Bullets or Ballots (1936)

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*. The title is only vaguely allusive — there’s just the one passing mention of bullets and ballots in the opening newsreel — but I guess someone thought it was clever. According to Dana Polan’s commentary Warner Brothers referred to the title in some correspondence as Bullets and Ballads, “as if Warner Brothers themselves wasn’t sure what the title meant or how appropriate it was for the film.” Admittedly, the generic alternative titles were even worse, among the candidates being All the Evidence, The Showdown, and The Pigeon.
*. Things that date badly. The gunshots followed by men clutching their chests with no sign of impact are hilarious. As are a lot of Robinson’s rather soft-looking punches.
*. I want to call it an archetypal plot, as it was to be repeated so many times. The cop who goes undercover and can’t tell anyone, even his woman, that he’s not really a heel.
*. Or is she his woman? There is some vague suggestion of a shared history between Lee and Blake, and regrets over what might have been. But let’s face it, Edward G. Robinson was hard to sell as a romantic lead.

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*. In fact the only guy who does seem interested in Joan Blondell is Bogart’s Fenner. Which is very weird. Usually the psycho thug, right down to his present day iterations, is asexual. And is Blondell interested in Fenner? It’s hard to tell. I love the ambiguous “Go ahead and take it” line. And how convincing is her subsequent demur that a kiss is not what she meant? Not very.
*. What was the first movie to use the device of newspaper headlines as a way of conveying information? It’s used at least half a dozen times here, but I wonder who did it first.
*. How legit is Lee’s numbers game? She doesn’t seem to be a criminal figure, but the game is surely another racket, only overlooked by the crime syndicate because it’s assumed to be “penny-ante” stuff (identified with women, blacks, and morons). But I don’t see where the question of its legality is ever raised in the film.
*. It was the ’30s, and gender roles were pretty strict. When Lee offers to cut the newly-unemployed Johnny in for a percentage of her numbers game if he’ll help her run it he is dismissive: “Oh, not a chance. Say, any money I’d make would be coming out of your pocket. And I don’t take any money away from women.” This is his response to her offering him a job: that her paying him would just be taking money away from her! Having a woman as a boss wouldn’t only be emasculating, it would be downright caddish!
*. It was the ’30s, and the bad guys are . . . Wall Street plutocrats in smoke-filled rooms! Damn right.
*. I guess a comic character like the dim McCloskey was considered an essential element. But boy does his routine seem perfunctory and laboured.
*. Some faces just belong to this genre, whatever side of the thin blue line they were playing. And I’m not just talking about Robinson and Bogart here. Barton MacLane is just as essential a figure, looming in the background of so many films like this. Hats on!

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