Sunday, November 7, 2010

Review: Bullets or Ballots

Bullets or Ballots (1936, William Keighly)

In the early 1930s, Warner Bros. film studios produced a series of hits in which the protagonists of the stories were in fact society’s antagonists. That’s right, the era of the gangster pictures in Hollywood was in full swing during thus particular decade, a decade in which names such as James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson quickly became synonymous with tough, steadfast, exciting and larger than life characters who hunted for what they wanted and took what they liked. The mid to late 1930s were an example however of what can happen when direct pressure and influence from society is applied to the studio system. The Haze code in particular dictated what could and couldn’t be seen in action movies and, along with consistent complaints from vocal portions of the movie going public, stars just like Robinson eventually took on the roles of the heroes. Rather than witness a steady decline in quality in the gangster films (which could have easily been the result of such intrusive middling), some of the best entries in the genre saw the light of day.

In William Keighley’s Bullets or Ballots, old pro detective Johnny Blake (Edward G. Robinson) has seen some better days. After years of service in the department as one of its top enforcers, Blake is now reduced to paltry investigations involving petty theft. Still, it earns him a living, so there isn’t much to complain about at the end of the day. The racketeers meanwhile are having a real ball, as they flex all of their business muscles in swallowing as much money as they can as fast as they can through a variety of mischievous means. Gambling, the numbers game (betting on sporting events), coin machines, no enterprise is too great or too small for them. When going in one enterprise gets a little tough, their guns get a little tougher. In an effort to counter the increasing pressure exercised by the criminal organizations, the police have devised their plot: infiltration of mobster Al Kruger’s (Barton MacLane) operations with the help of someone the villain knows all too well, former rival turned friend Johnny Blake.

Bullets or Ballots ended up being part of a transitional phase of sorts for actor Edward G. Robinson. A few years earlier he was known as a fantastic villain (Little Caesar) and by the late 30s, he would return to playing the role of gangsters, but in comedies (A Slight Case of Murder), not gritty action films. For William Keighley’s crime drama, Robinson continues to exude the familiar sense of confidence, gutsiness and bravura, but this time as an enforcer of the law. In one of the film’s most appealing themes, the central character of Johnny Blake, committed to an oath to serve and protect, is thrust into taking actions that are in fact muddled in moral ambiguity. The crux of the matter lies in the fondness that Blake and Kruger have for one another. For years Blake was after Kruger and his cronies, very nearly snatching him on many an occasion. Instead of a heated rivalry, a loose friendship resulted. Early in the movie before his undercover operation Blake pays a visit to Kruger as casually as one friend would visit another during his or her lunch hour. Kruger does not shy away from the fact that Blake would have made a solid ally and partner in crime. Later on, Blake is sent in by the chief of police to infiltrate Kruger’s operation in the hopes of discovering who the real decision makers of the racketeering organization are. Somebody must be offering people the likes of Kruger the kind of protection which practically makes them immune to ordinary law enforcers. Kruger, unaware of Blake’s ulterior motives, openly welcomes his friend into the business, even appointing him as the equivalent of a money handler and accountant. While there are certain crooks that deserve nothing less than a long sentence in jail (Humphrey Bogart’s Bugs Fenner, a cruel and creepily paranoid gun slinger being the most notable), Blake decision to operate behind Kruger’s back demonstrates just how serious dire the situation has become. Whatever personal loyalties and friendships existed before are now for all intents and purposes null and void. It’s unfortunate that the character of Kruger meets his end before learning of Blake’s covert operation, a discovery that would surely have led to an emotionally complex finale. What’s more is how Bugs Fenner’s angry and suspicious nature leads him to the correct conclusion that Blake is not being entirely honest with Kruger and the rest of the boys, but Kruger will have none of it. His desire to have an intelligent, charismatic and resourceful man such Johnny has in effect blinded him from the reality of the situation.

Of equal interest is in the film’s depiction of crime’s hierarchy, more specifically of those who sit at the top of the pyramid. There are a couple of scenes which reveal the nature of the organization’s true leaders, one with Kruger paying them a visit and another when Blake does so (still operating undercover). There are three of them. Each is dressed sharply, and their mannerisms denote a sense of power and confidence, but without any after taste of gangster sleaze.  They represent the high society, the elite who have paved their way to the top and, by their demeanour and dress code, like to make those around them well aware of such status. To the outside world these men are arguably well respected and perhaps even admired, thus the reason for the secrecy in regards to their ties with the racketeers. Other than Kruger and a few other high level decision makers within the ranks of the gangsters, nobody knows of their involvement in illegal activities. What has propelled into this underworld given how they have already made their living? Simply put: more money. The existence of such ties between the publicly respected businessmen of the city of its criminal virus adds another contextual layer to the proceedings. The gangsters are well financed and protected while the social and economic elite continue to gather more winnings. Everybody wins. 

Rarely were there gangster movies made that did not feature beautiful women, and Bullets or Ballots offers up its own with Joan Blondell as Lee Morgan, an acquaintance of Blake who also decides to put her hand in the money pot by running the numbers game. Things get complicated when Blake encourages Kruger to widen his business apparatus by entering the same activity as Morgan who, unbeknownst to the undercover detective, has already begun to make some solid profit. When Morgan, unaware that Blake is only pretending to work for the dark side, learns that Blake is helping Kruger squeeze her out of the numbers game, tension between the two mounts, thus providing the film with a third memorable storyline.

William Keighly would direct another famous gangster themed movie in which a recognizable star turned to the side the law, G Men with Cagney. While very entertaining, that film provided a much more linear storyline about the birth of the FBI as they are known today. Bullets or Ballots may have the glossy packaging of an action romp, but as we’ve discussed above, it offers several intriguing takes on organized crime and the risks of undercover police business. Its emotional and contextual elements lend the film with that extra layer of food for thought that often gets lost in the shuffle with movies of this genre.

No comments: