Bullets or Ballots (1936)

Director:

William Keighley

Cinematography by

Hal Mohr

Bullets or Ballots is a 1936 gangster film starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barton MacLane and Humphrey Bogart. Robinson plays a police detective who infiltrates a crime gang. This is the first of several films featuring both Robinson and Bogart.

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Robinson Ties In With the Mugs!

12 September 2006 | by (bsmith5552@rogers.com) (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) – See all my reviews

“Bullets or Ballots” was affected by the new motion picture Production Code introduced in 1934. The Code stipulated, among other things, that gangsters could no longer be glorified in films as had been done with “Little Caesar” (1930) and “The Public Enemy” (1931). That meant that Warners resident gangsters Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney had to come over to the right side of the law.

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Cagney had done so in 1935 with “G-Men” but in 1936 was embroiled in a contract dispute with Warners and had left the lot. That left Robinson. You can just hear the brain trusts at Warners saying, “Let’s put Eddie Robinson in a new crime picture only this time we’ll have him go undercover so that he can ACT like a gangster while satisfying the Code by really working on the side of the law”. “Bullets or Ballots” was the result.

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Gangster Al Kruger (Barton MacLane) is a new order of corporate type gangster that shuns the old violent ways of the 20s. He is controlled by unseen bosses well placed in the business community. His second in command Nick “Bugs” Fenner is of the old school. When crusading newspaper reporter Ward Bryant (Henry O’Neill) is murdered by Fenner, it sets off a cry for justice. Police Captain McLaren is appointed Special Commissioner charged with cleaning up the rackets.

Detective Johnny Blake (Robinson) is a down on his luck policeman who has been exiled to an outer precinct. One day he learns that McLaren has fired him as part of his cleanup. But as we learn, Blake is really working undercover informing McLaren of the mob’s plans. Blake then joins up with Kruger and rises quickly through the ranks. Fenner, meanwhile doesn’t trust Blake and the two compete against each other.

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As the result of the crime crackdown, the mob’s earnings have dropped. Blake suggests that they move into the numbers racket which was being run successfully on a small scale by Blake’s girlfriend Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell) with the aid her pick-up man Herman (Frank McHugh) and Harlem contact Nellie (Louise Beavers).

With the success of the numbers game, Fenner sees that Kruger has gone soft and is neglecting the mob’s other businesses. Fenner murders Kruger and vies with Blake to take over. Blake succeeds and continues to inform McLaren of the mob’s intentions. Fenner decides on a showdown and…………….

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Robinson, who was a well educated and classically trained actor wanted to get away from gangster roles and did so whenever he could. But in spite of that, he will always be best remembered for these types of roles. Barton MacLane for once doesn’t play the brutish gangster. He plays Kruger as a businessman and not a thug. Bogey on the other hand, had just made his mark in “The Petrified Forest” (1936) and was typecast for the most part as a gangster for the next five years. Joan Blondell is wasted in her superficial role as Robinson’s love interest and McHugh is just along for comedy relief.

Still, “Bullets or Ballots” remains one of the all-time gangster classics.

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William Keighley directed the film with a firm and fresh efficiency…

7/10
Author: Righty-Sock (robertfrangie@hotmail.com) from Mexico
12 April 2005

Following his brutal portrayal in “The Petrified Forest,” Bogart became a much more articulate and calculating killer in “Bullets or Ballots,” a gangster thriller starring Edward G. Robinson as a crusading crime-buster, modeled after true-life cop Johnny Broderick, known as “the toughest cop on Broadway,” who pretended to be thrown off the police force in order to infiltrate Bogart’s gang and get the evidence to bring him to justice…

Bogart revealed no emotion whatever as he goes about his gun-happy chores of shooting a respected newspaperman as well as his partner-in-crime, Barton MacLane, in his characteristic double-cross…

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The exciting finale found both Bogart and Robinson in a blazing showdown, an unusual ending for this period in film history, but one which Robinson had fought hard to retain…

William Keighley directed the film with a firm and fresh efficiency…

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Robinson Ties In With the Mugs!

7/10
Author: (bsmith5552@rogers.com) from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
12 September 2006

“Bullets or Ballots” was affected by the new motion picture Production Code introduced in 1934. The Code stipulated, among other things, that gangsters could no longer be glorified in films as had been done with “Little Caesar” (1930) and “The Public Enemy” (1931). That meant that Warners resident gangsters Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney had to come over to the right side of the law.

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Cagney had done so in 1935 with “G-Men” but in 1936 was embroiled in a contract dispute with Warners and had left the lot. That left Robinson. You can just hear the brain trusts at Warners saying, “Let’s put Eddie Robinson in a new crime picture only this time we’ll have him go undercover so that he can ACT like a gangster while satisfying the Code by really working on the side of the law”. “Bullets or Ballots” was the result.

Gangster Al Kruger (Barton MacLane) is a new order of corporate type gangster that shuns the old violent ways of the 20s. He is controlled by unseen bosses well placed in the business community. His second in command Nick “Bugs” Fenner is of the old school. When crusading newspaper reporter Ward Bryant (Henry O’Neill) is murdered by Fenner, it sets off a cry for justice. Police Captain McLaren is appointed Special Commissioner charged with cleaning up the rackets.

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Detective Johnny Blake (Robinson) is a down on his luck policeman who has been exiled to an outer precinct. One day he learns that McLaren has fired him as part of his cleanup. But as we learn, Blake is really working undercover informing McLaren of the mob’s plans. Blake then joins up with Kruger and rises quickly through the ranks. Fenner, meanwhile doesn’t trust Blake and the two compete against each other.

As the result of the crime crackdown, the mob’s earnings have dropped. Blake suggests that they move into the numbers racket which was being run successfully on a small scale by Blake’s girlfriend Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell) with the aid her pick-up man Herman (Frank McHugh) and Harlem contact Nellie (Louise Beavers).

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With the success of the numbers game, Fenner sees that Kruger has gone soft and is neglecting the mob’s other businesses. Fenner murders Kruger and vies with Blake to take over. Blake succeeds and continues to inform McLaren of the mob’s intentions. Fenner decides on a showdown and…………….

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Robinson, who was a well educated and classically trained actor wanted to get away from gangster roles and did so whenever he could. But in spite of that, he will always be best remembered for these types of roles. Barton MacLane for once doesn’t play the brutish gangster. He plays Kruger as a businessman and not a thug. Bogey on the other hand, had just made his mark in “The Petrified Forest” (1936) and was typecast for the most part as a gangster for the next five years. Joan Blondell is wasted in her superficial role as Robinson’s love interest and McHugh is just along for comedy relief.

Still, “Bullets or Ballots” remains one of the all-time gangster classics.

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BULLETS OR BALLOTS (William Keighley, 1936) ***

7/10
Author: MARIO GAUCI (marrod@melita.com) from Naxxar, Malta
14 April 2008

This is one of the few gangster classics from that genre’s golden era and featuring its iconic stars which was never available in my neck of the woods until it surfaced on DVD. It was also the first of five films teaming (or rather pitting one against the other) Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart; the former was the real star and he was already starting to branch out from gangster roles – the latter was still a supporting actor (having just had his big break with THE PETRIFIED FOREST [1936]) and five more years would pass till he achieved his long-deserved stardom (nevertheless, in spite of the lack of range offered by the scripts for these type of roles, Bogie always made an impression at it).

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By this time, the Hays Code had come down on Hollywood for their glorification of the gangster; Warners had pulled a clever switch with “G” MEN (1935), where these same crimes were presented from the viewpoint of law enforcement officers (that film had also been helmed by this film’s director, William Keighley, and starred another of the great genre actors, James Cagney). In this case, the narrative allowed Robinson as an undercover cop to still be involved in the criminal activity, and rise through the ranks as always, without taking active part in them: however, censorship of the time still dictated that his character had to die at the end (unless it was a way of showing the risk inherent in such police work).

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Interestingly, Keighley would return to a similar situation – this time revolving around the F.B.I. – many years later with the noir THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948), which I’ve just watched as part of my ongoing tribute to Richard Widmark; having mentioned the noir, while I admire the vitality and raw power of the gangster films, their limited plot lines rather prevents them from having the same pull of the fatalistic thrillers often involving tortuous plots and where the protagonists – apart from the dark city streets – could be as much a private detective as the next man, but always gullible and at the mercy of a femme fatale…

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To go back to BULLETS OR BALLOTS, the film is typically fast-moving – it’s not just the action that crackles but the dialogue as well – and, while some of the edge of the very earliest gangster pictures, has been lost by way of repetition (and the standards of the Code), it’s still a satisfactory and highly entertaining entry. For the record, two of the very best efforts in this influential genre were still a couple of years away – namely ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938) and THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), both with Cagney as an anti-hero and Bogie ever the irredeemable and duplicitous mobster. Here, alongside the two stars, are Joan Blondell as Robinson’s on-off girl on whom Bogart has his eyes as well (interestingly, she’s got her own particular racket going!), Barton MacLane as the big boss whom Bogart is forever trying to oust (again, a role he would often play) and Frank McHugh providing the comic relief (ditto).

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very satisfying Warner police drama

7/10
Author: planktonrules from Bradenton, Florida
20 July 2006
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Okay, I’ll admit that MOST of the Warner Brothers films of the 1930s starring actors like Cagney, Bogart and Edward G. Robinson were predictable and formulaic. But, they were also very entertaining and the public loved them. I happen to be a real fan of the films but know that they aren’t exactly “high art” or always 100% believable! Well, this is such a film, as you really need to suspend disbelief and just sit back and enjoy–and boy, did I enjoy this dandy film.

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Robinson played a tough as nails detective who used to be a force to be reckoned with in the police department, but in recent years instead of smashing organized crime, he’s been reassigned to more mundane activities. And, he’s got REAL ATTITUDE, as when hoods see him on the street, he’s likely to slug them if they don’t show him “proper respect”. At the same time, the grand jury is outraged by the proliferation of organized crime, so they appoint a new Police Commissioner. However, unexpectedly, this new Commissioner unexpectedly fires Robinson instead of having him return to his old mob-fighting ways! Now at this point, considering who Robinson’s character was, it seemed obvious that his being fired was NOT “strictly on the level”. Where this goes and how the movie wraps everything up, I’ll leave to you.

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The acting is fun and exactly what you’d expect from an old gangster picture. The combination of Robinson, Barton MacLane and Bogart as the leads is exceptional and is sure to please, though I must admit that MacLane’s character, at times, seems a bit stupid and gullible–he wasn’t the best written character in the film.

Edward G. Robinson played GOOD & EVIL GUY!

10/10
Author: whpratt1 from United States
18 August 2004

Enjoyed viewing is great film directed by William Keighley, it has a great cast of Veteran Classic actors.

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Keighley produced another great film,”Street With No Name”,’48. Edward G. Robinson,(Detective John Blake),”The Red House,”’47, was trying to be a good cop and keep the city from being taken over by the hoods. Joan Blondell,(Lee Morgan),”Big Daddy,”’65 has a big crush on Blake and also has a Numbers Racket going on in town that the hoods become interested in obtaining. Barton MacLane (Al Kruger),”Captain Scarface”,’53 is one of the big shot gangsters and tries to get John Blake to change sides and join the bad guys. Humphrey Bogart,(Nick Bugs Fenner), “Dead End”,’37, looks very young and just starting out in his acting career, does not trust John Blake and is a trigger happy gangster who will stop at nothing to become the Number 1 HOOD! If you love old gangster films with great actors, this is the film for YOU!

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Beating Those Criminals to a Pulp

7/10
Author: bkoganbing from Buffalo, New York
16 May 2006

Edward G. Robinson stars in yet another classic gangster film from the folks who did them best at Warner Brothers. This time his character of John Blake is based on real life NYPD detective John Broderick.

Back in the day you would not have given much chance for Broderick to grow old and die in bed. Yet in 1966 that’s what he did do. Back in the day too many of New York’s noted underworld figures felt his knuckles in various parts of the anatomy.

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Broderick was independent, fearless, and honest, the last being a rather rare commodity in the days of and just after Prohibition. Good thing he retired before the Miranda decision. He didn’t think that hoodlums had any civil rights.

Because Broderick was so open and known to all undercover work was impossible. But in Bullets or Ballots Robinson is kicked off the force for excessive brutality and joins the hoods he’s been beating on.

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But it’s all an act. It’s a deal worked out by Broderick and the Police Commissioner so he can go undercover and get the goods on the numbers racket. The ostensible heads, Barton MacLane and Humphrey Bogart and the respectable types they’re fronting for.

Though the ending is melodramatic, Bullets or Ballots holds up pretty well today. And who knows, Broderick’s real life might yet rate a good biographical picture today.

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