-great status.
Finally, the movie misses opportunities for comment on how the law to do its job must sometimes be much like the lawbreakers. The moral complexity of Robinson's machinations (which directly lead to the murder of the kingpin, a man he grudgingly respected) is shown only by him crumpling a newspaper in the back of a cab. The paradox of injustices done in the name of justice is much better examined in a movie like Anthony Mann's noir great T-Men.
Overall somewhat disappointing, but worth a Thursday night rental for fans of the genre or the cast.
See also: The movies aforementioned; The Roaring 20's.
The plot is more complex than most of these films with the introduction of the bankers and politicians who actually head the syndicates. Whether Robinson has turned crooked or not provides most of the suspense and he cleverly walks a fine line between good and evil. His character is a loner and the film is dominated by the relationships between the men. It is also not as fast moving as others films in the genre where actions speak louder than words.
Joan Blondell has a small part as a smart business woman who runs the "numbers game" and invests it with more depth than she was often given the opportunity to do. Her two encounters with Humphrey Bogart, typecast as a violent but very suave racketeer, are memorable. Her sidekick is Louise Beavers who transcends black stereotypes and plays a woman of resource and intelligence. The presence of Blondell implies a romance but Robinson's loner avoids a relationship with her in a couple of touching scenes.
The DVD is chock full of worthwhile extras including an interesting documentary on the immigrant in the gangster film, an amusing short film on golf with Joe E Brown, Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Edward G Robinson himself, a Vitaphone cartoon with the signature detailed drawings and rollicking music, a musical short and a very funny newsreel item. There is also one of those blooper shorts from the Warner Brothers Films of 1936. If you know your Warner's films, these are always good fun to see. The commentary attached to the film itself is analytical to the point of boredom - a bit like a university thesis on the film's plot and script. The commentator misses the opportunity to say much about the players and the sheer entertainment value of the Warners product. Incidentally, the print of the film itself is outstanding, particularly preserving the superb lighting.
The DVD is excellent value particularly if it is purchased as part of the Warner's Tough Guys Collection.
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