Under the Code, gangsters couldn't be both main characters and actually threatening. Humphrey Bogart managed to project subtle menace a lot of the time, but he was only supposed to be a real, serious threat when he was the villain and would be nobly defeated by someone we were actually supposed to be admiring. Here, he's supposed to be a hero, which means he can't be a genuine gangster. He's got a lovable mother and a thing about a certain brand of cheesecake. He makes a lot of bets, but he doesn't really participate in any other rackets. It's true that it's too late for him to be a rumrunner, but there are all kinds of other unsavoury things a mobster could get into in the '40s. However, since he's Our Hero, the reason the cops have wanted to bust him for years has been left rather amorphous. We know there's gambling, and we know they talk a lot about killing people, but it's never said they actually have.
Gloves Donahue (Bogart) is a charming kingpin of some sort. However, when his mother (Jane Darwell) wants him to do things, he does. And his mother wants him to investigate the disappearance of the baker of all those cheesecakes, Mr. Miller (Ludwig Stössel), who has vanished without a trace. Only Gloves and his gang find Miller's body. They encounter Leda Hamilton (Kaaren Verne), whom Gloves immediately suspects of being somehow involved with the murder. He follows her into a Nazi spy ring populated with such old favourites as Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt, and he is promptly accused of Miller's death himself. Together with his wacky circle of associates, including Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers, he goes in search of who really killed Miller, why, and what they're planning to do next. And, of course, while those gangsters may be crooks, they're also one hundred percent American, and they have no patience for Nazis.
As is typical of the era, half the Nazis are played by Germans who fled the country, generally one step ahead of the Gestapo. Most notable of these are Lorre and Veidt. Lorre's performance in [i]M[/i] is so powerful and so moving that Hitler's propaganda used it as an example of what Jews are "really like." It's not universally true, of course--very few people, Jew or Gentile, are that talented. However, it enabled him to make a place for himself in American film as the untrustworthy, mysterious man who was pretty much never the man at the top. He and Veidt would also both be denizens of Casablanca the year after, centering their lives, as everyone else in the city seems to have done, around Rick's. (Veidt would die two years after this film of a heart attack.) Indeed, one of the most touching scenes in that movie, the singing of the Marseillaise, is made the more so by the fact that half the people singing it were just what their characters were--refugees dreaming of the day their homes would be free again.
Worth noting is that Leda's father is declared, in the movie, to be imprisoned at Dachau. Gloves can't pronounce it; he just spells it out. However, she quite bluntly informs him, when he asks, that it's a concentration camp. This was not secret knowledge. Now, of course, the scale of the camp, and the camp system it was part of, and the conditions of the camp, were not known to the general public at the time. It is also true that, the minute that information is established, I assumed he was dead, and my reasons for that assumption are not just based on dramatic rules. Though, of course, they are good and sound dramatic rules! At any rate, the cast would have known of the existence of such places, given that, as mentioned, several of them escaped Germany just ahead of being put in them. This may also have something to do with Lorre's subsequent appearance in [i]Hollywood Canteen[/i], another propaganda piece of the same era, albeit one a little more realistic.
I would like to congratulate the makers of the DVD for one thing, which appears on some similar releases. It is possible to watch this as "Warner's Night at the Movies," which includes a couple of short subjects, including a trailer and a newsreel. This is an ideal presentation for an older movie. (The movie the trailer was for was kind of iffy, to the point that I don't seem to have bothered with a review. Maybe I turned it off.) In some ways, I think we are deprived of an experience by the fact that we don't have these things anymore. Oh, we have trailers a-plenty, and some are even for movies you might want to see, though they're not generally as original as the best of the old ones. We get plenty of ads, and Pixar is very good at giving us a cartoon in advance. But I think maybe we'd be better served to have the newsreels back. It might serve to get people aware of their surroundings again. Maybe Jon Stewart has the time.