Saturday 28 June 2008

The Public Enemy (1931)

I love gangster films from the thirties and it surprised me no end to find that when I caught up with the granddaddies of the genre they didn't seem to be that great. I'm talking especially about The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, but they're the films that really broke people like James Cagney and Edward G Robinson and defined what was to come for the next decade and more. So I'll take the opportunity to revisit and see if I was missing something. Well, I guess I wasn't. Cagney is amazing but the film itself contains a lot that's kludgy. It's preparation for what was to come, defining how the genre would work and setting the scene for other films to follow.

The introductory blurb, which meant precisely nothing given that this was 1931 and was therefore just lip service to the Hays Office, talks about how the film is trying to 'honestly depict an environment' rather than 'glorify the hoodlum or the criminal'. Naturally it does plenty of glorifying the hoodlum and the criminal for an hour and a half, with the odd bit of pandering to the environment. I bet there wasn't a single moviegoer in 1931 who left this film wanting to be Donald Cook. They all wanted to be Jimmy Cagney and they weren't thinking about the lines he spoke in the hospital.

He plays Tom Powers, a personification of the public enemy of the title; maybe based on a real gangster ('Little Hymie' Weiss for example), maybe not. He has a family that cares and everyone else in it walks the line, but Tom does nothing except turn to the dark side every chance he gets. There doesn't seem to be any environment causing it beyond a local crook and professional bad influence called Putty Nose and I don't buy into him being the social message of the film.

Back in 1909 Tom's just tripping up his sister. Later he's robbing the Northwestern Fur Trading Company with a gun in hand for the first time and leaving a cop dead on the ground. Then it's up the chain until he's riding high as an enforcer in the bootlegging racket during prohibition. By this point he's the Cagney we remember well: he can only be described as a force of nature, whether his screen brother wants to believe it or not. Mike Powers is played by Donald Cook and because he's the elder brother he gets the opportunity to deck him early on.

Nobody else gets that opportunity, though he gets plenty of opportunity to have a go at others, including the girls. He slaps Mia Marvin after she attempts to blackmail him, and we have that legendary scene with Mae Clarke and a grapefruit. There's also a powerful sequence with Tom Powers, a bunch of bad guys and a rainstorm, not to mention the final shot of the film. These scenes are powerful and awesomely shot and it's not surprising that they turn up so often in collections of film clips that talk about cinema. They're iconic, definitive and memorable, even when they're dated, like the grapefruit scene. That really shook people in 1931 and its real impact can be felt through the realisation that it still has at least some impact even though it shouldn't any more.

The same applies to the film itself. It's still far from a bad film, even though there have been over 75 years worth of gangster movies to take away the spotlight. Cagney is blistering, so much so that Donald Cook and Edward Woods are merely there when he's on screen. Jean Harlow was't great but she was magnetic. She did learn to speak and act and do both well, but that came later: at this point it was all charisma and the essence that made her Jean Harlow. Joan Blondell and Beryl Mercer are fine, which is hardly surprising, but they don't get enough to do. Robert O'Connor is solid as the boss, Paddy Ryan, though he's not as consistent as he could be. Then again this was about writing a textbook, whether they knew they were doing so at the time It's what the film did that resonates, not the film itself.

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