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.
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.