Monday, August 30, 2021

The Public Enemy: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is James Cagney.

James Cagney first came to major prominence playing gangsters, and The Public Enemy was the film to put him on the map. An exciting, brutal look at the early days of Prohibition, The Public Enemy may try to pass itself off as a cautionary tale, but it does glamorize this seedy world a bit.

Ever since they were boys, Tommy Powers and Matt Doyle had gotten involved in petty crime. As adults, Tommy (James Cagney) and Matt (Edward Woods) have increased their criminal activities to grand larceny, but after a botched robbery leads to a dead cop their fence Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) leaves them hanging.

Fortunately, both World War I and Prohibition go in Tommy's favor. His more upright and moralistic brother Mike (Donald Cook) goes off to war, while Prohibition lets Tommy and Matt become enforcers to bootleggers under the protection of Samuel "Nails" Nathan (Leslie Fenton). Tommy's raking in the dough, keeping his sweet mother (Beryl Mercer) oblivious to his criminal acts.

Now with Tom as one of the Kings of Chicago Gangland, Tommy feels all-powerful. Mike, back from the war, is appalled at his kid brother profiting off "booze and blood" and reproaches him, but neither want to hurt Ma, so they have a most uneasy ceasefire. Tommy takes up first with Kitty (Mae Clarke) then with glamorous Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow). However, ultimately we find that crime indeed does not pay, and our public enemy, having taken his revenge for Matt's killing, pays for his sins in a brutal and sad way.

The Public Enemy starts and ends with text making clear that it does not set out to glorify the hoodlum or criminal, and that this is a problem society must address. This is a case of having your cake and eating it too, for The Public Enemy makes a case that Tommy's life is more exciting than that of the morally rigid Mike.

Tommy gets beautiful girls, goes to swinging nightclubs, gets to slap people around and even kill with no consequences. Running gin by sneaking it in gas delivery trucks looks more fun than riding the streetcar or working there. If it weren't for the affection he has for his mother, Tommy would be a totally repellant psychopath. 

I would argue that he is, but it is to Cagney's extraordinary performance that Tommy is almost likable and sympathetic, his brutal end shocking and terribly sad. The Public Enemy is one of if not James Cagney's greatest gangster role, with perhaps White Heat being the bookend to the types of roles most often associated with him.

His Tommy is unapologetic, cruel at times but also with his own code of morality. Though he has no issue with plugging his former mentor Putty Nose, part of us feels that he did the right thing given what Putty did. "If it hadn't been for you, we might have been on the level," Matt tells Putty when he and Tommy confront him. Cagney gives a quick look to Woods that suggests Tommy does not regret his life, but goes along with Matt's genuine anger to back up his buddy.

Cagney isn't afraid to go into dark places, to make Tommy unsympathetic. However, he also shows him as vulnerable and ultimately tragic. He, for example, does something of a dance after dropping Gwen off, a surprising turn amidst the gangland killings. After achieving his revenge, we see him, wounded, literally in the gutter as he says to the rain, "I ain't so tough", as true a confession as heard. The Public Enemy has to be among James Cagney's finest performances.

The Public Enemy has strong performances from Beryl Mercer as Ma Powers, loving to her two boys. The cheerfulness she has preparing Tommy's room for what she thinks is his safe return will break your heart. Joan Blondell in an early role too does excellently as Daisy, Matt's eventual wife who loves her man but fears for him too. While The Public Enemy is an early role for Jean Harlow and we can see she hasn't quite mastered the art of acting, we see hints that she could become a strong dramatic actress and not just a comic foil or alluring temptress. She has a monologue in her final scene with Cagney commenting on how he's a bit of a little boy in his desires that is quite well done.

It is only some of the other performances, such as Cook as the rigid, almost priggish Mike and Woods as Tommy's toady Matt where I would argue the film flounders a bit. Both appear to act as if The Public Enemy is a silent film, which is understandable as the industry was still struggling with the transition. 

The film, under William Wellman's direction, is surprisingly fast. The scenes run quickly and are brief, transitioning from one to the other to where many of them last less than five minutes at most. There are quite a few scenes where the dialogue is unnecessary to say what is going on, such as the mass booze buying spree the night before Prohibition starts or Tommy's rain-soaked stakeout of his rival's headquarters.

The Public Enemy, if remembered by most, is for the infamous scene where Cagney slams a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face. I figure that many modern viewers would either laugh or be enraged at this moment, but it is perfect for the character of Tommy Powers, selfish, arrogant and unapologetic.

The film also has a great use of the vernacular of the time, which would serve well for those attempting to study how the Roaring Twenties and Thirties sounded like among the less posh element. After Matt berates Putty for their life of crime, Tommy joins in. "Sure, we might have been ding-dings on a streetcar", he adds. The film captures the authentic sound of the era that sounds contemporary for the times but that now may be a bit opaque. That, however, does not make it inscrutable to present-day viewers.

The Public Enemy is beautifully filmed with a powerhouse performance from James Cagney as this reprobate who will break your heart. It may try to pass itself off as a moral warning, but gangsters never came better than The Public Enemy.

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