Bullets or Ballots (1936): William Keighley’s Crime Gangster, Starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, and Bogart (before he became star)

William Keighley directed Bullets or Ballots, a crime gangster film starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barton MacLane, and Humphrey Bogart.

Bullets or Ballots
Bullets or Ballots 1936 poster.jpg

1936 Theatrical Poster


Robinson plays a police detective who infiltrates a crime gang. His character, “Johnny Blake,” was based on Johnny Broderick, a noted New York detective.

This was the first of several films featuring both Robinson and Bogart, both under contract at Warner.

Detective Johnny Blake is a New York cop who has made his reputation by cracking down on racketeers. When Blake gets kicked off the force, the powerful crime boss Al Kruger hires him in order to gain fresh ideas about sidestepping the law and expanding his criminal empire.

Masterminding the mob are three powerful bankers, whose identity is only known by the crime boss. Blake soon gains Kruger’s trust and rises through the ranks of the criminal organization, to the distaste of Bugs Fenner (Bogart), who believes Blake to be a police informer.

In order to compensate for the reduction in the mob’s revenue, Blake suggests to Kruger that they go into the numbers racket, currently run on a small scale by Blake’s girlfriend, Lee Morgan. Kruger follows Blake’s proposal, and the mob’s money flow is so great that Kruger ignores the other rackets.

Meanwhile, Blake is cooperating with Captain Dan McLaren in order to find the leaders of the crime ring. With Blake’s information, the police engage in a series of raids on the crime syndicate’s operations. Fenner, unhappy with the focus of the rackets, kills Kruger in an attempt to take over as the head of the mob. But Blake has already been granted the title as boss by the leaders, and he takes over control, meeting up with the three bankers.

When Fenner’s produce racket gets raided by the police and Blake is seen as the finger man, Fenner attempts to kill Blake, while he waits to deliver money to the bankers.

During the ensuing gun battle, Fenner is killed and Blake is mortally wounded. Nonetheless, he is able to arrive at the bank, leading McLaren to the bankers, who are subsequently arrested.

Edward G. Robinson as Detective Johnny Blake
Joan Blondell as Lee Morgan
Barton MacLane as Al Kruger
Humphrey Bogart as Nick “Bugs” Fenner
Frank McHugh as Herman McCloskey
Joe King as Captain Dan “Mac” McLaren (credit as Joseph King)
Dick Purcell as Ed Driscoll (credited as Richard Purcell)
George E. Stone as Wires Kagel
Joseph Crehan as Grand Jury Spokesman
Henry O’Neill as Ward Bryant
Henry Kolker as Mr. Hollister
Gilbert Emery as Mr. Thorndyke
Herbert Rawlinson as Mr. Caldwell
Louise Beavers as Nellie LaFleur
Norman Willis as Louie Vinci


William Pawley as Crail
Ralph Remley as Kelly
Frank Faylen as Gatley – pinball racketeer
Garry Owen as The Spotter


Bullets or Ballots was adapted into a one-hour radio play on the April 17, 1939 broadcast of Lux Radio Theater, with Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor, and Humphrey Bogart.

Edward G. Robinson and Bogart:

Edward G. Robinson and Bogart had made five films together: Bullets or Ballots (1936), Kid Galahad (1937) with Bette Davis, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), Brother Orchid (1940) and, best of all, Key Largo (1948), co-starring Lauren Bacall, Claire Trevor (who won an Oscar), and Lionel Barrymore.


Directed by William Keighley
Written by Seton I. Miller, Martin Mooney
Produced by Louis F. Edelman (uncredited)
Cinematography Hal Mohr
Edited by Jack Killifer
Music by Bernhard Kaun

Production company: First National Pictures

Distributed by Warner

Release date: June 6, 1936

Running time: 82 minutes