There are two alternative ways of governing a modern city- bullets or ballots. In a sense cinema is the chronicle of the modern city- the gangster films of Cagney or De Niro, the romances of Rosalind Russell or Meg Ryan are all about how to live in a modern city. Bullets or Ballots is not about how to live in a modern city but how to govern that city- how to manufacture and implement authority within the context of a community of millions. The struggle in Bullets or Ballots is an ideological argument about how to do this- how to get your orders and laws obeyed- the struggle is framed by a struggle between the police and gangsters but in reality that is not the centre of the film. That struggle is the problem that must be solved either by the gangsters or by the police- what the film is actually about is the argument within the police and within the gangsters about how best to win this war. Its an argument about the way that force ought to be displayed.
In a Bank in the middle of New York three executives, we are never told who they are but merely that they are extremely powerful men, coordinate the activities of the mob below on the street. They use as their contact a particular individual- a boss of bosses- beneath him there are others who run various rackets, various protection schemes and attempts to siphon off money from legitimate trades. In a sense the set up is the same as On the Waterfront's- the bankers and the businessmen sit at the top of a long trail which leads to the men taking the money out of slot machines and the unionists taking funds from the ships going into New York Harbour. This is pure and simple government: taxes are extracted from a community, they are backed up by coercive action- and there is an infrastructure erected to channel those funds upwards towards those who profit from the government they introduce. The police obviously through John Blake (played by Edward G Robinson) want to crack the mob and set Blake to do it.
The film's argument is largely played out within the mob itself- this group have become a business which likes the profits and doesn't like disquiet. Humphrey Bogart plays Fenner an ancient type of gangster for whom violence and individual effort are more important than the corporate ethos- in a sense whereas the other gangsters are evolving slowly into capitalists, Bogart is evolving into a feudal baron. Bogart's violence at several points threatens the power of the gangsters themselves for it creates attention- bringing down on them the fury of the law. Into this atmosphere comes John Blake, the ultimate in honesty. But Blake comes in as a double agent- what Blake's behaviour shows is two things. Fenner is the only person who detects and can provide a remedy to Blake's falseness- for he lives by his wits and his guns. Ultimately the only protection for the corporate gangster is the feudal gangster- for he is the only person prepared to exert the sanction that authority depends upon. And yet Blake too is the only person on his side, the police side to be able to exert that sanction- again his behaviour risks the state's authority being unmasked but without him the state's authority is merely words.
Ultimately this film is about the balance between the velvet glove and the iron fist. The real issue here is that force lies behind power- it is the threat of death that is the source of human power, authority though rests with the velvet insinuations of persuasion. Persuasion avoids confrontation with other sources of power and the naked use of force is always vulnerable to the next revolution: Fenner and Blake both are vulnerable to a quicker shot and a rougher fist, but without them the states, criminal and civil, that they support have an authority that cannot enforce. The riddle of Ballots or Bullets is a riddle exposed a long time ago by Thomas Hobbes, its terms have not changed since.