Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Edward G. Robinson Film Festival--Part 1

I recently bought a 4-movie DVD set featuring Edward G. Robinson in some great Warner Brothers films from the 1930s. I thought it might be fun to write about them on my blog, spreading them out over a couple of months.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) is a fun movie in that it took Robinson (then still known primarily for playing bad guys) and made him the good guy.  I suspect that this was in part done for the same reason James Cagney ended up playing a federal agent in 1935's G-Men. There were worries that Cagney and Robinson were making gangsters seem too cool, so the studio had them switch sides. Both films are also effectively directed by William Keighley.

If so, I'm fine with this. These are great films in their own right.

In Bullets, Robinson is Johnny Blake, a tough but scrupulously honest cop who forces thugs and hoods to tip his hat to him. But political pressure has gotten him reassigned, so that he is no longer able to go after the big rackets that are pretty much running the city.

But when a crusading newspaperman is killed, the political winds change. A new commissioner is given carte blanche to clean up the city. The commissioner is a friend of Blake's, so that  should mean Blake is set loose on the mobs, right?

Wrong. Blake is fired for inefficiency. He slugs the new commissioner and vows to look out for number one.

Blake has had a sort of friendly rivalry with  Al Kruger (played by Barton MacLane), the nominal head of the mob. Kruger asks Blake to come over to the Dark Side. Blake agrees.

I suppose its a spoiler to tell you that Blake is actually still a cop, working deep undercover. But anyone who doesn't figure this out fairly promptly just isn't trying. This is, arguably, the one aspect of the movie that can make it feel dated. At the time, this would have been a pretty effective plot twist. But 80 years later, we've seen it in a million movies and TV shows.

Heck, even a lot of the gangsters in the film never really trust him. Most notably, he never does get on Nick Fenner's Christmas card list. Fenner (played by Humphrey Bogart, who is a few years shy of achieving leading man status) is Kruger's number two man. He hates Blake from the get-go and hates him even more when Blake seems likely to jump ahead of him in the mob hierarchy.

This leads to a lot of tension between Kruger and Fenner. But then, these two are played by MacLane and Bogie. I'm pretty sure it was actually a federal law that any characters played by those two had to end up enemies.

While this is going on, Blake is feeding information to the cops. But the final crackdown can't come until Blake learns who the real bosses are--a secret cartel of businessmen who give Kruger his orders.

Joan Blondell is the love interest. She's another interesting character--running a numbers racket and making some nice money at it. She and Blake obviously like each other, though he's too dedicated to his work to have ever pursued her. Eventually, his supposed involvement with the mob puts him in the dog house with her--he's eventually obligated to force her out of business when the mob takes over the racket.

Blondell is great in the part, but I do have a minor issue with her character. The movie makes a point of telling us that rackets that gradually suck people into wasting their money are hurtful. But pretty young Joan gets a pass on this--her numbers game is presented as harmless until the mob moves in on it. Her character arc needed some stronger recognition that what she did was wrong, even if she herself didn't see it.

But that really is a minor glitch. Backed by Warner Brothers' usual stable of great character, Robinson, MacLane and Blondell present us with a great movie.

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