Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE DOORWAY TO HELL (1930)

Film historians usually date the birth of the Warner Bros. gangster cycle to the January 1931 release of Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar and Edward G. Robinson's starmaking turn in the title role. Archie Mayo's Doorway to Hell came out three months earlier, in October 1930, and even has James Cagney in it, but is usually recognized as little more than a footnote in Cagney's filmography and rarely if ever as a pioneer gangster picture. There are reasons for this. The main reason is that Doorway to Hell looks more like a rough draft of a Warner Bros. gangster picture than a real one. Consider Cagney. This was his second film appearance, falling between Sinner's Holiday, in which he recreated a Broadway role, and his minor yet scene-stealing work in William Wellman's Other Men's Women. The part he gets in Doorway is probably the appropriate role for a rookie; the problem with it is whom he's cast with. Cagney is a flunky -- to be more generous, he's the right-hand man of the film's lead gangster. His name, "Mileaway," is strangely prophetic of the "faraway fella" epithet his "Irish Mafia" buddies like Pat O'Brien gave him. We first see him as a messenger in a pool hall, conveying instructions received by phone to a figure we quickly learn is a hitman. The hitman is Dwight Frye. The boss is Lew Ayres. Something is wrong with this picture.

It probably didn't seem that way in 1930. Then, Ayres was a young meteor. The year before, at age 21, he was Garbo's love interest in The Kiss. Earlier in 1930 he staked his main claim to cinematic immortality as the star of the World War I blockbuster All Quiet on the Western Front. Ayres seemed set to be huge, but his greatest role may also have proved a curse. The sympathetic German soldier of the war film marked Ayres as a sensitive type; the actor internalized the film's pacifist ethos, derailing his career for a time by declaring himself a conscientious objector during World War II. Already, you suspect, movie audiences may have felt it one thing for Ayres to be the sensitive enemy bemoaning the cruelty of war, and another for him to play a ruthless criminal mastermind.

If you want to fit Doorway to Hell into a gangster subgenre, Al Pacino has the right description for it: "Just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in!" Ayres plays Louie Ricarno, who spends the first act of the film brilliantly consolidating his control over the Chicago underworld and putting it on a "business basis." Having conquered the Windy City, Ricarno is ready to retire. This is a good time to remind you that the man playing him was 22 years old. Initially reluctant to obey him, some of the local hoods are reluctant to see him go. Even his moll Doris (Dorothy Matthews) is reluctant to see him leave the life behind; more to the point, she's reluctant to leave the life -- and Mileaway -- behind.

Mileaway inherits the Chicago setup but can't keep all the factions in line. Gang war resumes, and while Mileaway flounders helplessly, cooler heads think they know how to bring Louie back into the game. They know (because Mileaway blabbed it) that Louie has a younger brother in a military school. They attempt a kidnapping of the kid to force Louie's hand, but they bungle it and the kid gets run over by a truck trying to escape them. The muggs get what they wanted, sort of. Louie's definitely back in the game now, but he's after their hides.

It may read like a conventional crime melodrama, but Doorway to Hell doesn't know where its real story is. They have a triangle of Ayres, Matthews and Cagney but bungle every attempt to wring drama from it. Most importantly, as far as I can tell Louie never catches on to Doris and Mileaway's affair, even though the cop who has a running, bantering relationship with Louie throughout the film has figured it out by looking at a mirror from the right angle. The cop takes advantage of this knowledge to trap Mileaway into making a confession to a crime he didn't commit. Mileaway has an alibi, but can't use it because it would mean admitting his betrayal of Louie. The scene where Mileaway gets grilled is where the film falls irreparably apart. Watching it, I assumed that the cops wanted Mileaway to rat out Louie to save his own skin, but for some reason they really want Mileaway to confess to a crime they know he didn't commit. He thinks he's confessing to spring Louie, as well as to keep the cop quiet about the affair, but the cops are actually holding Louie, and will keep holding him until he stages an escape, on a separate charge. The real drama of the picture should be the triangle, but that would mean giving Mileaway more balls or more of an edge. It would mean doing something sensibly dramatic like having Mileaway decide he wants to keep his power and take Louie's girl. Producer and director had James Cagney in this role and couldn't imagine any of this. They simply didn't know what they had, and producer Darryl F. Zanuck remained ignorant until it was almost too late for Cagney, casting him in a similar subordinate role in The Public Enemy until the early rushes for that picture exposed the error. Doorway to Hell had one point it wanted to make -- that there could never be any getting out of the business for the gangster, and finds the stagiest way to stage it, finishing with Ayres alone in a hideout, albeit with a couple of visitors, somehow checkmated into accepting his fate and walking through the metaphoric portal of the title. In one of those charming little touches of the early gangster film, machine gun fire plays all the way through the epilogue text and the end title card.

Well, the studio had to start somewhere, and Doorway to Hell may have served Warners as a tutorial on how not to make a gangster film. Mayo's direction, at least, is mostly solid, and the film has more of a studio-set expressionist look than some of the early gangster films. If that registers as somehow not looking right, that only reinforces the rough-draft impression Doorway makes. At least that gives it curiosity value, and the film will always be of interest to Cagney fans as a case study of their man paying his dues in a thankless role. Write it off as a learning experience for all involved, and for yourselves, too.

Check out the adorable animated gunfire in the original trailer from TCM.com

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