Almost nobody made better gangster films than Warner Bros. in the 1930s.
The studio ground out these movies on notoriously economical budgets. The films were gritty and smart, featuring characters who talked in a machine-gun staccato and dispensed canny observations: “Whenever mugs get into a jam, the first thing they do is start knocking each other.”
The studio made no apologies for these films. As exec Jack Warner famously said, “I don’t want it good. I want it Tuesday.”
One such film is Bullets or Ballots (1936), starring Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Blake, a police detective who is unexpectedly fired from the force. Blake then joins an organized crime outfit, managed by Al Kruger (Barton MacLane).
There is genuine affection and respect between policeman Blake and criminal Kruger, so when Kruger finds out Blake’s been canned, he offers the former cop a job – and is mildly surprised when he accepts.
However, when Kruger’s #2 man, Bugs Fenner (Humphrey Bogart), learns Blake has joined the Organization, he doesn’t believe the former cop has forsaken his law-abiding ways. He becomes even more agitated when Blake outshines him by proposing a numbers racket that could net millions of dollars.
The plot, as we’ve outlined it, sounds simple. But this film squeezes a large story into a speedy 82 minutes.
This movie tends to be a bit preachy due to the Production Code‘s insistence that criminals not be glorified. However, filmmakers give us a knowing wink during an early scene.
When gangsters Kruger and Fenner arrive at a movie theatre, they make a point of asking the ticket seller, “What time does the crime picture start?” Then, during the newsreel that discusses their criminal activity, the two men wonder aloud which actors would be portraying them on screen.
Like this fictional newsreel, Bullets or Ballots presents a stark choice to the viewer: Either vote for tougher crime laws or suffer rampant lawlessness.
But the film takes a sly poke at society’s hypocrisy. In one scene, crime boss Kruger observes, “Seven million people in this town, and all of ’em looking for easy money.”
In another scene, a nightclub owner (Joan Blondell) is disappointed Blake has joined the city’s criminal element, and then becomes upset when she learns he’s taking over her numbers racket. She reminds Blake about “friends finding an easy place to break your back.”
Here’s why the Warner Bros. gangster movies from the 1930s are brilliant: They cram societal expectations, gangster violence and unintended consequences into engaging 70-90 minute films. In Bullets or Ballots, for instance, the long history (and affection) between Blake and Kruger is outlined for us in under two minutes.
Director William Keighley cleverly uses the camera to fortify the sparse script. In one scene, we are given a tour of the “operation”, a large room staffed by dozens of men swarming around desks piled with money. Director Keighley places the camera on a dolly and sweeps past the immense wealth as it’s sorted and dispersed. This, right here, is the very definition of Organized crime.
Bullets or Ballots is filled with sardonic lines and menacing characters, but it also treats relationships with tenderness. The result is a smart, entertaining film with a surprisingly moving conclusion.
Bullets or Ballots: starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barton MacLane. Directed by William Keighley. Written by Seton I. Miller. Warner Bros.-First National Pictures Inc., 1936, B&W, 82 mins.