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Bullets or Ballots (1936) is a somewhat historic piece of 1930s cinema, asit boasts the first-ever teaming of Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart.It's an entertaining gangster yarn, and one of the better films directed byWarner Bros. contract hand, William Keighley. Financially, the picture wasa major success and Robinson, who at first had misgivings about the screenplay,later wrote in his autobiography that it was "an eighteen-karat, wallopingwowsie of a hit." As was so often the case with Depression era crime films,the story was "ripped from the headlines," complete with characters who wereloosely based on then-famous hoodlums and detectives.
Robinson stars as pipe-smoking Johnny Blake, a New York City cop who's incharge of a squad that regularly puts the screws to fearful racketeers.Blake, a hot-head, generates unwanted publicity when he angrily punches thepolice commissioner (Joseph King) and gets kicked off the force. A powerfulcrime boss named Al Kruger (Barton MacLane, more or less playing DutchSchulz) likes Blake's style, so he hires him in an attempt to gain freshideas about sidestepping the law.
Unfortunately, Kruger's vicious right-hand man, "Bugs" Fenner (Bogart),doesn't trust Blake. In fact, he'd kill him if he knew he could get awaywith it. Before it's all over, "Bugs" will indeed kill someone, and Blakewill steal a lucrative numbers racket from Kruger's girlfriend, Lee Morgan(Joan Blondell). There's a macho battle for control, of course, but Blake,who's been harboring a major secret, will have the final word.
Keighley's knack with gangster material was arguably the key element ofBullets or Ballots success; he had previously directed Journal of aCrime (1934), G Men (1935), and Special Agent (1935).Keighley once stated that he aimed to "serve the great masses who actuallydo know good entertainment when they get it." A hefty $1,750 a weekcontract from Warner Bros. may have encouraged this populist stance. Hedidn't, however, bring Bullets or Ballots to the screen all byhimself. Martin Mooney, a real-life crime reporter, wrote the originalstory, and he knew a thing or two about the Manhattan underworld. Seton I.Miller then adapted Mooney's work into a screenplay that featured the kindof dialogue and pacing that audiences had come to expect from the genre.
Late in his life, Robinson challenged film scholars to take note of apattern that guides the movies he made with Bogart, and Bullets orBallots is no exception. Both actors' characters would usually wind updead by the end of the picture, but there was a distinct pecking order tohow it happened: When Robinson was the bigger star, Bogie would get itfirst, leaving room for his rival to hang around a little longer beforebiting the dust. When Bogie became the bigger actor, the order wasreversed. Who says movie-making isn't a science?
It should also be pointed out that, like many other Hollywood filmmakers,Keighley left his cushy position at the studio to bravely serve his countryduring World War II. His documentary on the Eighth Air Force BomberCommand, Target for Today, was the first film selected by the U.S.Archives for its library. He may not have been the most famous director ofall time, but he was in the major league of studio craftsmen and well respected by his peers.
Directed by: William Keighley
Producer: Louis F. EdelmanScreenplay: Seton I. Miller
Story: Martin MooneyEditing: Jack Killifer
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Art Design: Carl Jules Weyl
Music: Herbert Stothart
Special Effects: Fred Jackman, Jr., and Warren Lynch
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Johnny Blake), Humphrey Bogart ("Bugs"Fenner), Barton MacLane (Al Kruger), Joan Blondell (Lee Morgan), Frank McHugh (Herman McCloskey), Joe King (Captain Dan 'Mac' McLaren), Dick Purcell (Ed Driscoll).
BW-82m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara