Is a gangster really a villain? Although common sense tells you he is, pre-Code films convince you otherwise. The first film to be set “behind the firing lines of Gangland” was “The Doorway to Hell” from 1930. Though late forgot, this film was the first to contain the hitherto unknown principle of a criminal being the leading man. While it has been eclipsed by Warner Bros.’ other gangster films like “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy,” this film more thoroughly confuses one about good and evil. Since the leading gangster, Louie Ricarno, is the protagonist, who is the villain? To see who is the true antagonist in “The Doorway to Hell,” we will consider Rocco, Louie’s rival, Doris, Louie’s wife, and Sergeant Pat O’Grady, the detective who is Louie’s so-called friend.
Rocco, Louie’s competitor and the boss from the North Side, is the logical villain in this film. He is the perfect nemesis to Louie Ricarno; his tough, uneducated roughness is a grand offset to Louie’s youthful, charming intimidation. It is obvious from the beginning that the hardened gangster is resentful of the younger man’s power, so it is natural that he spends the entire film trying to defeat him. He truly is the victor at the end, since he manages to intimidate Mileaway during Louie’s retirement in Florida, trick Louie into escaping the safety of prison, and finally corner and kill his opponent. At the end of the film, however, I don’t feel resentment toward Rocco; that is, no more resentment than I feel toward any of the less important gangsters. Rocco is too predictable to be the true villain, since Louie and the viewer know from the very beginning that he wants to give Louie “a handful of clouds,” which is gangster slang for bullets. In all honesty, Rocco commits no greater crimes than Louie, since both take revenge on rival mobsters; Rocco only seems worse because he kills the likable, handsome hero.
Since Doris is Louie’s wife, one would assume her to be his ally; however, like many men, he is betrayed by the woman he loves. Even though Doris would happily have been Louie’s moll in Chicago, his love for her makes him quit the racket and go to Florida, where she quickly grows bored because she was only attracted to his power and money. Louie treats her with the utmost kindness and affection, which she neither appreciates nor deserves. Doris’s worst characteristic is her infidelity, since she has an affair with Mileaway, Louie’s best friend. At the end of the film, Louie has no one left but Doris and Mileaway, so he puts all his faith and trust in them, little knowing that they too have betrayed him.
One can pity Mileaway for his spinelessness, since he is enticed by Doris while frightened by Louie, but Doris has no excuse for her discontentment with a husband like Louie, who is handsome, young, charming, kind, and wealthy. For the entire film, I find Doris obnoxious; she has an irritating voice, indolent manner, and a homely face. I think Doris must have some attractive quality which only men can see, but even so, I cannot help wondering why two rich, handsome fellows like Louie and Mileaway would be so mad about her. Love truly is blind insanity in this story, since it makes a discerning man like Louie totally enamored with a woman who has no charms in appearance, personality, or sincerity of spirit.
Policemen are generally considered to be good, but in a film which features a handsome criminal as the protagonist, the law must be the enemy. Although Pat has a strange friendship with Louie in the beginning, after Louie returns from Florida, seeking vengeance on the gangsters who accidentally killed his brother, Pat is clearly waiting for an opportunity to catch and punish him for his crimes. After Pat has arrested Louie for murdering one of his brother’s killers, he blackmails Mileaway into pleading guilty to killing the other by threatening to tell Louie about Mileaway’s affair with Doris.
Even though Pat knows Louie committed that crime, he sees a good opportunity to punish Mileaway for his previous crimes. With a monotone voice and almost expressionless face, Pat O’Grady is not a character so much as a representation of the pre-Code police force: weak, groveling, and foolish at the hands of the gangsters. In fact, in this film, the police force is more like a rival gang than the law, with Pat as the boss, using the intimidation, unethical practices, and even the slang of a gangster.
In the final scene, Louie has escaped from jail and is hiding in a dingy apartment. Though coatless, unshaven, and all alone, he is confident that he will escape his predicament. Then Pat comes in and coldly tells him that Rocco arranged his escape and is going to kill him if he stirs from the building. As the truth becomes apparent, Louie pathetically asks him why he doesn’t take him back to prison. When Pat tells him that he was safe in jail, but “now it is just too bad,” he earns the position as this film’s true villain. His duty is to return the escaped criminal to prison, but he decides to leave him to be bumped off by another criminal, who can do what the law can’t.
Despite all the evidence that Louie is “a menace to society,” one cannot think ill of the unlucky twenty-one year old. As Pat says “So long” to the forlorn, forsaken racketeer who has been bereaved of his family and betrayed by his friends, he is the coldest, cruelest villain I know, since he is not an evil-doer but a so-called representative of justice. Louie’s final words to him, “Oh, Pat, when you pass that butcher shop, stop in and buy yourself a heart,” echo the audience’s feeling with a pathetic irony that almost draws tears.
Having examined Rocco, Doris, and Pat O’Grady, we see that Pat is the true antagonist because he allows the youthful gangster to be killed when he is the only one who could save him. Rocco, the predictable antagonist, does no more evil than he could be expected to, since he hates Louie, his boyish rival, for the whole film. Doris is a contemptible woman who betrays her husband’s wholehearted love with another man, but her crimes are lessened by the fact that Louie never learns of her infidelity. Pat O’Grady, who starts the film as Louie’s friend, sets aside all human emotions when he leaves Louie to be murdered, convincing himself that he is doing his duty. Beware the danger of pre-Code films, which tamper with your ethics until you think that a murderous criminal is guiltless and a policeman who is trying to eliminate crime from Chicago is a despicable villain.
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Youthful head of the beer racket, played by Lew Ayres
Louie’s wife, played by Dorothy Matthews
Louie’s assistant, boss when Louie is in Florida, played by James Cagney
Head of the police force in Chicago, played by Robert Elliott
Louie’s rival racketeer, boss from the North Side, played by Noel Madison