Sunday, March 11, 2012

Public Enemy is Fantastic, Dark

These days, when a "gangster" film comes out, it seems to be more about the blood, guts and sex and not so much about the story, and if there is a story, it seems to be incredibly complicated and frustrating. This film, from 1931, and starring James Cagney (in the film that launched his career) has a story. It's a simple story, yet it contains enough detail to keep the watcher riveted.

We begin in the very early years of the 20th century. Two Chicago thugs, Tom Powers (Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) start off as kids who simply play pranks on girls. As they age, so does their taste in crime. Flash forward a few years to the beginning of prohibition. Tom and Matt join up with a known thug named Puddy Nose. He may seem harmless. We're introduced to him as he's performing a song for children, like a clown at a child's birthday party. But soon, the boys realize that they can make more than just money off of pilfered wallets and watches. They soon join up with Paddy Ryan, a local bar owner who offers to bring them in on a lucrative enterprise known as "boot-legging". As the crimes grow, so does their willingness to do increasingly awful things. But Tom especially, fueled by his straight-laced brother and sister's disdain for his chosen profession, becomes increasingly violent. When a young colleague dies in a freak accident, Paddy tells his young proteges to lay low. Sensing the boys' weakness, their old gang begins to invade their territory, and a gang war ensues. Whereas Matt decides to take Paddy's advice, Tom, true to his aggressive nature, decides to take matters into his own hands. From the beginning of the film to the end, the story flows from one scene to the next.

The characters, even the minor actors (which include Jean Harlow in a small role), are well developed. But naturally what drew me to this film was my admiration for Cagney and his style of acting. His cadence, his rhythms, and his natural on-screen magnetism that draws the viewer to him, even if he's not the only one in the scene, are all part of what made him successful. By all accounts, Cagney's most famous persona was the complete opposite of the man himself. This character, and his other gangster roles were vile and ruthless men, like ones who would smash a grapefruit into a woman's face, or let loose a bone chilling cackle in the face of certain death. Cagney himself was a very mild mannered man, which is all the more reason why I have come to call him one of my favorite actors.

The so called gangster genre these days have become more about violence and sexuality than about the story it was originally supposed to tell. That's not to say that this film wasn't violent or sexual. It absolutely was. Whereas the violence in 2009s "Public Enemies", starring Johnny Depp (a story about John Dillinger...not to be confused with this one) is at times very blatant and in your face, I would say that the violence in this film is more or less inferred. That's not to say that there isn't blatant violence in this film. You'll see someone get shot, but you won't see him spurting blood. The sexuality in this film is less about the "sex scenes" depicted in today's cinema and more about (as it was with most films in the 1930s) the "double entendre". For example, there's a scene between Cagney and Mae Clark, who plays Kitty (who was the recipient of the grapefruit in the famous scene in the movie). When they first meet, their conversation is full of sly sexual phrasing, of which both Cagney and Clark were masters. So while there is violence and sexuality, it comes with an understanding that this is how these people lived. The viewer is not inundated with it to the point of the story being completely halted because of it.

This film is one of the reasons why James Cagney has become one of my favorite actors. The writing is very fluent, and at no point during the movie does the viewer feel that the movie has stopped. Each scene provides background and continuity to the next. And, as I said earlier, each actor or actress in the film is where they should be. This is an excellently made film from the bottom up, and highly recommended!!