Cinema Slueth – Bullets or Ballots

For review of all movies starring Humphrey Bogart, go here.

Stars: 3.5 / 5

Recommendation: A very interesting early film noir, fast-paced and hard-hitting crime melodrama documenting the story of a real policeman showing the viewers both sides of the law.

Bullets or Ballots is a 1936 gangster film starring Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Blondell and Barton MacLane in the lead cast. Directed by William Keighley, Produced by Louis F. Edelman, although uncredited, it was released by Warne Bros. An original story written by Seton I. Miller and Martin Mooney.

Detective Johnny Blake (portrayed by Edward G. Robinson) is a New York City police detective but gets kicked off the force. He soon joins hands with a crime boss named Al Kruger (portrayed by Barton MacLane) and rises up the ladder. However Kruger’s henchman Nick “Bugs” Fenner (portrayed by Humphrey Bogart) doesn’t trust him.

This is the first of the five movies in which Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart acted together. The other four films are 1937 boxing film Kid Galahad, 1938 American crime film The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, 1940 American crime-comedy film Brother Orchid and 1948 American film noir crime drama Key Largo.

Edward G. Robinson portrays a police detective Johnny Blake in the movie who is based on a real-life police New York City detective Johnny Broderick, aka “The Duke” or “the toughest cop on Broadway”. Robinson on the right side of the law was a little surprising to see. He fit well in that part as well.

Humphrey Bogart’s character Nick “Bugs” Fenner was based on gangster Schultz’s henchman Lucky Luciano. I watched this movie for the sake of Bogart. However the plot revolves more around Robinson’s Johnny Blake and MacLane’s Al Kruger. Yet Bogart made a mark being the touch, cynical and hard guy which definitely came in handy when he portrayed Sam Spade 5 years later in the 1941 film noir The Maltese Falcon.

Of course he is a snappy dresser like always, even better than Robinson and MacLane. Check them out here.

Joan Blondell as Lee Morgan, Blake’s girlfriend, has all the hallmarks of a femme fatale in a film noir as opposed to a crime or gangster movie lady.  This is the first film that she paired with Robinson. They are seen together in another film made thirty years later, the 1965 American drama film The Cincinnati Kid.

Barton MacLane’s character Al Kruger was based on notorious gangster Dutch Schultz. MacLane had a long career on TV, stage and film. And I watched him in quite a few of the films I have reviewed so far, and many TV shows including  his role as General Martin Peterson on the 1960s NBC television comedy series I Dream of Jeannie.

This film was made as part of Warner Brothers’ response to the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency, which had condemned the studio’s previous gangster movies with Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney as glorifying the criminal life. In response, Warner Bros. had both actors make crime movies with their characters on the right side of the law with Cagney playing an FBI agent in the 1935 crime film ‘G’ Men and Robinson playing an undercover cop here.

Edward G Robinson gets top billing followed by Joan Blondell. The opening credits are over photographs of Robinson, Blondell and MacLane, followed by live-action images of the lead cast with the name of their characters listed. Bogart comes at the end of the credits.

You see what you expect of these early film noirs. A successful police procedural drama about a tough police guy with a big heart, Warner Brothers for once did the right thing when portraying the cast to their characters. The actions scenes are limited, with a lot of talk and behind the scenes work.

A very interesting early film noir, fast-paced and hard-hitting crime melodrama documenting the story of a real policeman showing the viewers both sides of the law.

Spoiler Alerts:

Movie Trivia:

  1. The film was adapted as a one-hour radio play on the April 17, 1939 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater with Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor, and Humphrey Bogart in the lead cast.
  2. This is the third of the four feature films that Joan Blondell and Humphrey Bogart made together. The other three are 1932 American pre-Code drama film Big City Blues, 1932 American pre-Code crime drama Three on a Match and 1937 American screwball comedy film Stand-In. They first appeared together in the 1930 10-minute Vitaphone short film Broadway’s Like That (1930), which was also Blondell’s first film appearance.
  3. This is the debut film for Rosalind Marquis who played an uncredited role of a Specialty in the movie.
  4. If you google for Bullets and Ballots movie photo gallery, you will find one that shows Blondell’s Lee comforting Robinson’s Johnny in the hospital. The picture suggests that an alternate ending was shot for the movie, where Johnny actually survives the bullet wounds.

Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

  1. Blake’s hair shifts from being neatly set to rumpled to neatly set again in between the shots in the scene where he is with Lee and taking a drink, when is interrupted by a mug he sent to Sing Sing.
  2. When Nellie comes to see Lee with the proceeds, she puts the bag on the desk twice between shots.
  3. After Johnny Black and mountie cop’s fight is broken up, the cop is not wearing his badge anymore.

4. When Lee is driving Johnny in the final scene, we can see headlights of traffic behind them through the rear window. When she stops the car to let Johnny out, there is no traffic behind or passing her car. In fact, the street is completely empty.

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