The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Best. Movie star. Ever.

Bullets or Ballots is a crime picture from the gangster factory that was Warner Brothers in the 1930’s. As happened more than once in those days, Edward G. Robinson was the star and Humphrey Bogart was the contract heavy – his name wouldn’t start lighting up marquees until the 40’s, and when he faced off with Robinson in that decade, in 1948’s potboiler Key Largo, Bogie would finally get to come out on top.

But in this picture, Robinson plays a hard-punching police detective who fakes a fall from grace in order to infiltrate the rackets, which include such unsavory activities as delaying produce trains and installing pinball machines near schools. Without bootleg gin to run they were quaint, those 30’s gangsters. Bogart plays “Bugs” Fenner, the boss’s right-hand, an ambitious triggerman who’s not won over by Robinson’s supposed turn to the dark side.

There’s this amazing little scene where Bogart has shot someone he wasn’t supposed to, which is going to bring major heat down on his boss, played by Barton MacLane. MacLane confronts him – the camera’s at one of those low proto-noir angles and the two of them are standing over a desk lamp that whites all the sinister angles on their faces – he unleashes a dressing-down tirade that starts with “
Now you listen to me, you ten-cent thug…” and gets meaner from there. And the whole time he’s huffing and puffing, Bogart’s just…staring at him. He sucks on a cigarette and stares at his boss, like he’s a very squashable bug, or an annoyance obstructing his view of the wallpaper.

If Tom Cruise could stare like that we’d all have converted to Scientology out of sheer pants-wetting fear by now. You realize in that moment that “Bugs” Fenner is not going to stay number two for long – not because he could run things better, but because he’ll get to hurt more people and that interests him. Bogart could be a cold motherfucker.


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