“Big Louis Costillo”, last of the old world style gang leaders is slain and his former right hand man Tony Camonte is taken into custody under suspicion of murder. Since Costillo’s body has never been found, the police have to release him, though they strongly suspect Johnny Lovo (Big Louie’s main rival) paid Tony to remove Big Louis.
With Big Louie out of the way, Tony now has a free hand to take over every racket in town and goes about it with absolute ruthlessness. Soon Tony becomes a threat to Johnny and the other bosses unless they all agree to work for Tony.
Meanwhile, Tony’s sister wants to be more independent, but finds it difficult to escape from her brother’s overprotective grasp. The dissatisfaction of the other bosses and the relentless pursuit of the police push combine to push Tony toward a major confrontation.
The censors of the time thought that the film depicted that a life of crime was too easy and that Tony had still gotten away with his crimes. A second ending was shot, showing Tony being taken away by the police. He is then tried, found guilty and hanged. Paul Muni is not seen throughout this ending. Tony’s sister’s death scene was also re-edited, as it was felt that his affections toward her were not so brotherly. None of these changes satisfied the censors, so director Howard Hawks decided to abandon the changes and released it without censor approval. The movie’s subtitle, “(The) Shame of a Nation”, was added to deflect criticism on the same grounds.
Prominent use of the figure “X”. Its first appearance is under the opening credits and from then on, whenever a character dies, the figure “X” is prominent in the scene. Some examples: during the shooting in the bowling alley, a pencil fills in a strike box on a scorecard. When a recreation of the St. Valentine’s Massacre is shown, the scene begins in the rafters of the garage, where the roof support beams are seven “X” shaped pieces. When Tony kills his best friend at the door of his apartment, the number on the door is “X”. This was done for a reason: newspapers at the time printed photos of crime scenes. The “X” would be used to mark the spot of where the body was found.
The sign outside Camonte’s apartment says “The World Is Yours”. That was also prominently used in this film’s 1983 remake.