Sort of a classic gangster movie in that this is genuine Prohibition-era Chicago. Lew Ayres is gangster Louis Ricarno, Cagney plays his understudy Steve, Lem Janney his kid brother Jackie, and Dorothy Matthews is his wife, Doris. The plot involves Louis’s attempt to unite the gangs, and Steve’s role in that business, as well as the two guys competing over Doris. What assuredly anchors this show in its time and place is characters’ names, such as.: Rocco, Whitey, Gimpy, Monk, and Midget. Got it?
We begin with a great touch that becomes a motif: the synchronization of presses rolling with the credits–the titles serving as headlines. First order of business in gangland: “Where you goin’ Monk?” “Ta teach a guy a lesson!” With a tommygun. Louis comes to Police HQs to talk to Chief Pat O’Grady (Robert Elliot). “What d’you know about that ‘surprise party’ on the South Side last night?” (Could he possibly be referring to the murder?) Anyway, Louis wants to bribe O’Grady to pay more attention to Rocco’s gang.
That doesn’t work. However, Louis calls a mob boss meeting. So, with a bunch of ‘mugs’ huddled into a room, Louis gets their attention with his criminal co-op plan. At first it doesn’t go so swift: “This ain’t a meeting, it’s a shakedown!” But, he’s slick and persuasive. Soon the headlines read “Peace in Gangland.” As a diversion, we get to see Louis’s younger brother at his military academy. But, things are stirring up. Back at Louis’s, Steve and Doris are busy making out; plus, Louis is bugging out of the rackets. Steve is next in line to take over the syndicates.
Surprisingly, the ‘boys’ acquiesce in the decision. Louis and Doris go to see Jackie. Louis has the nerve to tell the (Commandant) Colonel that “war is a grand racket.” All isn’t well on the homefront, however. Steve is in way over his head trying to keep the hoods off each other’s backs. “Split in Bootleg Ring” are the new headlines.
Meanwhile, at their new swanky digs, Doris takes a call from Steve. She’s going on that her husband “is not the same Louis.” She’s bored out of her skull. Steve wants her to help get Louis back as the mob boss. No soap, says Louis. It’s as though Louis is afraid he’ll be forced back; in fact, the ‘boys’are hatching a kindnap-Jackie plot (that explains his role).
That scheme backfires, or rather explodes–the kid gets suspicious, but then gets run down by a truck. Louis gets a telegram from Steve about the attempted abduction, and that Jackie’s injured. In fact, he dies. So, that changes everything for Louis. He calls Rocco to set up Gimpy (fingered as the killer). O’Grady tips off Louis about Gimpy’s double-cross.
Steve,and/or Louis, take care of Gimpy, and dump his body out right in the teeth of a police stakeout. O’Grady, nonetheless, has a new crime to pin on both of them. Steve to O’Grady: “Where’s Louis?” O’Grady: “I think his cell number is 87.” Unfortunately for Steve, the cops have the dope that Doris has been messing with Steve. He’s basically forced to sign a confession for the Midget’s murder. So now both rivals are down for murder. Louis reads a personals ad in the paper, suggesting a breakout attempt. He fakes being sick to get escorted to the hospital. He whacks the cop somehow, and gets away. With outside help, Louis escapes. But, he has to hole-up in a dump.
From a newsboy Louis finds out that nine of his guys have been hit: “Gangland Slaughter” as it’s billed. Anyway, O’Grady knows how to find him. “I was thinking about dropping by the butcher and getting you a nice new set of brains” But the useful intel is that the hostile gangsters are lying in wait for him. Not only that, the breakout was actually organized by Gimpy’s and Midgets guys. He accuses Grady of being on- the-take, without really believing it.
The only unresolved issue for Louis is Doris: Pat insinuates that Steve is onto his game with her, but Louis, fortunately, doesn’t put two-and-two together. His “last supper” arrives–courtesy of his nemesis. He tosses his Luger aside and gets ready to go out. That’s how it ends, with a final newspaper coda describing his “funeral.”
Very impressive, on a number of levels. Both Cagney and Ayers are impressive; Cagney, in particular, doesn’t overact as he’s sometimes does in other roles. Matthews and Elliot, however, are rather wooden; Elliott’s role is interesting, as he has some respect and admiration for Cagney’s and Ayers’ characters, but, then again, he’s not exactly a free agent. Matthews is just kind of colorless; the two guys don’t really fight for her anyway–it’s almost as though they cover for each other. On the other hand, it’s not the actress’s fault that the role is underwritten.
Everything else works fine: the pacing and plotting don’t get tangled up, the supporting characters are great (with their cool old-time gangster names), the sets are convincing (the gun play sounds like a bunch of cap pistols, though), and there’s some real pathos, as Jackie is a very sympathetic character. Very entertaining, with bad guys that aren’t half-bad.
Farmermouse loved all those old touring cars and cop bikes. Eight cigars for The Doorway To Hell. 8/10.