BULLETS OR BALLOTS. Warner Brothers, 1936. Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Barton MacLane, and Humphrey Bogart. Written by Seton I. Miller and Martin Mooney. Directed by William Keighly.

   A dumb title on a story guaranteed to surprise no one, but so well-mounted I didn’t care.

   Edward G. Robinson stars as a veteran plainclothes cop, who opens the show by throwing a cheap hood through a glass door — Warner’s way of telling us he’s tough and straight — but not puritanical; he flirts with hard-boiled Joan Blondell, who runs a numbers game, and chums around with Barton MacLane as an upper-echelon gangster.

   Then, following a departmental house-cleaning, Robinson gets fired, fired up, socks the Police Captain and joins MacLane’s mob, where he quickly rises in importance. But don’t worry folks, it’s all a ruse, a sham, and a ploy, designed to get Eddie access to the really big boys who give the orders and rake off the profits.

   Well, as movie-schemes go, it’s not bad. The only real problem is Humphrey Bogart as MacLane’s trigger-happy Number Two, understandably upset by Robinson’s rise in the ranks and all too eager to demote him permanently.

   At this point Bullets or Ballots (what the hell does that title refer to?) becomes a vigorous game of cat-and-mouse, with Bogie and Eddie taking turns as predator and prey, trying to outmaneuver each other in games of gunfire and gangland politics, done with typical Warners panache: squealing tires, blazing guns and the gentle pitter-patter of fists on faces. I particularly liked one scene where Eddie walks into a room full of hostile hoods and director Keighly emphasizes his isolation with subtle camera placement and composition, then gradually eases the visual tension as Robinson wins them over.

   This was Bogie’s first film at Warner Brothers after his memorable Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, and his first team-up Edward G. Robinson, whom he would definitively kill in Key Largo. Here we have all the nastiness of Mantee, but none of that independent spirit that ennobled the earlier part. No, Bogie is the classic Meanie here: vicious, cowardly and compulsively watchable. There were better parts to come — and some definitely worse — but fans of Bogart need to see this one.