Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945): Summer of Noir GIFs, Day 5

Usually when I say that a movie leaves a bad taste in my mouth I don’t exactly mean that as a compliment. With Scarlet Street, however, I’m paying tribute to the strychnine-bitter finish that Fritz Lang worked so hard to give his wrenching noir masterpiece.

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SPOILER ALERT! The movie ends with Criss Cross, the gentle, manipulated cashier (and genius painter), killing Kitty, the object of his obsession, after she laughs at his marriage proposal. When the cops put the finger on Kitty’s pimp boyfriend for the crime, Cross lets the not-quite-innocent man go to the death house for the murder.

Tortured by his sins and hallucinating the ghostly, gloating whispers of his victims, Cross becomes a bum, a pathetic presumed lunatic who confesses to a crime that nobody believes he committed.

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The first time I saw this movie, during my teenage noir binge, the abject defeat of the main character absolutely floored me. Noir protagonists tend to go down in a blaze of tragic glory or at least catch a ray of dubious, studio-mandated redemption.

The pitiable failure of Criss Cross—unrecognized as both a great artist and a remorseful murderer—and the anticlimax of Scarlet Street‘s conclusion depressed the hell out of me. Lang slashed a hole in the silky lining of Hollywood’s fantasy world.

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These days the ending of Scarlet Street actually inspires me. Its grim fatalism testifies to the courage of some filmmakers and producers working within the constraints of a commercial system.

Indeed, the Production Code didn’t allow for murderers to escape death or legal punishment in the last reel—often resulting in some mutilated or at least unlikely denouements.

Determined to avoid such a botched ending, Lang decided to bring his case to censorship honcho Joseph Breen and harp on a feeling close to every Catholic’s heart: guilt. As the director recalled:

“I said, ‘Look, we’re both Catholics. Being permitted to live, the Robinson character in Scarlet Street goes through hell. That’s a much greater punishment being imprisoned for homicide. After all, it was not a premeditated murder, it was a crime of passion. What if he does spend the rest of his life in jail—so what? The greater punishment is surely to have him go legally free, his soul burdened by the knowledge of his deed, his mind constantly echoing with the words of the woman he loved proclaiming her love for the man he’d wrongly sent to death in his place…’ And I won my point.”

What do you know? Catholic guilt is good for something after all.

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Stop the Clocks: The Stranger (1946)

It really ticks me off when people (including Orson Welles himself) dismiss his thriller The Stranger as, to use one of the dirtiest slurs in film criticism, his “most conventional film,” as a stylish but formulaic product of a genius on a short studio leash.

That’s a bit like saying, “Well, it’s one of Shakespeare’s less good plays.” Because, in both cases, we’re talking about something that’s a hell of a lot more insightful, complex, and entertaining than most of what else is out there.

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Welles takes a taut noir-suspense plotline and packs it with a larger sense of significance and trauma, as though time itself had blistered and burst under the withering, unfathomable atrocities of World War II.

Seriously—how many thrillers can you think of from the 1940s (and beyond!) that had the guts to use genuine newsreel footage of the horrors of the Holocaust as the crux of their moral and ethical stakes? That’s exactly what Welles did. Explain to me how that’s conventional.

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In case you haven’t seen this deceptively ingenious gem, the story concerns a Nazi war criminal, Franz Kindler (a high level architect of the Holocaust and dead-ringer for Friedrich Nietzsche). This evil mastermind carefully preserved his anonymity—down to burning every known photograph of himself—and fled to America after World War II.

Under the name of Rankin, Kindler has blended into life in the idyllic town of Harper, Connecticut and even married Mary (a luminous Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court judge.

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Yes, in the days before Google, who knows what kind of guy you might’ve married?

However, there’s no rest for the wicked, and Rankin’s being relentlessly pursued by an agent of the Allied War Crimes Bureau, Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson). The determined Nazi-hunter tracks Rankin/Kindler down by letting another war criminal out of prison in the hopes that the freed man will lead him to the big fish.

Kindler kills this hapless ex-comrade, the “little man,” so that he can’t betray Kindler’s identity. The problem is, Mary knows that the “little man” was looking for him. So Kindler has to try to kill her too.

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I admit: it does sound pretty conventional on the surface. But a plot synopsis fails to translate the excellence of this film.

First off, The Stranger looks great and is crammed full of stunning shots. We get a tense long, long take during which Rankin slowly turns back into Kindler as he kills his former friend—and while praying no less!

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Typical Wellesian angles crop up and enliven even the most rudimentary of scenes with a cockeyed creepiness. Through shadows so looming and poetic that they sometimes distract you from the plot, Welles paints a world subtly tattered and worn-down. Not even Harper, the hallowed bastion of New England purity, escapes the impact of a global trauma.

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After the war, we understand, things are different. And they won’t ever be the way they were. A piece of the world’s innocence has died. It’s broken. Gone forever. The Capra-esque, quaint little town of Harper has changed irreversibly.

I even wonder to what extent Mary’s discovery of her husband’s awful true self is actually a reflection of American veterans coming home from World War II as strangers to their wives. Perhaps the evil Nazi is just a stand-in for damaged American manhood, for the prison of post-war domestic life. Even commercial ads from the 1940s betrayed a noirish quality, like this one for Listerine!

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Look familiar? The following shot is from The Stranger, as Rankin looms over Mary in bed.

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In the wake of a global conflict, Welles depicts a troubling, warped pretense of normalcy. A creeping penumbra and crazy angles turn ordinary places like high school gymnasiums and events like faculty tea parties into cauldrons of fear and roiling secrets.

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I particularly appreciate how Welles uses clocks and mechanical devices, usually so reliable and quotidien, to create disorientation and explore the breakdown of perception.

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You see, the evil Franz Kindler, when not planning mass murder, has a passion for clocks and watches, which seems very apt indeed, considering the ruthless “clockwork” execution of the Final Solution. There are lots of allusions to clocks and clockworks.

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Mr. Wilson first gets his wind up that Harper is the place to find Kindler when he sees the hands to the clock on the Harper church tower spin around wildly while being fixed. After the “little man” manages to whack Mr. Wilson over the head with a piece of swinging gymnastic equipment in the Harper Academy gym, the rope swings back and forth in front of him, like a pendulum.

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When Kindler sets out to kill his wife, he writes up a little itinerary with specific time coordinates.

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Throughout the film, Kindler, a control freak if ever there was one, keeps returning to an old grandfather clock and winding it up, trying to make the old thing keep time.

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At the risk of getting too analytical, time is really one of the two media that make up the essence of cinema—the other is space, of course. So, how can we read or interpret Kindler’s repeated gesture, portrayed with some of the film’s most ominous and beautiful chiaroscuro lighting?

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We can perceive a slight metafilmic joke in Orson Welles as Kindler winding up the clock. (Incidentally, when Hitchcock made his cameo in Rear Window, he too is winding up a clock in the composer’s apartment.) Are we seeing the director as the artistic tyrant, the keeper of time dissolve into the sociopolitical tyrant, trying to make the world keep time with his unthinkable schemes?

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I might be overstating my case, but I think that we can infer a connection between the two most powerful mechanical devices in The Stranger: the clock and the film projector that reveals to Mary the extremes of what her husband (and mankind in general) is capable of.

At almost the center point of the film, Kindler/Rankin has confessed to Mary that he killed the man who came looking for him, but he claims that the “little man” was a blackmailer who would have threatened their happiness. Willing to conceal this justified murder and lie to protect her husband, Mary is called to visit her father and talk to Mr. Wilson.

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When she gets there and opens the door, the room is dark and flickering with projected footage. The lights come on and Mr. Wilson softens Mary up with a few questions—a body was uncovered in town, did you know him, ect.—before asking her to watch a film. The lights go out again and before we even see what Wilson’s projecting, the look of appalled stupefaction on Mary’s face makes us wonder what she’s seeing. Then we see. It’s a screen full of dead bodies.

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A moment ago, Mary thought she was involved in a murder mystery. That’s still true, but now the mystery isn’t whodunit—it’s howcouldsomeonepossiblyhavedunit? In place of one dead body, we get too many to count, too many to mentally process, strewn across the ground without emotion or order as the camera impassively pans across them.

Clearly shocked, Mary protests that she’s “never ever seen a Nazi.” But, and this is key, Wilson explains that they can look like normal people and act like normal people if it benefits them. I find it hard to believe that this statement is only supposed to apply to Franz Kindler in this context. After WWII, a lot of people nursed the belief that the people who committed atrocities were somehow different from the rest of us. It turns out, as Milgram’s obedience studies from 1960s have shown, a disquietingly large percentage of the population will kill if told that an authority figure takes full responsibility.

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But back to the scene, which suddenly turns documentary, as Wilson explains some of the more awful points of the concentration camps, like the gas chambers and the lime pits—and you see them. As does Mary.

Of course, using newsreel footage in fictional movies wasn’t so unusual—Casablanca, for example, is punctuated and grounded in reality by choice morsels of grainy footage: advancing Nazis, downtrodden refugees, mortars discharging their fire over Paris. Nevertheless, war on an open field had been filmed in WWI and audiences were used to seeing it. Even today, if you want to watch those Holocaust newsreels on websites, you get a warning that it’s disturbing, mature content.

And it’s one thing to see it in context as a newsreel, which occupies a fixed place in one’s schema of documentary media. You expect to see awful, real things in the news. You’re at least braced for it. In a movie? Not so much.

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A Nazi gas chamber projected in a Judge’s house in Connecticut.

To show footage from the concentration camps in a general admission fictional film is pretty damn radical, not to mention risky from a moral standpoint. (One thinks of the actual shots of Bruce Lee’s funeral used to mercenary and meretricious effect in Game of Death.) However, there’s nothing cheap and exploitative about how Welles inserts Holocaust images into The Stranger.

Including those indelible images in a made-up story, Welles blurs the line between the dream world of the movies and the real world, and, by mixing these up, he gives us a reality check that documentary footage alone cannot provide. Just as Mary wakes up to the evil that Rankin/Kindler harbors within him, we the viewers are jolted out of the diegesis of a pleasant little thriller to understand that this happened and will forever mark our memories.

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Woman in the dark: Mary watches the horrors of the Nazi death camps.

Reflecting on the Hiroshima tragedy, Marguerite Duras pointed out that we can’t even talk about it—we can only talk about the impossibility of truly talking about it. Welles finds a way around this dilemma of portraying the Holocaust by just borrowing newsreel footage. But he doesn’t do so in a “BAM! Truth at 24 frames per second!” manner. He takes care to suggest that this is not the whole picture. He carefully makes us see that we’re not seeing the atrocities—we’re seeing a film of the atrocities projected onto a screen… and filmed by another camera.

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We’re looking at a film of a film of the Holocaust.

The degree of separation, however, rather than hinting that we just can’t comprehend what happened, brings up the idea of individual cultural trauma. I can remember exactly where I was when I first saw that footage on YouTube (I had to lie and say I was over 18 and willing to watch disturbing footage in the name of historical interest).

That footage of the camps and the wide-eyed Allied liberators has become more than a document or an artifact. It represents a rite of passage, a kind of frozen moment in time that we all have to encounter at some point, a point that will then crystallize in our lives and haunt us. Can we wrap our minds around the sheer mechanical abomination of that footage? No. But it stays with us. The experience of watching that grainy phantasmagoria of suffering becomes an enclosed moment, a rupture in time.

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To get back to the scene, I find it significant that the images are not just projected onto a screen, but, at times, onto Mr. Wilson’s face. He is part of the screen, and he casts his shadow onto the image. Now, I don’t want to tread on what Welles himself called “the jagged edge of symbolism,” because the materiality of the characters, the room, and the image itself save the scene from trite symbolism. And yet, watching Edward G. Robinson interact with those images that seem to fuse with him conveys so much about the strange way in which cultural traumas both escape us and live in us.

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Here’s where the strength of the movies comes in: I can’t express this in words half as well as Welles can with images. I don’t want to explain all that. I want you to watch the movie and tell me if you see it—or more importantly, if you feel it.

And then there’s the motion of the film reels, turning at a regular pace and rhythm, ’round and ’round like the gears of a clock. Even once the film strip has run out, the reel continues to spin, the tail end of the celluloid slapping against the table and giving us another little wake-up call. The shots of the gears of the projector foreshadow images of the gears of Harper’s clock spinning out of control at the grand finale of the film.

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The out-of-control film projector…

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…and the out-of-control clock tower gears.

In a way, the clock is inextricably linked with the movie projector as both introduce a looming sense of dread that intensifies in the final third of the film.

Immediately after this scene, Franz Kindler/Rankin fixes the Harper clock and it chimes out—waking up the entire town as Kindler looks down at them from the top of the tower, godlike.

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The villagers come running to investigate the newly working clock.

Having disturbed the peace of the town, the clock continues to strike at important moments for the rest of the film. For example, as Kindler saws away at the ladder to the top of the church tower, planning Mary’s “accidental” death, the clock strikes—meanwhile, Wilson looks at the tower from his hotel room and, at the Rankin house, the sound keeps Mary from sleeping.  We see her tossing and turning as it tolls in the night. In a series of three shots, the sound connects the central characters.

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The devil rising: a mechanical demon moves in front of the face of the clock as Kindler engineers his wife’s death and the chimes sound out.

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The sound of the chiming links together all of these shots and stresses the relationship between the incarnations of good and evil, Kindler and Wilson—both could actually be “the stranger” referred to by film’s the title—and the ordinary woman trying to negotiate the right path between them after making a very big mistake.

The clock’s tolling also coincides with and sort of exteriorizes the knowledge of those horrors that Mary witnessed. The sound design of the clock’s booming chimes makes the “home stretch” of the film more taut, implacable, and tense.

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But it’s really at the end of the movie where the clock-cinema connection clicks, as Kindler holes up in the clock tower, where Mary comes to kill him with Mr. Wilson in pursuit.

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Mary takes a wild shot at Kindler and misses, but hits the clock mechanisms and sends them spinning out of control.

Her shot prompts a gorgeous set piece of accelerated montage as the wounded Kindler tries to escape—whirring gears, shots, jerky movements, a fall onto the face of the clock. Just as the gears of the clock have accelerated beyond reason, so the well-paced, patient suspense of the film gives way to a frenzy of quick cuts. The clock and the cinema freak out in tandem.

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Is the scene a little allegorical? With Mary as an avenging angel… and the actual angel statue on the clock stabbing the demonic Kindler and sending him to his death? Probably, but there’s something even more cathartic going on.

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32The scene ends with a shot of the face of the clock, the hands revolving madly, mimicking the fruitless spinning of the film projector when it ran out of newsreel footage. Some trauma lies beyond time, beyond what can be shown, but that incessant, unreasoning, out-of-control cycling hits a very emotional chord.

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Some collective memories or experiences are so vast and awful that they make our heads spin. We can’t ever understand those pivotal moments in history, just like we can’t ever take the derivative of a single point in mathematics. The weight of these remembrances make our usual linear conceptions of time and memory judder, overheat, and careen off of any framework of calculation. They mark the asymptotes of our cultural perception and recollection. And The Stranger helps us to understand this. Time itself seems to go haywire at the end of the film, as if the magnitude of the horrors of WWII had created a cultural momentum that derails all sense of narrative or fiction.

The Stranger manages to stare down the barrel of some of the most hideous things that humans have ever perpetrated against each other and pack that kind of ugliness into a genre picture! In my mind, it’s the direct ancestor of a film like Hiroshima, Mon Amour that manages to be both a love story in a silent era way and an avant-garde Mobius ring of loss and desire on macro and micro scales. The only difference is, The Stranger works on your mind subtly, without you totally realizing it. I’ve always really liked, respected, and enjoyed this film—even before I knew a jump cut from a jump rope. There’s something healing about it in the end, even if you’re not watching it for a dose of Wellesian genius.

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If you want a suspenseful, entertaining B movie, you’ll get it. But if you want an exorcism of a collective trauma and a darkly beautiful tale of deception, undeserved love, and a thinking conflict between good versus evil, you’ll find that too—even in as, ahem, conventional a film as this one.

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The Stranger is in the Public Domain, which means you can watch it for free right now! Download it at the Internet Archive.

The Party’s Over: Bullets or Ballots (1936)

“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.

Bullets or BallotsPoint 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.

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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?

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon