Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Bullets or Ballots (Warners/First National, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I got up and watched a movie on Turner Classic Movies, Bullets or Ballots, a 1936 vehicle for Edward G. Robinson (playing “Johnny Blake,” a New York police detective who went undercover to infiltrate the rackets and smash them — based on a real-life detective named Johnny Broderick who did the same thing), directed by William Keighley (whose last name I had no idea how to pronounce until I heard a broadcast recording of a Lux Radio Theatre he hosted and the announcer introduced him by pronouncing his last name “Keeley”) and co-starring Joan Blondell (as the white girl who, according to the version of history contained in this script by Seton Miller and Martin Mooney, actually invented the numbers racket — which she ran while performing as a singer in a cabaret; it looks like Miller and/or Mooney had been to see Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps) and Humphrey Bogart (as a trigger-happy thug who commits the only on-screen murders and is the one person in the gang who actually catches on to the fact that Robinson is really an undercover cop).

It’s a measure of what Warner Brothers thought of Bogart at the time that he’s billed fourth — after Robinson, Blondell and Barton MacLane as the CEO of the rackets (he takes his orders from the mysterious “big guys” above him — who turn out to be the directors of the Oceanic Bank, moonlighting in crime on the side!) — ironic to anyone who’s seen The Maltese Falcon, made five years later with Bogart top-billed and MacLane way down in the cast list as one of the two police officers who harass Sam Spade. Robinson remembers this one in his autobiography as the movie whose smashing success enabled him to negotiate a super-contract with Warners that gave him the money to pay for his burgeoning art collection — aside from that, it’s a tight-knit Warners melodrama (I’ve always admired the simplicity of the solution they came up with when the Robinson and Cagney gangster pictures were criticized by the Legion of Decency — keep using these actors in crime stories but just switch them to the right side of the law!) that illustrates the truth of the joke both Robinson and Bogart made about how in the 1930’s, when Robinson was a star and Bogart a supporting player, Bogart had to die in the next-to-last reel and Robinson died in the last reel; later, in the 1940’s, it was Robinson who had to die and Bogart got to live!— 4/2/98


The night before I’d run the film I recorded on the same disc as Little Caesar: Bullets or Ballots, a film Robinson made six years later, after the Legion of Decency and the Production Code crackdown and after Jack Warner and Hal Wallis responded to the criticisms of films like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy for allegedly “glorifying” crime by taking their stars, Robinson and James Cagney, and putting them in crime films where they played people on the right side of the law: Cagney as an FBI agent in G-Men and Robinson, in Bullets or Ballots, as New York police detective Johnny Blake (based on real-life cop Johnny Broderick), who ostensibly gets himself “fired” from the force and seemingly switches sides to hire on to the gang led by Al Kruger (Barton MacLane) and “Bugs” Fenner (Humphrey Bogart).

Only, as we suspect all along and the film soon tells us, it’s a ruse: by being cashiered out of the police force so spectacularly and publicly (after throwing a fake punch at the new police commissioner at a public cabaret owned by a gangland associate), he seeks to convince the gangsters that he’s burned his bridges with the police so he’ll be more believable when he claims he’s changed sides. (Warners used this plot gimmick quite a few times since, including at least two World War II melodramas: Across the Pacific, directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart in his subsequent good-guy career; and Desperate Journey, with Errol Flynn.) Blake also has a quirky relationship with Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell) — and yes, it is jarring to see a white female character with the same name as a subsequently famous Black male jazz trumpeter — who owns the cabaret where he mock-punched out the police commissioner and who also took over the numbers racket from her Black maid, Nellie LaFleur (Louise Beavers) — where there seems to be some degree of mutual attraction (though, as in Little Caesar, none of the gangsters seem to have any romantic or sexual relationships) — only to have her control of it threatened in turn by Kruger and Fenner.

In any event, Bullets or Ballots is a surprisingly dull film, ineptly directed by William Keighley (a far cry from the rapid, energetic direction Mervyn LeRoy brought to Little Caesar, including some oblique camera angles and a few shots with ceilings over a decade before Orson Welles supposedly became the first director to show ceilings in Citizen Kane) and decently but not especially thrillingly scripted by Seton I. Miller from a story co-written by Miller and Martin Mooney, a Chicago crime reporter who once went to jail rather than identify his sources (as Richard Serrano and Judith Miller would later) and who achieved sufficient fame for that stand that the original trailer for Bullets or Ballots actually advertised the film as “Written by Martin Mooney — The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk!”

The best part of the film is its ending, a two-person shoot-out between Robinson and Bogart in which they mortally wound each other (thereby dispatching Johnny Blake more permanently than his real-life counterpart, Johnny Broderick, who lived long enough to write a book about his experiences) and a quite engaging death scene for Robinson on the floor of Morgan’s cabaret in which he and the police commissioner forgive each other — it’s nowhere near as powerful as the “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?” line at the end of Little Caesar but it’s still well written and well acted by Robinson, who remembered Bullets or Ballots as the movie that was such an enormous hit that he was able to renegotiate his Warners contract for much more money and the right of story and script approval, as well as an “out” clause allowing him to make one film a year elsewhere. — 1/19/09