I’m almost hesitant to write this review. Without fail (continental divide-wide power outages not withstanding), I try to have my reviews for films up at least a day or so after I first watch the movie. That will not be the case for the 1931 gangster classic, The Public Enemy. I have a film studies class this semester (because the one I took last semester didn’t fulfill the GEC requirement that I thought it did), and all of the films that we’re watching are “gangster” movies. I’m not crazy about that because that’s way too specific for my tastes for a movie every week but it has potential. We watched our first film, James Cagney’s breakthrough film The Public Enemy, on Tuesday and I’ve only just now had the chance to review it. I apologize if my details are hazy.
1931 marked one year into the Motion Picture Production Code, more commonly known as the Hays Code. Films had to follow a very strict moral code. Yet, despite these strictures by the Hays Office, certain movies slipped through the cracks (even if they ultimately had to wrap things up at the end in a “moral” way). Gangster movies and film noir scratched the need for darkness and depravity that the American public craved (even if the law said it was wrong). William Welman’s directorial high-watermark The Public Enemy marked the beginning of the true “ganster” film classics. And despite the film’s real flaws, it was the rare classic where the excesses of the Hays Code never seemed to mar the picture.
In his first leading role, James Cagney portrays Tom Powers, a young hood on the streets looking to rise the in the ranks of the criminal organization with his best friend, Matt Doyle. Even from a young age, Tom had an almost psychopathic lack of respect for authority. While his brother Mike (Donald Cook) gets a real job though never really rises out of poverty, Tom dives into a life of crime and the immediate riches of running booze and breaking arms for hire. As he climbs higher and higher in the Paddy Ryan crime family, Tom gains more infamy and respect while constantly painting a bigger and bigger target on his back.
Before we watched the film in my class, we watched a mini-documentary where Martin Scorsese called James Cagney’s first appearance on screen the moment where modern acting began. He couldn’t have been more right. Cagney brought an intensity and naturalism to his performance that was lacking in virtually every screen performance before him. He was the Brando before Brando was a thing. He was violent, sexual, menacing, and full of the type of little theatrical flourishes that were unheard of on the silver screen before him. This was the first James Cagney film I’ve ever seen, and I totally get it now.
Throughout the entire film, I found myself disoriented and I couldn’t put my finger on it til halfway through. There was a striking clarity to the images and I thought that maybe the people who had digitally remastered the film had went a little overboard. That might have been the case but as someone who immediately thinks of film noir when I think of black & white crime movies, I was put off by the film’s almost documentary photographic feel. The lighting is bright, harsh, and very realistic. None of the shadows and atmosphere of later crime films (think Double Indemnity). I can’t fault the film for it but it lacked much of the visual excitement I expect from classic crime films.
But, ultimately, that “true-to-life” visual style meshes with the film’s (dated) attempts to capture a type of sociological realism to poverty and crime in the early 1900s. The Public Enemy seems to revel in its attention to both period detail and a cynical, pessimistic take on the cultural conditions that produced men like Tom Powers. By no means does this film produce the insights of crime films like Winter’s Bone or American History X, but for it’s time, it was an exciting and sophisticated bit of popcorn art.
The film has its flaws. It does come across as dated. Certain moments carry more comedic weight than their intended dramatic weight. Jean Harlow is an all-time Hollywood legend but I don’t understand it at all. She seemed touched in the head in this film. But, the film’s perfect moments (the infamous grapefruit scene, the great understated moments of violence, Cagney’s pure whirlwind force) remind you why this film has remained a beloved classic for 80 years. Like I said, I watched it a week ago so many of the details are too hazy for me to make a truly insightful review, but if you love gangster movies, The Public Enemy is worth a spin.
Final Score: B+