Sunday 17 September 2017

Movie Review: Paper Bullets (1941)

A B-movie crime drama, Paper Bullets (also known as Gangs, Inc.) packs too many characters into too much plot and loses all focus.

Young Rita Adams is orphaned when her stool pigeon father is gunned down. She grows up at an orphanage, forming friendships with Mickey and Bob. Mickey (Jack La Rue) grows up to be an underworld nightclub manager, while Bob (John Archer) becomes an aeronautical engineer. The grown-up Rita (Joan Woodbury) and her roommate Donna (Linda Ware) scrape together a living, but Rita has to serve a stint in prison after she naively agrees to take a hit-and-run rap for her no-good boyfriend Harold, the son of powerful businessman Clarence DeWitt.

After Rita's release, Mickey gets his hands on evidence that DeWitt was involved in falsely incriminating her. Meanwhile the police force is under pressure to act against the underworld, and Jimmy Kelly (Alan Ladd) is recruited to infiltrate the criminal syndicate controlling the protection and gambling rackets. When DeWitt reveals his political ambitions, Rita makes her move to seek revenge, and audaciously teams up with crime bosses to get a cut of the criminal action.

Filled with sub-plots that go nowhere, characters that drop in and out of the story with dizzying speed, and some external car chase scenes too dark to be comprehensible, Paper Bullets lives well within its miniscule budget. Filmed in 6 days by director Phil Rosen and released by poverty-row studio Producers Releasing Corporation, the movie is mostly known as the debut production effort for the King Brothers (here still known as the Kozinskys), who went on to cobble together a string of low-budget but sometimes not-bad efforts through to the late 1960s.

Paper Bullets also features Alan Ladd in a relatively small but pivotal role, although the importance of his character depends on whether or not the convoluted plot makes sense to anyone. The film was later acquired by competing B-movie studio Eagle-Lion films and re-released as Gangs, Inc., with the now-famous Ladd ridiculously given top billing in the opening credits.

As for what made it onto the screen, there is plenty to try and follow. Rita's story heads in many different directions, and it is all crammed into a breathless staccato-style, hammer-down storytelling package. While the first half is engaging enough, with Joan Woodbury delivering a more than decent performance, once Rita's revenge narrative takes off the film starts to completely unravel. The numerous criminal types, the many enforcement folks, the parade of victims, hangers-on and romantic interests, and the wannabe politicos all converge into a mess of a story hurtling away from logic at breakneck speed.

Paper Bullets wraps up in a rough and tumble 72 minutes. While there is easily enough plot for another 30 minutes, sadly there wasn't the budget to go there.

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