It opens during World War I, where three very different soldiers meet in a foxhole. One of them is Eddie Bartlett, a simple mechanic from a city that is probably New York. He returns home only to find that his job has been given away. As he struggles to earn money as a cab driver, a mix up results in his arrest. To thank him for keeping his mouth shut, speakeasy owner Panama Smith bails him out of jail, and the two go into business with each other.
Considered by many to be the definitive gangster picture. Not to be confused with the era of the same name (in which he is mostly set though).
This film contains examples of the following tropes:
- The Alcoholic: What Eddie becomes after losing all his money and empire.
- All Love Is Unrequited: Panama is in love with Eddie, Eddie is in love with Jean, Jean is in love with Lloyd.
- Anti-Villain: Eddie is one the more sympathetic crooks that James Cagney played.
- Big Bad: Nick Brown becomes the antagonist midway through, then after his demise, George takes the role.
- Badass in a Nice Suit: This being a gangster film, Eddie sports one.
- Black and Gray Morality: Make no mistake, George is a complete villain but Eddie, Lloyd, Panama, and Jean are all part of a criminal enterprise, [though Lloyd and Jean leave when things go too far.
- Cruel Mercy: Eddie sells George his entire cab empire (cabs used to distribute the alcohol) in order to cover up his debts after the stock market crash, but George allows him to keep one cab.
- Deuteragonist: Panama. George is the Tritagonist and Lloyd is the Tetragonist.
- Disproportionate Retribution: George kills the guard after he realizes that he was the drill sergeant who gave him so much trouble during the war.
- Dude, Where's My Respect?: Invoked. Even though he fought in the war, no one will give him a job, not even the guy who promised him one when he got back. This, along with his stint in prison due to a misconception, leads him to a life of crime.
- Dying Moment of Awesome: Eddie goes out in a blaze of glory having taken on George's gang.
- Faux Affably Evil: George pretends to be on Eddie's side the whole time, even though he tries to have him killed.
- Freudian Trio: In the traditional sense. The characters of Eddie, Lloyd, and George were constructed to this way, according to Word of God. Lloyd is upright and rational, George is rash and violent, and Eddie is stuck between the two.
- Gold Digger: Jean is heavily implied to be one. She doesn't love Eddie as much as Eddie thinks she does but she has no problem with him using his influence to getting her the singing job at the club where he runs his operations. The club owner and, later Eddie, even lampshades this.
- Jailbait Wait: During the war, Eddie got letters from Jean, so he decided to meet her when he shipped back. She was still in high school. He half-jokingly said he'd come back in a few years, but they do eventually end up together.
- Jerkass: George. Without Bogart's charms, he'd easily be Hate Sink.
- Love Triangle: Eddie, Jean and Lloyd. Jean and Lloyd end up getting married during a Time Skip.
- Miscarriage of Justice: Eddie gets in trouble for delivering a package full of booze, even though he didn't know what was in it.
- Miss Kitty: Panama is an urban version. She runs the speakeasy.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: Panama Smith is based on Real Life famous nightclub owner Texas Guinan.
- Pietà Plagiarism: Eddie dies in Panama's arms adopting this pose.
- Returning War Vet: Eddie has trouble adjusting to life back home.
- Self-Made Man: Eddie builds himself a criminal empire. Eventually subverted, because he loses everything.
- The Teetotaler: Eddie doesn't drink alcohol, even though he sells it. [He starts drinking after he loses his empire, though.
- Time Skip: A few. The film takes place in 1919, 1921, 1922, 1924, and finally 1929.
- Tragic Hero / Tragic Villain: Eddie is determined to go straight but fate says otherwise.
- Villain Protagonist: Eddie Bartlett.