William Wellman's masterpiece The Public Enemy is not simply an excellent gangster movie. It is the gangster movie; that is to say, it is the prototype, the epitome of the classic gangster film. This should not be confused with something like The Godfather, which took the genre to a different, more specifically mafia-oriented place. I'm talking about the old-school, all-American gangster movie here.
And make no mistake, these movies are all about America. The American dream, or rather the very dark side of it. They're about what desperate men were willing to do to grab their piece of the pie and hold on to it, in a world that didn't give a damn about them. And The Public Enemy illustrates that concept to perfection.
Of course, none of that could have happened without the man whose presence is really what this movie is all about: The one and only James Cagney. In a time when film acting, especially in the new sound era, was still developing from the broad histrionics of the stage, Cagney brought the art into the modern age. He was subtle; he was nuanced; he was real. He has a charisma so powerful that you can't take your eyes off him for a split-second. He owns the screen, and this is the part that forever etched him into the mainstream consciousness.
As Tom Powers, Cagney is pure joy to watch. His every movement, and every line of dialogue is a gem. In this time before the Hays Code, movies were able to get away with a bit more, and so Cagney is able to portray a gangster we identify with and root on despite ourselves. He may "lose in the end" to prove that "crime doesn't pay", but we know that's just a pretense. Make no mistake, despite his ruthlessness, he is the hero of this movie.
He just may be my favorite actor of all time, and this movie will show you why. The naturalism--he comes across not as an actor, but as a genuine wiseguy off the street. Pacino and DeNiro would be nothing without this guy blazing the trail, my friends.
And that's not to say he isn't surrounded by a supporting cast worth a fortune. We have the sexy Joan Blondell; veteran actress Beryl Mercer as Powers' large-looming mother; hard-boiled Brit Murray Kinnell as mentor Putty Nose; Leslie Fenton as the slimy Nails Nathan; and best of all, the great Robert O'Connor as the cool-as-a-cucumber mob boss Paddy Ryan. O'Connor is cast just right, using what time he's given to create a truly memorable character--the potato chip-eating scene alone is worth the price of the DVD.
And then there's Jean Harlow. Some have harped on her seeming out-of-place in this picture, with a finishing-school accent that comes out of left field. I'm not one of those people. To watch the ultimate blond bombshell interact onscreen with Cagney is pure magic. The scene in which they glide into a nightclub together and start dancing, almost defies words. You just know you're watching two larger-than-life legends of the silver screen impose their aura on everything around them. I love it.
This is a movie that takes an unflinching look at the world of organized crime in the time of Prohibition, a virtual free-for-all of bootlegging and violence. And it's not all about glorifying, to be sure--the film shows us the seedy underbelly of this world as well, in a way that we wouldn't see again to such a degree until the new generation gangster flicks of the 1970s like Mean Streets.
It's a daring film from a daring era. Powers' seduction by Paddy Ryan's wife is dealt with in surprisingly frank fashion for the time, as is his out-of-wedlock shack-up with Blondell. Then there's the unforgettable climactic scene in the rain, beautifully shot and prefiguring 1940s noir, and that infamous closing image of Powers' "homecoming".
This is why the early 1930s is one of my favorite eras of movie-making, and The Public Enemy exemplifies the spirit of experimentation and exuberance that characterized it.
I've seen The Public Enemy many times, and I can honestly say I'm never not in the mood to see it. For me, this is comfort cinema at its best, and it's always my pleasure to worship at the altar of Cagney. I suggest you give it a try--you'll never look back.
NEXT UP: Trouble in Paradise (1932)