A Movie A Week: THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) … I ain’t so tough…
Published at: Aug. 31, 2009, 10:55 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the next installment of A Movie A Week.
[For those who new to the column, A Movie A Week is just that, a dedicated way for me explore vintage cinema every week. I’ll review a movie every Monday and each one will be connected to the one before it via a common thread, either an actor, director, writer, producer or some other crew member. Each film, pulled from my DVD shelf or recorded on the home DVR (I heart TCM) will be one I haven’t seen.]
After last week’s disappointing William A. Wellman flick (TRACK OF THE CAT which was a boring melodrama disguised as a kick-ass cat & mouse thriller) I was very happy to finally dive into his classic THE PUBLIC ENEMY, the film that made James Cagney a superstar and set the tone for a decade of gangster pictures.
Story-wise, there’s nothing much of note about the movie. The plot is pretty typical gangster fare - a young hood works his way up the underworld ladder until he’s a well respected and feared underworld leader. What makes this film stand the test of time are the characters and how far Wellman and screenwriter Harvey Thew are willing to go.
This is a pre-code film and as such there are some pretty surface level references to sex, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. The main character, Tom Powers, is a particularly well-written complex douche of a character. I’m not kidding when I say the man either slaps, punches, kicks or shoots damn near every living thing in this movie… including a horse.
It’d be so incredibly easy for us, as viewers, to write Cagney off, to disconnect, but there’s a reason why this film made him a star. As diabolical as he acts, as trash as he comes off you can’t help but feel empathy for him. You’re rooting for him to succeed the whole movie.
I wouldn’t call it a likeability factor because I sure as shit wouldn’t want to hang out with Tom Powers in real life. Cagney, yes, but his character here? Not at all. He treats everybody like shit, including Mae Clarke in the now famous grapefruit scene.
The reputation that scene has is one of levity in an otherwise tense movie, but look at it! That’s a step away from domestic violence! He might as well have hit her with his open hand, the intent and effect is the same.
So, yeah. Powers is not meant to be likeable, but through sheer force of charisma Cagney makes him someone interesting.
Less impressive is Donald Cook as Cagney’s brother, the only one that can put him in his place. The character is fine and, again, surprisingly complex. When writing the script I can imagine it would have been very simple to make this selfless war hero a one-dimensional goodie two shoes, but by the end of the movie you’re not sure if you witnessed his well of purity contaminated to the point where he might follow in his younger brother’s shoes.
But Cook as an actor lacks the spark that Cagney has. He’s not horrible in the role, but he spits out his dialogue in a way that immediately dates him and the picture. It’s the kind of old timey gangster picture speak that might as well have every sentence end with “eh?”
Cagney owns this movie through and through, but they don’t make him invulnerable. When the top dog, Nails Nathan, is accidentally killed (thrown by a horse) that throws the underworld into a bloody scramble as everybody jockeys for position. With Nails gone a giant target might as well be hanging over Cagney’s head and attempts are made on his life.
These aren’t lame attempts, either. Each one takes something from him, even if it’s not his life. By the end of the movie he’s decided to take the fight to those bastards and he might or might not be of sane mind and body when he does so.. In fact the look on his face as he enters the warehouse headquarters is that of an asylum escapee… In fact, watching that scene I couldn’t get it out of my head just how amazing it would have been to have seen Cagney play The Joker.
What amazing fantasy casting, right?
The end of the movie really does kick you in the guts and is what I’m finding sticks with the most the more distance I get from the flick. I won’t spoil it here if any of you haven’t yet seen the movie, but it’s pretty fucked up.
Final Thoughts: It’s always good when a classic lives up to its reputation. The Public Enemy is not immune to the passage of over seven decades, but it holds up surprisingly well thanks mainly to a brilliant central performance. And it’s always fascinating watching the birth of a star. Whether it’s James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause or Harrison Ford in Star Wars or Cagney here there’s some added electricity, some extra bit of movie magic at work that can’t help but transcend the movie itself.
Upcoming A Movie A Week Titles:
Monday, September 7th: THE MAYOR OF HELL (1933)
Monday, September 14th: MIDNIGHT MARY (1933)
Monday, September 21st: AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)
Monday, September 28th: THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY (1955)
We have more Cagney next week in 1933’s THE MAYOR OF HELL… James Cagney in a movie with the awesome title THE MAYOR OF HELL? Yep, gonna be awesome. See you folks then for that one!
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