Bullets or Ballots (1936) **
This slick, pacy, complicated Warners programmer begins with perhaps the studio’s most impudent comment ever on the relationship between screen and real violence, as crime baron Barton MacLane and henchman Humphrey Bogart go to see a “crime picture” together, actually a short in a fictional series called ‘Syndicate of Crime’, partially modelled on MGM’s Crime Does Not Pay films (1935-47), with Bogart commenting “Wait till you see the actor that takes you off.” It’s a terrific opening to a film largely concerned with the uneasy relationship between the media, the police and organised crime.
The narrator of the film, a crusading publisher, is soon killed by Bogart’s character because his utilisation of the film medium is proving too effective at mobilising public opposition to racketeering (one-nil to Warners) and it’s not long before we hear the police complaining that the newly-rendered transparency of their operations, thanks to print media, is hampering their ability to deal with the criminals. (Accordingly, the plot is constantly advanced by newspaper headlines, either referred to by the characters or flying straight at the screen to the accompaniment of wailing sirens and a background montage of cops racing to work.)
Since Cagney had appeared to such memorable and popular effect in the previous year’s G-Men (the obvious model for this film, also directed by William Keighley and written by Seton Miller) the latest Warner rouse was to recast their gangster icons as tough, no nonsense good guys - that way they could maintain all the old attitudes, punchiness and cocky dialogue (leaving the actual criminality to the plainly irredeemable Bogart), and the censors couldn’t complain.
This one comes up with the even happier variation of casting Eddie Robinson as an undercover cop pretending to be a gangster (a deception the film does not even reveal until the halfway mark) so for whole sections it really is business as usual, perhaps the ultimate example of the studio both having its cake and eating it.
Warners were no doubt hoping for another G-Men-sized hit, but lightning didn’t quite strike twice this time. Still, this is an engrossing and hugely enjoyable yarn that rattles along at the best Warner Brothers tempo – all meat, no fat – with the help of a crackerjack studio supporting cast headed by Bogart in his first role after the same year’s Petrified Forest, the great Joan Blondell, Frank McHugh, Louise Beavers and the wonderfully greasy George E. Stone.