Friday, October 24, 2008

Bullets or Ballots (1936)

  The failure of law and the stifling bureaucracy of justice is the overriding theme in Bullets or Ballots, a 1930's gangster movie that was a definite product of the Depression. Whereas in previous gangster movies an audience would follow a gangster's rise and fall in this movie we look at the war on crime from the point of view of the dutiful cop. This is a story of corruption; something that the Warner Bros. social picture excelled at telling.
  At the start of the movie we are treated to a newsreel where we, the audience, are informed of how the gangster's reach permeates throughout every aspect of daily life. Yet these are not the gangster's of the Prohibition era. The clean-cut businessman has replaced the gun-toting cigar-chomping gangster. To fight their battles they use wiretaps and lawyers as well as their fists, gangsterism had transformed into big business.
  With the Depression hitting the country hard banks were the enemy and in this movie capitalism was the root of all societal problems. The entire system was put on trial in this movie and the rich, respectable politicians and community leaders were guilty of profiting off of vice and the blood and sweat of hard-working Americans.
  Edward G. Robinson plays Johnny Blake, a cop who believes that to battle crime you need to use your fists to beat crooks into submission. The thin divide between cop and crook does not exist in this movie. Blake is comfortable talking with his boss, McLaren, as he is hanging out with mob boss Al Kruger. He may slap around the ten-cent thugs that he encounters on the street, but for Blake there is a real respect that he feels for Kruger.
  That cannot be said about Kruger's right-hand man, Nick Fenner. Humphrey Bogart imbues Fenner with the cold detachment that all gangsters share but also adds a layer of seething anger and a feeling of entitlement. Fenner can't adapt to the new corporate business-like structure of the gang. When he sees a threat his first thought is to shoot, and not to negotiate. Johnny Blake's conversion from cop to crook doesn't fool Fenner, and although he is looked down upon as just another petty thug, one has to give him credit for being smart enough to not be so easily fooled.

  In between the scenes with Blake and his dealings with Kruger's gang we are treated to the nightclub world with Joan Blondell who plays Lee Morgan, a sort-of love interest for Blake if he wasn't so engrossed in his work. Her character is really just a spectator in all the action. Blondell's character is frustratingly always one step behind the audience when figuring out the story, but it is refreshing to see a female character in a gangster movie that is neither moll nor doll. Frank McHugh also has a small part in the movie as McCloskey, an employee of Lee Morgan's. His comic antics are hilarious and are such a change of pace from the rest of the story that it seems his character is from a different movie.
  The director, William Keighley, took a routine gangster picture and built a movie about how the law had been replaced by a lot of talk and that action was needed to scrub away the filth of corruption. He accomplished this not with explicit violence or spectacle, but through a narrative economy developed a story where audience's were not just entertained but also constantly questioning, as they watched the movie, who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.

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