The Doorway to Hell is a 1930 American Pre-Code crime film directed by Archie Mayo and starring Lew Ayres and James Cagney, in his second film role.The film was based on the story A Handful of Clouds, written by Rowland Brown. The film’s title was typical of the sensationalistic titles of many Pre-Code films. It was marketed with the tagline, “The picture Gangland defied Hollywood to make!”
Cagney strong, but Ayres miscast and Elliott weak
This pre-Code gangster movie is interesting primarily because of James Cagney, who is in a supporting role, that of a gangster’s right-hand man. His boss is played somewhat improbably by 21- year-old Lew Ayres, who is hard to believe as he threatens rival gang members to fall in line under his authority. However, fall in line they do, that is, until Ayres decides he’s had enough and decides to retire. (Yes, the pretty boy baby-face had had enough of the game, when it looks like he hasn’t started shaving) When he’s gone, all hell breaks loose for reasons we can’t really fathom, prompting them to attempt to reel him back in by kidnapping his kid brother, who is away at a military school.
Ayres is one of the casting issues; the other is the policeman played by Robert Elliott, who is far too lethargic as he delivers his lines. The script is actually pretty good, and there are some lines that are wry and just perfect for the genre and time period. The ending is drawn out, however, and it’s too bad the story surrounding the love interest (played well by Dorothy Matthews) who marries Ayres but secretly loves Cagney isn’t expanded on, though the scene where she coyly slips off her wedding ring to encourage him is nice. The movie hits you over the head with an anti-crime message, but as you think about the actions of the police officer, coercing statements and selectively deciding who to protect, you have to wonder how effective this message was. Anyway, the net of all of this is a reasonably entertaining movie, but nothing to write home about.
This was only Cagney’s 2nd movie, just before a string of movies the following year which would cement him as a star, most notably, The Public Enemy, and he’s such a natural with great screen presence. As a footnote, I found it ironic that while Ayres in the movie lauds Napoleon, his brother’s military training, and war in general, Ayres in real life was a conscientious objector during WWII, making him very unpopular at the time, though he served with honor in the medical corps instead.
Some memorable gangster cliches began in this movie.
Author: reptilicus from Vancouver, Canada
31 May 2001
I first wanted to viddy this interesting piece of sinny because it offered a pre-PUBLIC ENEMY look at James Cagney. Imagine my surprise to find out it is also Dwight Frye’s first talkie! Yes, the man who would find fame as Renfield in DRACULA and Fritz in FRANKENSTEIN appears in this film too. Billed way at the bottom of the opening credits as simply “gangster”, Dwight’s character is called “Monk” and is one of the first people we meet in the film. That old cliche of the gangster who carries a tommy-gun in a violin case got started with this film and Dwight is the fellow toting the lethal instrument. When he strolls out of a pool room with his violin case under his arm he offhandedly comments “I’m gonna teach a guy a lesson.” with a sardonic smile on his face. The lines “Take a guy for a ride” and “Put a guy on the spot” originated with this film too. Lew Ayers, fresh from ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is the real hero, or should I say anti-hero, of the movie and Cagney exhibits the screen personality that aimed him directly at the bullseye of Hollywood stardom but being a lifelong fan of character actors, I now like this film for Dwight Frye’s brief, but memorable, appearance.
You were safe in jail, now it’s just too bad.”
Author: classicsoncall from Florida, New York
15 April 2007
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Though he drops a couple of notches in the screen credits from his first picture, “Sinners’ Holiday”, James Cagney still dazzles as a top mobster’s second in command and hones the skills that will find him topping the bill for 1931’s “The Public Enemy”. Funny how Cagney’s smart aleck attitude and mannerisms got him stereotyped as a gangster right out of the block, and he made it seem all so natural.
As for the story, Warner Brothers takes yet another stab at the menace to society theme with it’s take on mob violence and competition between rival gangs. This was my first look at Lew Ayres, who heads the cast as crime boss Louie Ricarno. In an opening scene, he’s out to ‘teach a guy a lesson’ for being a rat, and from there he sees an opportunity to bring all the local big shots together under his own umbrella. Though generally effective in the role, I did find it somewhat humorous when Ayres went into that surly pensive mood from time to time throughout the story. I also got a kick out of the scene in which Ricarno fancies himself as big a man as Napoleon, and Cagney does a mock impersonation of the dictator to the amusement of Louie’s girl Doris (Dorothy Matthews).
With the back drop of Louie going straight and retiring to Miami with his new wife, the film throws a minor curve with the autobiography he’s writing. I thought for sure that police captain Pat Grady (Robert Elliott – O’Grady in the credits) had it right when he offered the suggestion – “Don’t write the last chapter till the night you go to the chair”. Instead, knowing that there’s no safe way out of the flop house he’s holed up in, Louie gussies himself up for a ‘handful of cloud’. The finale is effective for Warners’ purposes, the fade out hones in on the rewritten last page of the Louie Ricarno story, the ‘doorway to hell’ swings only one way.
Keep a sharp eye and you’ll catch a typo in the gangland slaughter headline of the newspaper Louie reads in the boarding house – it reads ‘grewsome’ for ‘gruesome’.
For an early talking picture, I found the film to be fairly well written and acted, most of that contribution coming from the main principals, Ayres and Cagney. I would like to have seen a better resolution of the Ricarno/Mileaway relationship, particularly since Cagney’s character just disappears after his ‘confession’, and even more so because of his heavily implicated fling with Ricarno’s wife – very risqué stuff for the 1930’s. The scene in the cab when she removes her ring probably brought a few gasps to audiences of the time, don’t you think?