Johnny Blake (Edward G. Robinson) was one of the toughest cops in New York City, until he punched out his new captain (Joe King) and was kicked off the force. That punch was witnessed by racketeer Al Kruger (Barton McLane). Kruger has long wanted to get Blake to join his organization and, with Blake now out of work, Kruger makes an offer. Blake goes to work for Kruger, much to the consternation of Kruger’s second-in-command, Bugs Fenner (Humphrey Bogart). Bugs says that anyone who was once a cop will always be a cop. Bugs is right. Blake is working undercover, trying to expose and take down the mob from the inside.
Bullets or Ballots is an entertaining if predictable gangster film from the 1930s. After making his career playing bad guys, Robinson makes the transition to the side of law and order without losing any of his trademark attitude. Bogart plays one of the many remorseless killers that he played before Casablanca reinvented him as a hero. Bullets or Ballots may be predictable but it’s impossible not to enjoy watching Robinson and Bogart snarl hard-boiled insults at each other.
Second-billed Joan Blondell does not have much screen time but her role is still an interesting one, as a tough businesswoman who runs a numbers racket with her former maid (played by Louise Beavers). I would have enjoyed seeing a full movie just about Blondell’s character but she mostly takes a back seat to Robinson and Bogart.
Unfortunately, unlike Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface, Bullets or Ballots was made after Hollywood started to enforce the infamous Production Code and, as a result, Bullets or Ballots never reaches the gritty, violent heights of those earlier films. Still, fans of Robinson, Bogart, and Blondell will find much to enjoy here.