27 October 2008

The Public Enemy, It's Not Just About the Grapefruit

"I wish you was a wishin' well. So I could tie a bucket to ya and sink ya." - Tom Powers as played by James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931).

First of all, that doesn't make any sense. How do you sink a wishing well? Secondly, anyone who would say such a thing is likely a real jerk. Thirdly disregard the first point and realize the second one is irrelevant.


Here's the thing about cinema. You can take the story of a gangster like Tom Powers, even show him shoving a grapefruit into his girlfriend's face, and create a thoroughly compelling story. Hell, you even end up rooting for the dirty rat.

Public Enemy is, in my estimation, one of the great film's of all time. The then-young Jimmy Cagney gives a performance that even he was only able to equal a couple of times (Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and White Heat (1949)). At first look he may just seem all snappy dialogue and tough guy bravado. But watch him move. Cagney is as graceful as a ballet dancer and as powerful as a running back. No actor has ever looked more comfortable in his body. Watch him lean again the bar and give a confederate the affectionate air punch to the jaw. Watch him squire around Jean Harlow or run from the cops or just walk into a room. He's mesmerizing.

Powers is an uncompromising character in the uncompromising story of a gangster's raise. Director William Wellman (the best director you've never heard of) tells a story filled with sex and violence and death. But it's mostly all off camera (modern directors, take note). When Cagney shoots a former boss who betrayed him, we hear the shots but watch Cagney's partner react. In one of the best scenes you'll ever see we watch a grim faced and determined Cagney stride purposefully into his rivals' lair. We watch him disappear into the building and are left to listen to the ensuing shots and screams. Even the slaying of a horse is off camera, though audible.

We don't need to see people getting shot. We do need to see Cagney -- and we get lots of him.

Public Enemy doesn't really moralize. Sure it shows the rise of street punk to his inevitable fate and no this is no glamorizing of the gangster life. But the story is more documentary than fable. The reality of it stylized only by Cagney's performance.

Hollywood has produced some terrific gangster films from Little Caesar (1931) to Goodfellas (1990) with many before after and in between. The Public Enemy rates with the best of them. Like others of it genre it gives the vicarious thrill of rooting for the outlaw. We can imagine doing what we want, taking what we want, not bound by society's conventions. Usually there is an anti hero to root for. He (invariably it's a man) doesn't just break the law but does it with panache. Maybe he's handsome, he can even be charmer, usually he's quite smart. He probably loves his dear old ma too.

But the best of them, like Cagney's Tom Powers, have got charisma. Anyone interested in Cagney, the gangster genre or good films, will want to see The Public enemy. And not just once.


R. D. Finch said...

I also thought Cagney was great in "G-Men" (where he was allowed to be soft-spoken and have a sense of humor) and "Angels with Dirty Faces." I'm still waiting for Turner Classic Movies to show "The Roaring Twenties," which I know you're a big fan of and I haven't seen. I saw Cagney in "Love Me or Leave Me" recently and he was also memorable in that one as an older version of his 30's gangster, with a bit of the psychopathy of "White Heat" thrown in. Doris Day was the star, but Cagney made it worth watching. But "Public Enemy" probably has more scenes that sear into the memory than any of his other pictures. Did you catch the documentary "Public Enemies" on TCM last week? Wasn't it great? One thing it made clear was how Cagney more than any other actor (even Bogart or E. G. Robinson) dominated the genre.

Richard Hourula said...

I agree that "Love Me Or Leave Me" was a great Cagney performance and was going to include mention of it in this post.
I did see the documentary and enjoyed it.