Saturday 3 May 2014

Movie Review: The Public Enemy (1931)

A hoodlum's rise-and-fall in the criminal underworld, The Public Enemy unleashed James Cagney's career and popularized gritty and violent crime dramas as a defining genre for the Warner Brothers studio.

From a young age friends Tom Powers and Matt Doyle are petty thieves on the streets of an unnamed city (assumed to be Chicago), stealing small items and selling them to local sleazoid Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell). Tom's older brother Mike (Donald Cook) doesn't approve of Tom's criminal tendencies, but is powerless to stop him, while Tom's Pa is abusive and Ma (Beryl Mercer) turns a blind eye. When they grow older, Tom and Matt (Cagney and Edward Woods) are recruited by Putty to rob a fur coat warehouse. When the theft goes wrong, Putty abandons Tom and Matt and they have to fend for themselves. Tom never forgets the betrayal.

With prohibition in full swing, Tom and Matt graduate to the underworld operation of Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor), who admits them into an elaborate bootlegging and intimidation business, in partnership with suave crime boss Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton). Flush with money, Tom buys flashy new clothes and acquires Kitty (Mae Clarke) as a girlfriend, but he eventually tires of her whining and replaces her with Gwen (Jean Harlow). Meanwhile, Matt befriends Marnie (Joan Blondell), while Tom's ill-found wealth further alienates Mike. When a gangland turf war erupts, Tom and Matt are drawn into the lethal side of the crime world.

Cagney's coiled rat-a-tat energy jumps off the screen with a dangerous intensity. His brutal screen magnetism as a budding gangster forced astute director William A. Wellman to switch roles and give Cagney the plum assignment of Tom Powers, relegating the more sophisticated Woods to the support role of Matt (Woods' career never recovered).  As Tom Powers, Cagney's fists are restless, always itching to punch either playfully or violently. Cagney smiles and smirks as Powers intimidates his way to the middle ranks of the crime world, never hesitating to cash in from what doesn't belong to him.

Cagney's impact comes from his seeming enjoyment of the violence, whether Powers is shoving a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face or firing a bullet at close range into his pleading victim. When Powers resolves to march into a one-against-many climax to the gang turf war, it's impossible not to admire his courage, dense as it may be.

The Public Enemy builds momentum around Cagney's performance, the wide world of crime revealed as Powers grows from petty theft to warehouse break-ins and then the pinnacle of Depression era gangsterism, the manufacture, distribution and forced sale of prohibited alcohol in mass quantities. As the cash rolls in so do the standard perks of the criminal world in the form of outlandish cars, expensive threads and easily impressed dames. Mae Clarke, Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell play the girls with more looks than brains, desperate enough in desperate times to associate with the likes of Tom and Matt, somehow imagining that such men can ever offer a secure life.

Wellman keeps the action rolling at a machine gun clip, alternating impressive action scenes from the crime world with Tom's ever evolving private life and his steadily deteriorating relationship with Mike. With his money Tom temporarily buys the illusion of happiness, but with his permanently adversarial outlook on life, he is never in a position to distinguish between real fulfilment and the fleeting rewards offered by ill-gotten gains.

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