A hard-hitting gangster film, DOORWAY TO HELL was one of the first cinematic attempts to chronicle the modern-day hoodlum and his quirky lifestyle. Normally mild-mannered Lew Ayres does a turnabout here, playing a ruthless crime overlord who considers himself a reincarnation of Napoleon
Bonaparte and occupies his leisure time by writing his memoirs. To protect the image his kid brother holds of him, Ayres shocks his underlings by quitting the rackets at the height of his success and announcing that he is going to marry Dorothy Mathews and retire to Florida. What Ayres doesn't
realize is that James Cagney, the lieutenant to whom he turns over his rackets, has been secretly involved with Mathews. Lured back to the Manhattan rackets when his brother is kidnaped and killed, Ayres dispatches the two men responsible. When Cagney is arrested and talks, Ayres is jailed, but
his escape is arranged by gangsters who want to kill him. Before that can happen, Ayres meets with Robert Elliott, a kindly police captain who has tried for years to talk him into going straight. Later, in a rural hideout, surrounded by rival gangsters, Ayres coolly steps outside to be
machine-gunned to death, remembering a line Elliott had often told him: "The best you can get is the worst of it."
Somber and uncompromising, this milestone gangster movie was the first to show the use of machine guns in gang wars (and the use of violin cases to carry them), the takeover of a gang, a battle for a warehouse full of booze, and the to-the-death rivalries of Prohibition gangs. At first Warner
Bros. executives declined to give Ayres the crime czar role, arguing that his baby face would belie his gangster image, but Ayres overcame the objections and gives a convincing performance, as does Cagney, who steals every scene in this, one of his earliest films. Mathews became an overnight star
when director Archie Mayo, who still needed a leading lady, pulled her from a group of extras and gave her the female lead. Mayo's pace is furious and Barney "Chick" McGill's camerawork is superb as he records underworld mayhem. To avoid censorship, the film shows only one man being
machine-gunned, other victims being mowed down in takes separating killers and victims. The film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story.
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- Review: A hard-hitting gangster film, DOORWAY TO HELL was one of the first cinematic attempts to chronicle the modern-day hoodlum and his quirky lifestyle. Normally mild-mannered Lew Ayres does a turnabout here, playing a ruthless crime overlord who considers hims… (more)