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The Public Enemy

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Public Enemy
1931
Director: William A. Wellman
Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook

For my money, there are not enough superlatives in the world for James Cagney. We still talk today about screen presence, charisma, charm, these ineffable attributes an actor must possess if they want to become a superstar. It’s no surprise that this, Cagney’s fourth film, has him in the lead role and beguiling us at every turn. It’s a good thing for Public Enemy, though, that it stars Cagney; if it didn’t, it would have precious little going for it.

Tom Powers (Cagney) grows up in the slums of Chicago at the turn of the century. Even as a child, he’s predisposed to being nasty and cruel, all while his brother Mike (Cook) is virtuous and true. Tom grows up to be a gangster, getting hooked up with running booze during prohibition with his best pal Matt Doyle (Woods), while his brother becomes a soldier, going off to war and returning a hero. As Tom’s actions become more violent and ruthless, the ending of the film becomes more and more clear.

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The Public Enemy suffers tremendously from age. It has not lasted well. The straightforward morality play of the film (good brother versus bad brother, gangster versus law) is far too simplistic for today’s standards. The acting of everyone other than Cagney is mediocre. Donald Cook as Tom’s saintly brother is stereotypically thirties cheesy, with him blurting out lines quicker than a tommy gun shoots bullets. There is no soundtrack to the film, so nearly all scenes have an uncomfortable grainy silence in the background; clearly, even four years into the sound technology, all the kinks were not yet worked out. The photography is pretty simplistic, focusing instead on the story. There was a nicely composed sequence where Tom murders someone offscreen and we know it through piano music, and Tom’s downfall in the pouring rain was a nice cinematic touch, but overall, the camera felt static and uninspired. The finale, though somewhat unexpectedly gruesome, is rushed and incomplete; I was left wanting more at the very end. The Public Enemy is a short film, clocking in under an hour and a half, but it still manages to feel a little slow and tedious.

Thank goodness, then, for Cagney.

Every time Cagney is on screen, the film feels alive. Every time he’s not, it feels slower than molasses. When he finally made his entrance (the film opens with Tom, Matt, and Mike as children), it was as if someone opened the door and a huge breath of fresh air suddenly woke up the story. The man is magnetic; he exudes star appeal, that unquantifiable magic that just makes him *work.* His voice, his eyes, his shifty demeanor, it’s all gold. I love the man. I will never get sick of watching him. The Public Enemy was, according to IMDB, Cagney’s fourth feature, but the first where he got top billing. He had been in a few gang/violent films before, but always in a supporting role. This was the breakthrough film for Cagney, graduating up to top billing and cementing that iconic image of Cagney as gangster in the process.

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There is an interesting dynamic between Cagney’s Tom and his best pal Matt. Matt is side by side with Tom through all the robbery, thugging, and violence, yet he is not Tom’s mirror image. Matt is the one who has to look away while Tom gets more out of control, and he is the one who gets married to a broad while Tom shoves a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face. Mike, Tom’s brother, is a boring goody-goody, but Matt’s morals are more interesting. He’s a criminal, just like Tom, but he’s not just like Tom. That slight bit of moral gray zone helps coat the oversimplified battle between Tom and his brother.

Besides being a huge film for Cagney, Jean Harlow appears, if briefly, as Tom’s girlfriend in later scenes, further propelling her career to superstardom. All her pouty, slouchy, lusty appeal is there, and she’s draped in silk and diamonds and fake eyelashes just like her persona expects. She’s the only actor in the movie who has a hope of holding a candle to Cagney, but even she is overwhelmed by his sheer power. She’s fine, certainly, and has a more interesting character than the other women around her, but she’s fighting a losing battle when she comes up against Cagney.

1001 Movies says that this film’s sympathetic portrayal of a gangster helped bring about the censorship of the Hays Code, and I don’t doubt it. While I never really found Tom Powers sympathetic, per se, he’s easily the most entertaining character in the entire film, and I suppose the Hays Code couldn’t have a gangster being entertaining. Although other people keep on talking in the same scene as Cagney, no one can steal his magic.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

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