Doorway to Hell (1930) Review


Proof That It’s Pre-Code

Oh, and a kid gets killed. Nice funeral, though.
  • “You just sell some creamy beers to the working man. With some murders on the side to keep him entertained!”
  • Our hero expounds on capitalism at its finest: “Money can buy anything– friendship, loyalty, a man’s life. Sometimes I even think I’m buying your love.” (And he’s right!)
  • Before it was troubling when people started siding with Hitler, we had the Napoleon Complex to fret about. For Louie Ricarno (Lew Ayres) he’s decided to remake himself in the man’s image, only instead of doing so warfare, he’ll do it through bootlegging. His admiration of Mr. Bonaparte even goes to the extreme of him sending his kid brother to military academy, his reasoning thus:

“Because war is a grand racket.”

  • Louie’s wife Dorris (Dorothy Mathews) and his right hand man Steve (James Cagney) carry on an intimate affair behind his back. And Louie never finds out!
  • There’s a slow talking police chief named O’Grady (Robert Elliott) who basically leaves Louie to get murdered because he believes it to be ‘justice’.

Doorway to Hell: The Proto-Wise Guy Gets What’s Coming to Him

“Do you have so much hoodlum in you that it won’t come out?”

So say it’s 1930. I know, it’s not really, but play along for a second. The booze racket is big money, and by the late 20’s, their feuds have become headlines. The beautiful, noble man of the silent era is on its way out: it’s time for the gangsters.

This is a wham bang action film, with some very open warfare.

So today let’s start at the start: The Doorway to Hell predates other famous gangster pictures like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Scarface, and shows the rough edges of being a forebear.

Directed by Archie Mayo (Under 18) and starring the baby faced Lew Ayres (Night World, Iron Man) as mafioso thug cum kingpin Louie Ricarno, Doorway takes a different tack than you normally see with gangster films. Where most portray a gangster’s rise to the top and violent end, this one takes it a step further– our protagonist makes it to the top of Chicago’s beer running mob, and decides to retire and write his biography.

Naturally this doesn’t go well, but the film’s second act is mostly him in his home in Florida, planning on going out on the golf course and watching his bride Doris lounge around. He also finishes up his book, his piece that establishes himself along the same lines as his hero, Napoleon.

Unfortunately, Louie’s proud retreat from Chicago has left a power vacuum. Since mafioso aren’t so keen on forgiving and forgetting, one of them plans to kidnap Louie’s younger brother to lure him into returning and restoring a balance to the city. This plan goes awry when the kid gets offed instead, and Louie returns, but with revenge on his mind rather than bringing back the temporary peace.

So boyishly charming it almost hurts.

The film’s very literary minded, as Louie’s love of war and glory become his downfall. As the mob warfare is contrasted to the melee of the first World War and the pursuits of Napoleon, the distinction between the two are blurred; both hurt far more than they help, as men’s egos result in the constant and needless death of innocents.

Louie’s ego is his undoing, as he escapes from prison only to find that he was aided by a rival mobster who wanted the opportunity to off him himself. This is why you never cross someone named Rocco.

The movie ends with these lines, written like the book Louie had been composing before being drawn back into the game:

“They gave him a swell funeral… and forgot him before the roses had a chance to wilt.”

Forget Me, My Love

“And thus ends the life of a gangster and begins the life of a man.”

Anyone who manages a casual glance at the links down below will come across a frenzy of theories about Doorway and for one particular reason. All of them try and ascertain why, for a film that informed a great deal of a very popular genre to come and that was a box office hit, was it so quickly discarded?

The bitter end. Ayres’ five o’clock shadow at the end may be his most effective acting choice in the film.

A couple of sources fault Ayres, pointing out that his youth and charms don’t convey the same manner of intensity. Most even chide the film for putting Cagney in the supporting role, saying that he’s too good for a second banana part. I disagree, though Cagney definitely waltzes away with a few scenes. Ayres has a quiet menace, something you don’t expect from him, but I do think that the film works to subvert most of this by putting him in a rather passive and rote roles of a cuckolded husband and then the impotent revenge seeker.

Personally, I think the nature of Doorway precludes it from being quite as inflammatory or as emotionally gratifying as the other staples of the genre. As mentioned before, unlike most other gangster flicks, it doesn’t end in a blaze of glory, but rather his death is obfuscated, going so far to imply that his funeral is one quickly forgotten.

Besides the inglorious end, the film’s structure also carefully de-mythologizes Louie’s actions. The end to practically every gangster movie that comes after this would hit around the end of Act 1 of this film. His spoils and conspicuous consumption are relegated to a nice house in Florida, and while he has grand ambitions, his ability to realize them come so easily that the movie feels a bit of a cheat. He manages to become king of the underworld after one rather goofy meeting, and all of the other mob bosses are corpulent cartoon characters.

With off-screen violence so brutal that even well versed mafioso can’t keep their coins flipping.

It’s not much of a surprise that this one isn’t remembered. Its hero is desperate and foolish, and the film’s stodgy direction isn’t blameless, either. Observe Scarface with a Tommy gun compared to Ayres here; most of the violence in Doorway, except for one massive melee,is kept tastefully off-screen, while films like Scarface and The Public Enemy tempted you with the visceral glee they exuded.

There’s some good pieces here, and some good ideas, they just got gobbled up and improved upon later on. Doorway remains more of an interesting curio than a classic gangster film, but for established fans of the genre it’s definitely worth checking out.

Trivia & Links

  • This is, if not the first, is one of the earliest instances of gangsters toting around machine guns in violin cases in a film. As one leaves a bar with such a case early in the movie, he’s asked, “Where you going?” The response: “To teach someone a lesson.” Nice.
  • Immortal Ephemera (try saying that five times fast!) goes into this one super in depth, and is head over heels for this picture.
  • Goatdog goes into the film’s ending and its punctual brilliance.
  • DVD Savant and I see eye to eye on this one. But since you just read my article, I don’t know what you’ll get out of it that I didn’t just cover. The risks of reading a blog article I guess… 🙂

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Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

3 thoughts on “Doorway to Hell (1930) Review

  1. I saw this years ago on TCM and it is very creaky stuff. The bizarre casting of Ayres really hurts this film since he simply isn’t a tough guy. I don’t really see Cagney in his role but Paul Muni would have done this in his sleep, slightly different than his Scarface role, but still good.

    An odd film to start that whole Warner gangster genre. Wonder if it was a hit? I guess it had to be since they kept making em.

    1. I think it’s interesting as a dry run as it really misses some of the things that define the genre and run in the complete opposite direction with them.

      Ayres is an interesting choice– and, yeah, Muni could have played anything at that point and it would have been amazing– and I don’t think he’s awful, but he’s a bit green for what happens. It’s like watching a 25 year old go “Yep, I finally mastered my job. Time to retire and move to Florida!” Slightly off putting.

      I remember reading somewhere that this was a hit, but I can’t find a source. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay– though it was adapted from a short story that was never published!

  2. Contrary to popular belief, I think Lew Ayres is perfect as Louie Ricarno. It is a very good movie, and I think the casting was just right. my sister and I watched it once, and I was so sad at the end, that I cried. Thyis might be partly because Lew Ayres is one of my favorite actors. I thought that he played the role superbly, and could hold his own with James Cagney. I think it is a very good film.

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