If you hear a gunshot do you run to it or away from it? Isn’t that why the rape whistle was invented? Because we are (yes, huge generalization here), a cowardly, lazy group of human beings who would rather flee from harm than go offer help? Well in Archie Mayo’s sometimes-inept, sometimes-accomplished 1930 gangster film The Doorway to Hell you run to that gunshot. Even if you are an innocent bystander. The hilarious scene in question here shows a huge crowd (literally 30+ extras) racing to a dying man on the steps just as the drive-by car screeches away. Good-hearted souls? Hardly. Awkward staging of action? Definitely.
Mayo’s film is, as was mentioned in the introduction at the Dryden, a precursor to classics such as Scarface and White Heat, but also to the noir mode, at the very least in its presentation of a femme fatale character.
First the good: The Doorway to Hell has great dialogue. There are quite a few witty, subtextually written lines. Two in particular come to mind. Mobster Louie Ricarno (Lew Ayres) asks for his violin case at a bar. “Where you goin’,” someone asks. “To give a guy a lesson,” comes the reply. Awesome. Towards the end (I guess this is a SPOILER, but the plot is so predictable that if this spoils it you need to get out more) the police officer tells Ricarno, now holed up in his hotel room awaiting death by a rival gang, “Go to the deli across the street and buy yourself some brains.” As the cop leaves without offering Ricarno any assistance the gangster counters, “When you stop by the deli see if you can pick up some heart.” Witty banter.
More good: the camera in this film is not only surprisingly mobile for a 1930s piece, but its mobility is used to great effect. Consider two moments. When Ricarno goes to visit his kid-brother at military school the scene for dinner is established with a long overhead tracking shot, slowly moving to the back of the room and revealing the crowded dinner table. Not only establishing shot, the shot really energizes the scene and feeds off of the youthful noise of the sequence. In another moment, when Ricarno learns of his brother’s death – and thus the object of his revenge – the camera dollies in towards him, motivated by his internal emotion, but more importantly for 1930, motivated visually by his looking to the floor. The idea of an actor’s motions “moving” the camera is one still in play in modern cinema, and put to excellent usage here.
Now the bad. The characters are among the dumbest I’ve ever witnessed. Apparently, though it’s revealed to be a set-up later, it is ridiculously easy to escape from prison. Even if you are a notorious mobster. In the papers every day. And charged with murder. Here’s another one: a gangster whom the audience knows and expects to be killed says to his bodyguard’s, “You wait here,” and then walks away alone, and to his death. This is worse than the now double-cliche in horror films of “I’ll be right back.” The gangster knows he’s being hunted. The year isn’t an excuse. No audience is this stupid.
1927 is popularly credited as the year of the sound film (The Jazz Singer). It’s pretty obvious that The Doorway to Hell is fresh off of this transition. One particular phone conversation utilizes no L-cuts. L-cut: when the audio from one shot extends into another shot. It’s incredibly frequent. In this scene, as in much of the film, the change in sound dictates the change in shot. One character speaks – one shot. The next character speaks – cut to the next shot, and so on. There are few reaction shots to bridge this. It’s as though, understandably, the producers/creators are struggling to reconcile a world where sound and image are tied, but not so tied as to dictate one-another.
The worst, but also funniest scene in this film is when Ricarno’s brother is killed. It starts in a cafe where the young boy (about 15) is sitting with a friend. Another friend comes in. “Hey, there’s a man outside who wants to talk to you.” Cut to the most hilarious shot in the film, which is of this man – creepy looking, strange smile on his face – motioning for the kid to “come hither” with his finger. Don’t talk to strangers? This is a horrific scene waiting to happen. So our guy hops off the stool and happily walks over. The obvious reaction to a strange man trying to pick up a small boy.
More ineptitude. The gangsters try to force the boy into the car. He gets away. They drive after him. Mayo uses a few shots here to “show” that the boy is struck by a car. There is no sound of him being hit (huge mistake). The shots are clumsily cut together. Noticeably missing is any shot, after the boy runs off, that establishes where he is in relation to the cars. Also missing are critical reactions shots. Without these two there is a moment of unintentional confusion. A lot of filmmaking is geography – where are people and when are people? It sounds easy and obvious, but it’s often one of the biggest challenges of piecing together a successful scene, especially an action scene. Major failure here.