Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Doorway to Hell (1930)

Lew Ayres plays a young but powerful gangster, who organizes all the big-time bootleggers in the city to stick to their own territories, with himself as boss. This works out swell, until Lew decides to go straight and head to Florida to look after his little brother, whom he had enrolled into military school. Predictably, things quickly go to hell in the city. And some guys will go to desperate measures to get him back….
            I was weary about seeing an early talkie gangster films, especially after the disappointments of Alibi (1929) and Little Caesar (1930). Those two , like many movies from the time period, were hampered by stiff cinematography, bland acting, and dull dialogue. However, Doorway to Hell was not as bad as I expected. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised.
            First off, let’s get the highlight of this thing out of the way: James Cagney has a supporting role as Ayres's best pal and second hand man. This was made a year before “The Public Enemy” made him a star, and already he steals whatever scene he is in. Heck, when he is in the same frame as the star, he can't help but focus your attention on him.
            Alas, the same thing cannot be said of Ayres. Though he's miscast (I found it really hard to suspend disbelief that he of the All Quiet on the Western Front  fame could hold an entire criminal empire in the palm of his hand) but he was effective in making a charming and likable crook, a usual site in pre-code ganger films.
            Another person you should keep an eye out for is a pre-Renfield, Dwight Frye, in bit part. He gets to do a drive-by shooting with machine-gun hidden in a violin case in the opening.True, he doesn't have time to go Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs and bug out his eyes in that gloriously insane way of his, but it's pretty great to see him comparatively sane role.
            Visually and plotwise it's rather conventional, with some exceptions. There are some lovely examples of using a camera to show, not tell, harkening back to the days of silent films. In addition, there are double-deals, betrayals, murders, a woman who has an affair with her husband’s best friend, a prison break, more gangster talk than you can shake a stick at, and of course, Cagney. In case you can't tell, this is definitely a must-see for any fan of old-school gangster films.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, it seems like James Cagney never was an apprentice - he came to movies already in full character, even in his very first one SINNER'S HOLIDAY. As to ALIBI and LITTLE CAESAR, I love both. Early talkies and the pre-code era in general is my favorite movie era.