Saturday, May 22, 2021

Movie Reviews: Bullets or Ballots

Bullets or Ballots
directed by William Keighley
This is not really a noir film though it does have noir elements. It's an old school crime drama and something of a love letter to the police, most especially a particularly brutal and arrogant real life NYPD detective, John Broderick, known for harassing, and assaulting striking workers and criminals (alleged or actual).
Although he was known at the time as being a "tough cop," considering that that most of the people Broderick assaulted weren't able or willing to fight back against an officer of the law, I think Broderick wasn't so much a tough guy as he was a bully. He beat one man taken in for parole violations so badly that the man was crippled for life. The judge ended up letting the man go, stating that he had suffered enough. 
Still, in 1936 as now, it was good business for Hollywood to depict a heroic cop battling bad guys. Bullets or Ballots was the first of five films to star Edward Robinson and Humphrey Bogart together. 
Not only does this film take strong inspiration from the "adventures" of John Broderick, it also references the then notorious exploits of people such as Lucky Luciano, Madame Stephanie St. Clair, and Dutch Schultz.

Johnny Blake (Edward Robinson) is a tough little detective whose temper is just as quick as his fists. If you're a criminal and don't tip your hat or move out of his way when you see him on the streets he will give you a beating if you're lucky. 
If you're unlucky he will throw you through a glass window and then have other cops arrest you for disturbing the peace or destroying property. It's just how he gets down. 
Blake has a frenemy relationship with top gangster Al Kruger (Barton MacLane). Kruger has always been interested in getting Blake to join his gang. He appreciates that Blake is a straight shooter, though his methods are unorthodox. 
The two men have known each other and possibly respected each other for years. Blake has always turned down Kruger's job offers. Kruger's number two man is the more violent and sinister Bugs Fenner(Bogart) who doesn't like Blake at all. Not one bit. Against Kruger's direct orders Fenner just murdered an anti-mob crusader newspaper editor. Fenner is chafing at the number two role. Fenner has plenty of his own ideas he'd like to put into action.

Despite his anti-mob bonafides, Blake's on-again off-again girlfriend is independent numbers czarina and cabaret manager Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell). 
Morgan runs numbers in New York, more specifically Harlem, with her Black partner Nellie LeFleur (Louise Beavers). When Blake's old partner is promoted to police commissioner, citing some of Blake's questionable associations, he ostentatiously fires Blake. 
In response Blake assaults the commissioner at a prize fight attended by Kruger and company. Seeing his chance Kruger again invites Blake to join him. And this time Blake takes it. Fenner doesn't like this. Fenner thinks a cop is always a cop. 
This film was unusual for its time in that it depicted Black gangsters beating up and ejecting white ones without any sort of negative consequences. 
On the other hand it was very much of its time by portraying a Black woman as being something of a mammy stereotype. LeFleur is just as interested in doing Morgan's hair as she is in running the business.
Robinson and Bogart sneer at, snarl at, and stalk each other throughout the film. You know this is only going to end one way. Their tough guy antics don't feel real in the slightest but they're still fun to watch. All in all this was a decent movie for its time but it doesn't really hold up today. The narrative, message and themes are stilted and obvious. 
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