Movie Review – Bullets or Ballots (1936)

Today we’re taking a look at Bullets or Ballots, a classic gangster film released back in 1936.

Bullets or Ballots is a crime film that involves gangsters looking for a new racket and source of income.  While they look to expand their empire, a top New York City police officer is willing to do anything it takes to stop them, even if it means risking his life and infiltrating their gang.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - movie poster

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – movie poster

Directed by William Keighley, Bullets or Ballots stars Edward G. Robinson as Detective Johnny Blake, a cop who wants to rid New York City of its notorious gangsters.  Supporting him in the film are Humphrey Bogart as Nick “Bugs” Fenner, and Joan Blondell as Lee Morgan.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Set in New York City, Bullets or Ballots begins with Al Kruger (Barton MacLane) and his underling, Nick “Bugs” Fenner (Humphrey Bogart), going to a theater and seeing a news report about the extent of gangster activities (primarily involving racketeering) in the U.S.  The extent of the racketeering goes as far as installing arcade machines so that kids can play games and lose their lunch money.  The news clip ends with footage of Kruger’s racketeering trial, to which he was acquitted by the jury.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

After leaving the theater, Fenner tells Kruger that he thinks that Ward Bryant (Henry O’Neill), a publisher who fought against the gangsters and continued to give them bad publicity, needs to be silenced.  Kruger tells him not to worry about it as it’s all talk.  Shortly later, Ward Bryant is gunned down in the streets and killed by an unknown gunman.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The murder of Ward Bryant gets the attention of Detective Johnny Blake (Edward G. Robinson).  He’s determined to stop the gangsters once and for all.  In that same bar, entertainer Lee Morgan (Joan Blondell) and her assistant Herman McCloskey (Frank McHugh) are organizing dancers in one room, and running their own racketeering business out of the next one.  Lee is successfully running a numbers game in Harlem.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Later that evening, Nick Fenner meets again with Al Kruger, and it’s implied that Fenner was the person who shot and killed Ward Bryant.  Kruger is angry with the murder as he feeling that Fenner is letting his emotions getting the best of him, and it may ruin their entire business operation.  Kruger then receives a phone call on a private telephone line, and we see that he has to answer to a higher authority, somebody that stays in the shadows of the racketeering business.

Kruger then meets with the bosses (it’s actually a group of three men), and they want to know who killed Ward Bryant.  When they ask if it was Fenner, Kruger lies and says that Fenner was elsewhere running a side business.  The bosses are angered by the way that Kruger has been running the organization, and his sloppy actions have been costing them serious money in bribing the mayor to cover the organization’s actions.  It’s heavily suggested that Kruger cleans his organization, otherwise he’s finished.  Dead.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

At a hearing, Captain Dan McLaren (Joe King) is questioned about his dedication to stopping the racketeering organizations throughout the city.  It’s reached the point where the governor is authorizing the police to create a special division to stop it, and the police commissioner wants Captain McLaren to run it.  McLaren accepts the position and takes the fight to the gangsters.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Just as the new division is started, Johnny Blake learns that he was fired from the police force.  The order for Blake’s termination came directly from McLaren himself.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

When Lee Morgan learns of Blake’s termination, she rushes over to meet with him.  She knows that Blake is looking for new employment, so she offers him a position with helping her run the numbers game.  It turns out that her “business” is much more successful than Blake realized.  Her operations have expanded from Harlem into the Bronx.  Blake turns down the offer as he sees it as his payments would be taking money out of her own pocket, and he won’t take money away from women.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Blake’s termination has also caught the attention of Al Kruger and Nick Fenner.  They spot Blake in the crowd at a boxing match, and Kruger is impressed when Blake punches out Captain McLaren, who is also in attendance at the sporting event.  Kruger then meets with Blake after the event, and he offers Blake a position in his organization.  Blake accepts the job in Kruger’s racketeering gang.

However, Fenner has his suspicions about Blake, and he thinks that Blake will turn on them.  He has his associates spy on Blake and report his every move.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Kruger then gives Blake a tour of the secret garage where his gang counts all of the money and keeps track of everything.  Some of the criminals are surprised to see the former police officer walking around and analyzing the organization’s operations.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s not long until Captain McLaren goes into action and makes headlines taking down gangsters, racketeers and loan sharks.  Fenner thinks that Blake is the person tipping off the cops about secret hideouts.  The blow to Fenner occurs when McLaren uses the police force to shut down his “wholesale” business.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

A while later, Blake walks out of a hotel when he spots a familiar police officer writing his vehicle a ticket for illegal parking.  Blake loses his temper and fights the officer.  The fight ends with Blake being hauled away to prison.  When Blake is put into solitary confinement, we see him meet with Captain McLaren.  The two of them are still friends, and Blake is still an active police officer.  It turns out that Blake was sent undercover to infiltrate the racketeering organizations.

Blake reports that there is somebody above Al Kruger in the organization, but it’s unknown who is really running the gang.  Blake is convinced that if the grand boss is arrested, then the rest of the organization will crumble to the ground.  Fenner is the number one person to move up if/when something happens to Al Kruger, but Blake is going to make sure that he will move into that position, and not Nick Fenner.

Before he leaves, McLaren warns Blake that the last police officer who infiltrated that organization was ultimately discovered.  The criminals didn’t kill him, but they instead tossed acid into his face and blinded him.  Knowing the risks, Blake continues with the undercover operation.  He leaves the prison with Al Kruger’s lawyer.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Back at the organization’s headquarters, the gang members are certain that Blake is a stool pigeon giving information to the police force.  When Blake arrives, he defends himself and talks his way out of it.  Kruger believes Blake’s story and continues to follow Blake’s advice.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Fenner decides to take over the numbers game, and he sends two of his men to take over Lee Morgan’s territory.  The two men are denied and Morgan’s bodyguard beats them and sends them packing.  When Blake learns about it, he tells Fenner to keep away from the game as that’s his division in the organization.  Kruger backs up Blake’s claim on the numbers game, and Fenner backs off.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Nick Fenner then finds Lee Morgan and lies to her, telling the woman that it was Blake’s idea to take over her share of the territory.  He claims that Blake made the move to get him a closer relationship with Al Kruger.  When Morgan speaks with Blake, he admits to being in charge of the numbers game.  Blake thought that Morgan would still be able to run her end of the territory, but that’s not what Fenner’s men did.  Morgan is upset and she leaves Blake.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The numbers game proves to be a major success with the criminal organization.  When the timing is right, Blake calls McLaren and tells him to arrest Al Kruger and to smash Nick Fenner’s side business.  The cops strike Fenner’s organization first.  When Fenner hears of this and learns that Kruger isn’t going to do anything about it (since the numbers game is simply too profitable to worry about anything else), Fenner seeks out Kruger.  Nick Fenner pulls out a gun and shoots Kruger dead in his own office.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Fenner then assumes control of the organization.  He meets with Lee Morgan and offers her a fair position within the gang.  He allows her to control the numbers game in Harlem and the Bronx, and he’ll even provide protection for her as well.  Morgan accepts Fenner’s proposition as it’ll be taking control away from Blake.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Now in control of the organization, Nick Fenner holds a meeting and tells the guys that he’s going to get rid of Blake as he still believes that Blake is supplying information to the police.  Blake lies to the guys and tells him that he met with the bosses, and the bosses determined that Blake, and not Fenner, should be running the organization.  Blake continues and tells them that he’ll be delivering the money to the bosses tomorrow evening, and that everybody should meet in the secret garage before the delivery.  Everybody except for Fenner believes Blake’s story.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

The next day, Blake is requested to meet with an officer at the bank.  When he arrives, he realizes that he’s actually meeting the three secret bosses of the criminal organization.  They want to know why Blake tried to take over Kruger’s job.  Blake insists that he was the better man to run the organization as the numbers game has expanded and brought in significantly more revenue.  The bosses agree, and they want Blake to collect the money and bring it to them that night.  That’s not a problem as Blake set that in motion the previous evening.  They agree to meet again at 10 pm.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Later that day, Blake has Captain McLaren launch a raid against the garage.  The raid is successful, evidence is gathered, and a bunch of criminals are apprehended.  That is, a bunch of criminals except for Nick Fenner.  He smelled a trap and avoided meeting at the garage.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Now Fenner knows that it was Blake who was the traitor from the beginning.  He uses lee Morgan to learn the address of Blake’s apartment.  He then goes and confronts him there.  Both Fenner and Blake draw their guns and shoot each other.  Nick Fenner is shot dead while Johnny Blake is shot in the abdomen and badly injured.

Despite his serious injury, Blake makes his way to the bank to meet with the bosses.  Lee Morgan drives him there, and Blake makes amends with her along the way.  He gives them the money and then leaves.  Blake collapses as he reaches the door.  Captain McLaren sees that and sends his officers into the bank to arrest the three heads of the organization.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) - (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – (c) Warner Bros. Pictures

Bullets or Ballots ends as Johnny Blake dies in Captain McLaren’s arms.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So is 1936’s Bullets or Ballots a good movie?

Yes, very much so.

As a whole, this is a great film that deals with organized crime (racketeering in this case), and the police department’s quest at stopping here.  Here we have not only the point-of-view of the gangsters (as that technique was popular in films of that time period), but also of the police department as well.

What makes Bullets or Ballots particularly interesting is that the racketeering business focuses on the numbers game.  The events in the film take place in modern times (remember that Bullets or Ballots was released in 1936), and the 21st Amendment (the repeal of the 18th Amendment — prohibition) occurred in 1933.  The gangsters no longer focused on illegal alcohol for their operations, and they shifted back to racketeering and other crimes.  In this case it’s the numbers game, something that was seeing increasing popularity in the 1930s.

This was something that I didn’t really know until doing further research after the movie.  Traditionally, 1930s gangster films tend to focus on bootlegging, illegal distribution of alcohol, bank robberies, and other (usually violent) crimes.  Gambling was commonly seen in illegal casinos and not through the numbers game.

This is a fascinating subject to me, and I think that Bullets or Ballots does a great job handing it.

In Bullets or Ballots, Edward G. Robinson is in the spotlight in his role as police detective / undercover agent Johnny Blake.  He’s a hardass cop and he’s a mastermind at expanding the criminal enterprise.  I think the story would have been a little bit better if the police department made his “firing” a little more detailed.  In the film, Blake simply receives a notice stating that he’s been fired because of his inefficiency.  But that’s a minor issue in an otherwise entertaining movie.

Humphrey Bogart nearly steals the show in his role as villain Nick Fenner.  He’s a cold and calculated gangster, and he doesn’t hesitate at eliminating his threats.  He never trusts Blake or believes that he’s no longer a police officer, and his suspicions turn out to be true.  When Fenner learns that Blake really is a cop, he seeks him out and tries to personally kill him.

Bullets or Ballots (1936) – movie trailer

In the end, Bullets or Ballots is an underrated gangster film from Hollywood’s glory days in the 1930s.  Fans of classic films and the gangster genre should definitely check out this film.  Just don’t let its age fool you.  Even though this was released a long time ago, this is still a great movie that can easily be appreciated by today’s audience.

four stars

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