Must Watch Warner Archive: BULLETS OR BALLOTS (1936)

We love Warner Archive Instant and so should you! This week our Must Watch Warner Archive pick delivers a helluva punch from Edward G. Robinson in the underrated crime drama Bullets or Ballots (1936).

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There’s a deep sense of satisfaction one gets when seeing the name “Edward G. Robinson” splashed atop a Warner Bros banner. A warm wash of pleasure takes control of ones senses, forcing you down firmly in your seat, content with the knowledge that, whatever the picture’s flaws, the next 90 minutes will most assuredly deliver one of the greatest actors of any generation acting the hell out of each and every page of the script. Throw into the mix the names Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell and, oh by jingo, you’ve got yourself a helluva trifecta.

The premise of Bullets or Ballots sounds like nothing more than a regurgitated gangster flick: a good cop infiltrates a powerful New York gang and climbs the ranks inside the racket in order to tear it down. However, the script was written by Seton I. Miller, the man responsible for the unflinching crime dramas Scarface and G Men. Miller would also go on to pen some of the most loved adventure films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, including The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood and The Black Swan, which means the man knew how to knit together tight, taut tales of intrigue and derring-do. He was a master of crack-fire pacing and crackling dialogue and, in the hands of veteran studio director William Keighly, his Bullets or Ballots manages to stand out from the slew of similar hard-hitting sagas as, not merely memorable, but one of the best.

It also helps that this film has pitch-perfect casting. Edward G. Robinson was a veritable Babe Ruth of the movies, hitting every single one of his performances out of the ballpark. And he does not disappoint here as the tough guy cop who is just as hard-nosed as the criminals he hunts, proving that the line between “good” and “bad” is not only thin, but murky at best. Bullets or Ballots has the obligatory gangster caricatures, in this case filled by Humphrey Bogart’s Nick Fenner, but thankfully Bogart’s boss Al Kruger (Barton MacLaine) is all human. A frank square-shooter who, even as Robinson’s #1 target, admires the cop for his sterling reputation as, well, a frank square-shooter.  The two men are much alike, which is why when Robinson gets fired from the police department, Kruger comes calling. Kurger’s operation is rife with dangerously volatile crooks (i.e., Humphrey Bogart) and Kruger wants Robinson to tighten things up for him, just like he did on the police force. Embittered by being given the boot, Robinson accepts.

Or does he?

I’ll not spoil the plot, which picks up in the last 20 minutes to a white-knuckled finale, but the film is a perfect example of the 90 minute magic formula that Warner Bros gangster flicks personified.  And there are few greater pleasures in life than watching two of the greatest bad boys in film history, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart, drip venom over each other…and relish it.

And while we’re on the subject of plot, Bullets or Ballots is still worth watching even if only for its subplot. In it, sexy Joan Blondell runs a numbers game operation in the Bronx, working shoulder to shoulder with none other than Louise Beavers. Beavers, whom I think we can all agree is a big fan favorite, was a victim of the Hollywood system and Jim Crow America. Like Hattie McDaniel, Beavers was a supremely talented African American character actress who was often forced to accept demeaning roles. That is not the case here. Beavers is the ballsy brains behind Blondell’s successful operation, managing the racket up in Harlem and pretty much not taking shit from anyone—black or white. She’s not donning a maid’s costume, not by a long shot, but glitters in satin and jewels. Joan Blondell is the white woman and therefore the acceptable face of the operation to customers, and she’s a shrewd businesswoman, but she’d be nowhere if not for Beavers—a fact made perfectly clear throughout the film.

It’s a surprising breath of fresh air for a mid Depression-era film when African Americans were rarely allowed to behave on film as human beings–let alone intelligent businesspeople–and I think you can tell Beavers is absolutely thrilled with the role, small though it is.

And for the Blondell fans out there, rest assured the blonde dynamo fires on all sixes here. Burned by Robinson, whom she carries a torch for, her character is just as murky as his. She possesses a genuinely good heart—unless someone takes advantage of it, from which point there is no forgiveness…making her deliciously dangerous. (Which is exactly how I like her.)  Watch her spar here with Bogart, managing to be even fiercer than he is:

Bottom line?  Bullets or Ballots may not be as well remembered in the Warner catalog as Scarface or G Men, but it’s in every way the equal of any of Warner’s best gangster flicks.

A definite must watch.

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