Who was the first gangster to step onto the Silver Screen? From 1930 to 1934, a genre known as the gangster film thrived in the Warner Brothers studio. Although gangster films continued to be made in the Code and post-Code years, they were never the same as they had been in the pre-Code years. The first gangster film was Doorway to Hell from 1930 which starred Lew Ayres as the likable young racketeer Louie Ricarno; although this film is not remembered, in my opinion it displays the strongest example of the sympathy angle in any gangster film, pre-Code or otherwise. We will see why Louie meets his fate by reviewing the gangs’ attempts to bring him back to Chicago, his jail escape, and Pat O’Grady’s decision.
Like many assistants of good leaders, Mileaway is unable to keep the beer faction running smoothly after his friend and boss, Louie, retires.
Most of the gangs want Louie to return to Chicago after he has quit the racket, but Rocco, his enemy, is trying to take over the town himself.
Louie continually refuses Mileaway’s pleas for him to return, since he wants to forget his past life as a criminal.
Mileaway thoughtlessly reveals that Louie has a younger brother, Jackie, so two gangsters, the Midget and Gimpy, decide to kidnap the boy to get Louie back to town.
When Louie’s brother is accidentally killed by a truck during the kidnapping, Louie hurries back to Chicago to seek vengeance.
Louie’s jail escape is well-executed but puts him in danger which he could have avoided. He has been imprisoned by his policeman friend, Pat O’Grady, for killing the two gangsters who tried to kidnap his brother.
A janitor who was bribed by Rocco tells Louie that everyone is saying he will be sentenced to prison for life, which incites Louie to escape. Even though Louie uses his own money to pay his way out of jail, he does not know that Rocco is paying even more money to get him out. After he finally does escape, he hides in a cheap room, unable to stir lest he be caught. He is hiding from the police, not knowing that Rocco is waiting outside to ambush him.
Pat O’Grady is a cold policeman who puts duty above everything else, including abiding by the law. Pat locates Louie’s hide-out and goes to visit him. He tells him that Rocco arranged his escape so he could kill him himself.
Louie asks Pat to take him back to prison when he realizes there is no other way out. Pat refuses in spite of their past friendship and his duty to retrieve the prisoner, since he knows the law will not be able to punish Louie for his numerous crimes.
He leaves Louie to be killed by Rocco, feeling that it is his unwritten duty to see that this “menace to society” is eliminated.
Having reviewed the gangs’ attempts to bring Louie back to Chicago, Louie’s jail break, and Pat’s decision, we see that Louie’s fate is unavoidable. Mileaway’s poor leadership and loose tongue cause Louie’s brother’s death and force him to return to crime. Rocco’s planted informers unnerve Louie and make him desperate for escape. At the end, only Pat can save Louie’s life by bringing him back to the safety of prison, but he decides to let criminals do what the law can’t. From this we see that even if a criminal desires to mend his ways, sometimes there is no way out.
Beware the danger of pre-Code films like this. Even though this film is quite clean for being pre-Code, it could not be a Code film, since it relies too strongly on the sympathy angle. While it lacks the gruesomeness and numerous Section 2 elements of films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, and Scarface, The Doorway to Hell, more than any of these other gangster films, makes you hate the police force and love a criminal. The one redeeming message this film presents is the following: Boys, stay out of criminal activity. Someday you may want to quit the racquet and be a respectable citizen and husband. Like Louie, you may then learn that you can’t break out of your racquet once you enter the doorway, for, as the closing moral statement states, “the ‘Doorway to Hell’ is a one-way door.”
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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