“What time does the crime picture start?” Al Kruger, notorious racketeer, asks the box office girl of a movie theater. When a gangster film from 1936 opens with a line that self-referential, I’m already glued to my screen.
In fact, a big, unmistakable movie marquee—advertising a crime picture—fills the first shot of Bullets or Ballots before the camera descends with a smooth crane downwards to focus on a sparkly-new car pulling up to the theater.
It turns out that this picture parlor will be projecting a short docudrama about Al Kruger, so of course the gangster had to show up and see how he’s being portrayed on the silver screen.
Point well-taken, movie. Gangsters don’t merely inspire crime films—they can be inspired by them or insulted by them, for that matter. From the first, Bullets or Ballots drolly reminds us that crime may be the ultimate pop culture phenomenon.
Criminals enjoy their status as celebrities and trendsetters… but they also borrow from previous celebrity gangsters and have to worry about how public opinion chooses to look at them. Remember how media-savvy Michael proves himself in The Godfather, spinning his murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey into a public relations coup?
Well, he’s just one in a line of very public enemies, both real and fictional, who cultivated their persona and image in the gaze of the media. For instance, Al Kruger in this film was heavily based on larger-than-life Dutch Shultz. A few years earlier, Al Capone’s henchmen actually visited Ben Hecht to make sure that old Al would get a fair shake in Scarface.
Bullets or Ballots jokes about this chiasmus, this feedback loop: gangsters as stars, and stars as gangsters. But it’s no joke, as we soon learn.
Al Kruger (1930s stalwart Barton MacLane) and his cool-as-a-corpse henchman ‘Bugs’ Fenner (Humphrey Bogart) swagger into the movie theater just as the picture starts. The newsreel trumpet fanfare sounds out, creating a weird echo between the movie within the movie and the real movie theaters where viewers in 1936 would’ve seen Bullets or Ballots.
As Kruger and Fenner plunk themselves down, they gaze up at the screen with deadpan faces that make the situation even more comical. From the perspective of a 1930s spectator, we’re at a movie and we’re watching people watching a movie.
Audiences across America must have giggled at the fact that the stereotypical tough-guys, slouched in their seats, almost appeared to be watching them from a movie theater in a parallel universe. In the 1930s, roughly one in two people in the whole United States went to the movies once a week. Well, these racketeers apparently took enough of a break from their racketeering to go to the flicks. Ah, gangsters: they’re just like us!
I appreciate these reflexive, semi-forth-wall-breaking sequences in old movies not so much because they herald any particular formal genius on the part of the director. I love self-referential moments because of what they suggest about the audiences of that time. Directors and studios expected viewers in the 1930s to be every bit as clever and receptive to meta-gags as we are today. It drives me simply mad when people think that gangster movies started self-consciously alluding to other gangster movies in the 1960s and 1970s.
Nope—long before the film brats rolled into town, viewers had already learned how to decode movies as mash-ups and in-jokes. Which is why I laugh my head off at any declarations that this strange, stupefied, passive state called “absorption” dominated audience reactions to movies until art cinema shook things up. What ridiculous academic claptrap! And that’s said as someone who’s even rather attached to academic claptrap. Bullets or Ballots scored a smash hit at the box office—appropriate since it starts at one—and I think it succeeded in part because of how comically aware the film is of its own relation to other gangster films.
A real New York market in a fictional film.
But, back to the film. The public service message that Kruger and Fenner went to see, “The Syndicate of Crime,” a short film about the evils of racketeering, manages to be both exposition (we get the background on New York rackets) and a genuine public service message, telling us about the dastardly grift that racketeers are earning. There’s real archive footage and a real message about crime—but the segment also propels the plot forward and gets a boost from some parody, since the guy playing Kruger in the short film is woefully hammy and stereotypical.
Phony Kruger (above) is a real hoot… but the original (below) doesn’t seem too amused.
Wait, I hear you saying—is this a comedy? Don’t bet on it.
At the end of the newsreel short, a reformer speaks out and urges the public to use their votes to fight the gangsters (…and we have a title!). This goody two-shoes says that he’ll continue to speak out against crime and corruption. Well, no happy ending for this guy!
He gets gunned down by Fenner in the next scene—fully integrating the part real, part made-up newsreel into the plot. I admire this mixture of fact and fiction, a balance of documentary and illusion that the 1960s New Wave filmmakers, I would argue, didn’t so much invent as steal from 1930s Warner Brothers films. All in all, the opening sequence of Bullets or Ballots packs a punch.
Alas, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to this opening theater scene. I would describe the movie as good square WB entertainment and definitely above average for the mid-1930s—but not great. Bullets or Ballots won’t ever attain classic status in the same league of the gangster-driven dramas made before 1934, like Scarface and The Public Enemy—even if this film can boast Bogie, Robinson, and Blondell among its cast.
Edward G. Robinson, whose Little Caesar tore up the screen with pipsqueak ferocity, makes the best of an unfortunately sappy character. He plays Johnny Blake , a pugnacious, but likable career policeman who decides to help bring down New York racketeers by undertaking a virtually suicidal mission. Pretending to double-cross the police, he embeds himself with the bad guys as an anti-cop consultant.
Sound suspenseful? Well, it would be, but we don’t learn until way into the film that Blake is still working for the police! Evidently, Hitchcock wasn’t around to let the director, William Keighley, know that a time-bomb is only scary if we know it’s there all along and are waiting for it to go off.
We eventually recognize Bullets or Ballots as an early “sting” or “undercover cop” film that benefits from Warner Brother’s hard-hitting style. That’s the problem with Bullets or Ballots: it focuses on crime fighting too much to deliver the thrills of crime or the elegant rise-and-fall trajectory that adds momentum to the prototypes of the genre. Seriously, brace yourself for extra helpings of newspaper montages about raids and smashed criminal rings.
Despite the many fine aspects of this film, it throws me into mourning. Deep, deep mourning. Because it’s a dirty shame that Bullets or Ballots wasn’t made in, say, 1933 instead of 1936—before the Production Code came down.
So, for those of you who may not know, the late 1920s and early 1930s (until 1934), the “Pre-Code era,” constitutes a golden age in onscreen Hollywood decadence, as the industry was left under the lenient watch of Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.
I’m not talking about a few bared ankles or some mild Victorian titillation. I’m talking topless women, copious amounts of booze and drugs, and shockingly “immoral” endings—in which criminals get away with murder and bad girls get the rich man… and his chauffeur.
More importantly, films from this period often leverage their sinful onscreen shock value to offer a more realistic, visceral portrayal of human emotions and situations. Their grittiness and maturity contrast with the predominantly escapist, candy-coated stories of classical Hollywood.
Because of the Code coming down, Edward G. Robinson can’t play an unrepentant, gutsy gangster-hero anymore. He has to play a normal protagonist masquerading as a gangster. We, the viewers, still get some of the joys of the gangster hero—but once removed from the hero.
Okay, enough cinema history. Let’s get to the hot stuff and this film which, despite being past the pre-Code expiration date, contains one of the most sizzling onscreen kisses I’ve ever seen.
So, as I’ve mentioned, Humphrey Bogart plays a vicious, up-from-the-streets baddie, Fenner, who just moved up to be number-one-man in the gang by killing his boss. He’s practically drunk on blood at this point.
Joan Blondell plays a female racketeer, a numbers-runner named Lee Morgan who had her racket taken away from her by a long-time male friend—Johnny Blake, Fenner’s chief rival in the gang.
Lee and her fellow numbers-runner, Nellie LaFleur, are dismayed to learn that they’ve been cut out of their own racket.
In the key scene with Fenner, Lee’s hurt, she’s vulnerable, and she’s out for vengeance.
Fenner happens to run across her in a hotel bar (accidentally on purpose) and they get to talking. They agree they can do best by pooling their interests: he’ll muscle in and let her keep the numbers racket, provided that she help him wipe out Blake. The dialogue snaps along, filled with a bizarre combination of sexual tension and mutual distrust.
Fenner: You don’t trust me?
Lee: I don’t trust anybody.
Fenner: Me neither. We oughta work fine together.
Finally, when she realizes that Fenner is proposing to take her former racket away from Johnny Blake, she looks Fenner straight in the eye and declares, “Well, go ahead and take it!”
And take it he does… he leans over, closer and closer. He wants to seal this deal with a kiss and Lee makes no attempt to stop him. He finally kisses her and just when we think he’s going to break away he grabs her waist and stays a bit longer! This is a very drawn-out affair.
When Fenner finally, ahem, disengages, Lee pauses for a moment, then hauls off and slaps him so damn hard that you can see Bogie’s face flap!
If this were a pre-Code movie, these two would probably become an item and we’d get a lot more uncomfortably smoldering scenes between the wonderful performers (and real-life lovers, from what I’ve heard). Really, the whole movie would’ve been much more thrilling had it played on a love triangle between good guy Blake, bad guy Fenner, and sassy, independent Lee. Bullets or Ballots could also benefit from a few scenes of Blondell in something silky and almost absent. Just sayin’.
Personally, I think the movie smooch gets overused in big, gooey love scenes, so I really enjoy a filmic kiss that’s about something other than love. This kind of pre-noir kiss of the damned exposes the aggressive impulses that bring people to succumb to their urges. In this case, it’s about getting back at someone else, about power, about an unholy partnership. The subtext is stifling. I wish there were more scenes between Fenner and Lee. They ignite the imagination. But we can thank chief censor and morality man Joseph Ignatius “Bloody Buttinski” Breen for taking that away from us. Oh, well.
Bullets or Ballots still offers Louise Beavers in a far too small and subservient but delicious role as a fabulously stylish, opinionated Harlem numbers-runner, Nellie LaFleur—who came up with the racket in the first place. I love seeing women, especially women of color, running their own affairs and taking care of themselves in 1936!
Joan Blondell has seldom worn sexier clothes in any of her many, many sexy parts.
I also award points for a gripping shoot-out climax at the end (I won’t give it away!) that does effectively build tension and suspense with some taut intercutting… and leads to a surprising and moving dénouement.
The dialogue impresses with its snappiness, for instance:
Random gangster: I don’t like your face.
Johnny Blake: Well, I’ll be ’round tomorrow to give you a chance to rearrange it.
Robinson, surprisingly, pulls off both the charming and pugilistic sides to his disillusioned cop character—flirting with Blondell one minute, slugging a guy in the next.
The deco set designs will certain give you an eyeful of pleasure, if you, like me, dream of someday living in a Bauhaus hotel.
Ah, who am I kidding? You should see this for Bogie. Savor his magnificent performance as one smooth operator.
Whether he’s putting out a cigarette in his morning coffee or filling his enemies full of lead, you shouldn’t miss this delightfully psychopathic role from the days before Bogie’s characters acquired a sense of guilt and conscience.
Even if it’s not everything I want it to be, Bullets or Ballots holds up and serves as a masterclass in the crime genre’s iconography that carried into the New Hollywood and beyond. You haven’t really seen a movie like Mean Streets or The Godfather until you’ve seen movies like Bullets or Ballots.
Oh, and by the way, you mugs, I’m working for the #scenesofthecrime racket now, see? And if you wanna read about cool crime films, you’ll check it out, see?