Wednesday, March 4, 2015

"BULLETS OR BALLOTS" (1936) Review




"BULLETS OR BALLOTS" (1936) Review

When thinking of the cycle of crime melodramas that lit up movie theaters during the 1930s and 1940s, the first studio that always come to mind is Warner Brothers and the selection of gangster films it released during this period. Recently, I came across one particular that almost seemed to exemplify the Warner's crime films - namely 1936's "BULLETS OR BALLOTS"

Directed by William Keighley, "BULLETS OR BALLOTS" was based upon the life of the controversial New York City Police detective, Johnny Broderick. The movie focuses on Broderick's cinematic counterpart, Johnny Blake, a New York Police detective who is in charge of a squad that regularly puts the screws to fearful racketeers. When Blake gets kicked off the police force, a powerful crime boss named Al Kruger decides to hire him in an attempt to gain fresh ideas about sidestepping the law. Unfortunately, Kruger's second-in-command, Nick 'Bugs' Fenner, distrusts Blake and remains convinced that the latter might still be a cop.

I might as well be frank. Keighley and screenwriters Seton I. Miller and Martin Mooney created a basic, run-of-the-mill crime melodrama about a police officer who went undercover to get the goods on the organized criminal figures in his city. Yes . . . 'Bugs' Fenner was right about Johnny Blake being a police spy. It took me a while to figure out my thoughts about "BULLETS OR BALLOTS", because quite frankly, it does not strike me as particularly unique or interesting in regard to narrative. The movie has a few unique aspects about it. It was the first out of several films that featured both Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. The movie also featured African-American characters who did not serve as maids and valets to the gangsters and molls in this movie. No silly and racist nicknames like "Sunshine" or "Snowflake". Yes, Louise Beavers' character, Nellie LaFleur, was the former hairdresser of Joan Blondell's character, Lee Morgan. And yes, she was so critical of Blondell's current hairdresser that she briefly took over the task. But Beavers and Blondell's first scene together made it clear that Nellie had moved on from hairdresser to Lee's partner in the numbers game in Harlem. "BULLETS OR BALLOTS" featured some nice, in-depth exploration of city politics and corruption, along with a brief, yet intense shoot-out between Blake and Fenner. And I certainly had no problems with the cast - especially Robinson, Blondell, Bogart, Barton MacLane and Beavers. But . . . I simply could not warm up to this film.

It is obvious that I did not dislike "BULLETS OR BALLOTS". But I did not particularly loved it. In fact, I barely liked it at all. It took me three attempts with this film to finally finish it without falling asleep. And honestly? It proved to be just as I had earlier described it - "basic" and "run-of-the-mill". In other words, I found the main narrative rather bland . . . and boring. Perhaps movies about police undercover agents within organized crime was something new in the 1930s. But I am a woman of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. For me, undercover cop films and television programs are nothing new. And the screenwriters did very little with this film to light a fire underneath it. Perhaps Seton I. Miller and Martin Mooney should have written a screenplay that adhered more closely to Johnny Broderick's life. I read that the real life New York police detective had a reputation for excessive force with those he had arrested or questioned . . . both the criminals and many innocents. I suspect that if the movie had added that aspect of Broderick's reputation to the Johnny Blake character, Warner Brothers would have been faced with accusations of slander and a lawsuit. Pity. If there is one aspect of "BULLETS OR BALLOTS" that I disliked, it was the ending. I will not spoil it. But I will say that I found it completely unnecessary, considering the both the story and the main character's personality. It struck me as so unnecessary that I simply turned away in disgust.

For those who are deeply fascinated by the crime melodramas that Warner Brothers had churned out in the 1930s and 1940s, "BULLETS OR BALLOTS" might be your movie. The best I can say about this movie is that it featured some first-rate performances from a cast that featured Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell and Humphrey Bogart. I will give director William Keighley for keeping this movie well-paced. But not all of the fine acting or strong pacing in the world could prevent me from being bored . . . and a little irritated in the end.

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