Movie Review: The Doorway to Hell (1930)
There’s a good bit about halfway through this.
Our lead, Louie Ricarno (Lew Ayres), who organized the Chicago gangs only to walk away from it all, is down in Florida, golfing and writing a book about his life. He proudly reads the last line aloud to his wife, Doris (Dorothy Mathews):
“Now, this concludes the life of a gangster, and begins the life of a man.”
A minute later, he finds out his kid brother has been in an auto accident—inadvertently caused by one of the gangs in a clumsy attempt to get him to return—and he gets quiet, and looks up, and the killer is in his eyes again. Then the phone rings.
Doris: I hate to bother you, but the man from the Atlas Publishing Company wants to know when he can read your book.
Louie (slowly): Tell him it’s not done yet.
That’s damn good.
I like another scene shortly after this one. Louie is back in Chicago, visiting a plastic surgeon. To disguise himself? To get revenge? But then who will play the part? Which actor? That’s what I’m thinking. But the visit isn’t about him. He shows the surgeon a photo of his kid brother. He asks him to make him look like this again. The surgeon asks where he is. “He’s down at Morse Brothers Undertaking Parlors,” Louie says. Then turns and we see the black mourning band on his sleeve.
That’s a bit like the “Look how they massacred my boy” scene from “The Godfather,” isn’t it? One wonders.
To be honest, I thought “The Doorway to Hell” (original title: “A Handful of Clouds”) would be another of those early Cagney movies where the casting choices got screwed up—where Cagney should’ve been lead rather than second banana—and you can certainly make that argument. I buy Ayres as a gangster, why not, but not as someone who organizes the Chicago mobs—who stares down fat, brutal men and gets them to fall in line. That’s actually not even on Ayres, is it? It’s the script. Those scenes are absurd. They require a suspension of disbelief longer than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Even so, Ayres, born in Minneapolis and raised in San Diego, who had recently received raves playing Paul in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” is good. He doesn’t look tough but can convey an inner toughness. He reminds me a bit of Edward Norton in this way. He even looks like him. See above poster.
This is Cagney’s second movie role. After playing what he called “a sniveling murderer” in “Sinners’ Holiday” (original title: “Penny Arcade”), he plays fifth-billed Steve Mileaway, right-hand man to Louie Ricarno, who’s also cuckolding him. Yep. He’s fooling around with Doris. She’s a pill, too; a real jerk. Oh, and when Louie leaves for Florida, Mileaway is supposed to make sure the organization sticks together; it doesn’t.
Basically he’s a hapless two-timer, a real crumb bum.
Well, he has some measure of loyalty:
Cop: Me afraid of Louie? Why, I’d spit in his eye.
Mileaway: Yeah? And he’d spit in your grave.
(BTW: in your grave? Not on? That’s interesting. Implying a time when we actually watched people being buried.)
Doris is another weak link—or the fact that Louie can’t see she’s not worth anything is a weak part of the film. It’s obvious. Louie also identifies with Napoleon, which is odd, since Napoleon walked away from nothing—and certainly not from power. It's Warner Bros.' attempt to create a “Little Emperor” a few months before they would release “Little Caesar.” Yeah, this predates that. This is the ur-Warners gangster film.
The movie’s title comes from the closing title card. After Louie returns to Chicago to kill the men who caused the death of his kid brother, and he’s jailed by the tough-love paternalistic police chief, Pat O’Grady (Robert Elliott), then escapes and makes a final stand before buying it off-screen in a hail of bullets, after all that we’re informed of the following:
The “Doorway to Hell” is a one-way door. There is no retribution—no plea for further clemency. The little boy walked through it with his head up and a smile on his lips. They gave him a funeral—a swell funeral that stopped traffic—and then they forgot him before the roses had a chance to wilt.
Classic Warners. “Don’t be like this exciting guy who’s exciting tale we’ve just told you. Be like the boring stick-in-the-muds that survived.” I was a bit surprised that Mileaway, nor Doris, ever get comeuppance for their affair. I can’t even remember if Louie ever figures it out. But everybody else, including the cops, knows.
The New York Times, in a spoilers-and-all review on Nov. 1, 1930, called “The Doorway to Hell” intelligent and exciting, adding, “With excellent directing by Archie Mayo and an excellent cast, among whom only Lewis Ayres may properly be called a star...”
Turns out there was another.