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Bullets or Ballots

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Bullets or Ballots, starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barton MacLane, Humphrey Bogart, Frank McHugh
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Bullets or Ballots, starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barton MacLane, Humphrey Bogart, Frank McHugh

Synopsis of Bullets or Ballots

A tough New York cop goes undercover to crack an influential crime ring in this well-done gangster movie starring Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart.

Product description of Bullets or Ballots

“They rule by the fear of their guns. They must be stopped by the power of your ballots.” They refers to Bugs Fenner and other mobsters whose illicit rackets will be smashed to smithereens by undercover cop Johnny Blake. When Warner Bros.’ Depression-era gangster movies began to draw protests, the studio reinvigorated the genre with stories emphasizing law enforcers instead of lawbreakers. The swift, sturdy Bullets or Ballots reflects that, with Edward G. Robinson (as Blake) siding with the good guys for the first time in a gangland saga. Humphrey Bogart plays the short-fused Fenner. And Joan Blondell and Louise Beavers, in an unusual story element for the times, are thriving numbers operators whose grift is usurped by the mob. Director: William Keighley Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barton MacLane, Humphrey Bogart, Frank McHugh

Editorial review of Bullets or Ballots courtesy of

Get two gangster-movie icons for the price of one as tough police detective Edward G. Robinson faces off for the first time against Humphrey Bogart, the ambitious enforcer for a big-time racketeer. Bogart’s effectively the co-star–virtually a one-man crime wave–though he rates only fourth billing behind Eddie G., Joan Blondell, and Barton MacLane. Still, no question it’s Robinson’s movie; the former “Little Caesar” walks the line beautifully as an honest cop who, unjustly jettisoned from the force, agrees to go to work for the mobster (MacLane) he’s long pursued. A fascinating air of fatalism attaches to Robinson’s character, whether shrugging off his betrayal by the new police commissioner (and his oldest friend), trading polite threats with his new criminal colleagues, or dismissing the possibility of happiness with the nightclub operator (Blondell) who clearly cares for him.

The title is a bit of a misnomer: Despite a rhetorical reference to “ballots” as the public’s means of expressing outrage over the costs of crime, it’s bullets that get the job done. Bullets and fists: the movie makes clear that Robinson has beaten confessions out of people on many occasions, and in best hardnosed Warner Bros. tradition, it has no illusions about the empty symbolism of crime commissions and grand juries. There’s a nice subplot involving Blondell creating the numbers racket as off-hours distraction from her main occupation; her territory is Harlem, and Louise Beavers, usually relegated to maid roles, has spirited fun with the chance to strut as Blondell’s partner. William Keighley directed. –Richard T. Jameson

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