Movie Review

The Doorway to Hell

The Doorway to Hell Movie Poster

US Release Date: 10-18-1930

Directed by: Archie Mayo


  • Lew Ayres
  • Louis Ricarno
  • Dorothy Mathews
  • Doris Ricarno
  • Leon Janney
  • Jackie Lamarr
  • Robert Elliott
  • Captain Pat O'Grady
  • James Cagney
  • Steve Mileaway
  • Kenneth Thomson
  • Captain of Academy
  • Jerry Mandy
  • Gimpy - a Gangster
  • Noel Madison
  • Rocco
  • Edwin Argus
  • The Midget
  • Eddie Kane
  • Dr. Morton
  • Tom Wilson
  • Big Shot Kelly - a Gangster
  • Dwight Frye
  • Monk - a Gangster
Reviewed on: May 26th, 2011
Lew Ayres, in jail, shakes hands with his right hand man, James Cagney in Doorway to Hell.

Lew Ayres, in jail, shakes hands with his right hand man, James Cagney in Doorway to Hell.

After making his movie debut and garnering glowing reviews in Sinner’s Holiday, James Cagney was quickly added to the cast of a Warner’s gangster picture that was already filming. It was originally called A Handful of Clouds but was later changed to The Doorway to Hell. It starred Lew Ayres, fresh from his star making turn in All Quiet on the Western Front.

Director William Wellman saw this movie and decided to cast Cagney in The Public Enemy the following year. Cagney was hired as the second lead but after watching the daily rushes after only a few days of shooting, Wellman quickly realized Cagney should be playing the lead. The switch was made and the rest is history.

Archie Mayo should have done the same thing with this picture. Lew Ayres should have played Cagney’s role, that of the more mild mannered second in command Steve Mileway, while Cagney was born to play parts like the indomitable little Napoleon like Louis Ricarno.

Ricarno appoints himself leader of Chicago’s underworld bringing peace to the rival beer barons. He then goes straight, leaves the business to his second, marries his sweetheart and retires to Florida intent on writing his memoirs. After his departure, gangland wars break out and in order to force Ricarno to return to the rackets a couple of mugs try to kidnap his military cadet brother. Things go from bad to worse for Ricarno as he plots revenge but finds his own decline imminent.

Cagney has little to do. He plays a more submissive character than he would ever later portray. The one plot element he provides is in the fact that he is having an affair with his boss’s wife. In all of his scenes, however, he demonstrates more charisma and energy than Ayres does in his far showier role. His distinct, rat-a-tat-tat speaking style was already fully developed and merely awaiting some decent dialogue to attack.

Mayo keeps the action flowing and gives us some interesting camera work in this early talking gangster picture. The ending doesn’t pull any punches. Still it is clear that without the presence of James Cagney, on the very cusp of stardom, Doorway to Hell would be long since forgotten.

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