Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Classics: A Review of The Public Enemy By Lauren Ennis

Such nice boys

Before Henry Hill and his associates taught audiences the meaning of the term ‘goodfella’, before Tony Montana introduced us all to his ‘little friend, and before Don Corleone made offers no viewer could refuse there was a scrappy bootlegger called Tom Powers trying to make his mark in Chicago’s underworld. Through his multifaceted characterization, James Cagney made Tom Powers one of Hollywood’s most dynamic villains and its first gangster whom audiences couldn’t help but root for. With this film, Cagney introduced his unique persona to filmgoers and the gangster genre has never been the same since. In belated honor of St. Patrick’s Day, this week’s review will pay a much deserved tribute to this groundbreaking tale of the Irish mob that set the stage for decades of gangster films to come.

The story follows the traditional gangster tale formula of detailing the rise and fall of its protagonist, the tough talking and fast shooting gangster, Tom Powers. The film begins not with Tom’s introduction to his life of crime, however, but instead with his childhood in 1915. The opening scenes reveal that while Tom’s family was far from perfect, they were essentially an average family attempting to make a decent living. The story continues as Tom and his friend, Matt Doyle (Ed Woods), begin committing petty crimes for the Fagin-like con artist, Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell). As time goes on, the boys work their way up to committing more serious and sophisticated crimes until Putty Nose assigns them to rob a fur warehouse. After the robbery goes awry, the boys learn that Putty Nose has already left town, leaving them to face all repercussions alone. The robbery forces the boys to lay low and temporarily forgo their burgeoning criminal careers until they are approached by local bootlegger, Paddy Ryan, (Robert Emmett O’Connor) to join his mob as enforcers. The two eagerly accept the offer and begin living the high life of wealth and women of the Prohibition-era underworld. Just as it seems that they are about to reach the top of their game, however, Tom and Matt find themselves in the midst of a city-wide gang war and learn that they might not be ‘so tough’ after all.

One of the most notable aspects of The Public Enemy is the gritty and brutal realism with which it portrays Prohibition-era mob life. Throughout the film, the victims of Tom and his associates are continually referenced as reminders of the all too real price that society pays when it glamorizes its criminals. Similarly, all of the gangsters, while initially likable, are quickly revealed to be duplicitous and ruthless in their interactions with both their enemies and their supposed friends. The extent of gangland brutality is expertly captured in the infamous scene in which Tom smashes half a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face for talking back, and another scene in which Tom guns down a former associate as the man pleads for his life. As a result, while Tom is the film’s protagonist, he is never presented as anything remotely resembling a hero. This approach, while typical of the film’s era is refreshing in a time in which criminals are routinely presented as loveable rebels. Through this gritty approach to its subject, the film is able to present an accurate account of both mob life and the people who inhabit it.

Good mornin', good mornin'...
While most of the elements that make up the film’s plot have since become standard fare, several members of the cast more than make up for the story’s more dated elements. Murray Kinnell’s performance as the charmingly shameless Putty Nose brings comic relief to the film’s early scenes and pathos to its later scenes when a hardened Tom seeks him out for revenge. Similarly, Robert Emmett O’Connor’s Paddy Ryan is such a genuinely likable character that O’Connor almost makes audiences forget about the bloodshed that his character is responsible for. One of the film’s most interesting turns is from Beryl Mercer as Tom’s childishly naïve mother. In her portrayal, Mercer presents a portrait of a woman so desperate for a happy home that she deludes herself about her son and completely blind herself to the reality of his criminal lifestyle. Mae Clarke adds spunk to her role as Tom’s neglected girlfriend, making her performance far more enjoyable than Jean Harlowe’s bland portrayal of Tom’s new girlfriend, which unfortunately comes across as more of a script reading than a full-fledged performance. The supporting cast members lend apt support, particularly Ed Woods and Leslie Fenton as Matt and fellow gangster Nails Nathan.

Despite the many enjoyable performances in the film, The Public Enemy undoubtedly belongs to its star, James Cagney. At the time of the film’s production, Hollywood was still adjusting to the advent of ‘talking’ pictures and many writers, directors, and actors were still relying upon obsolete techniques left over from the silent era. As a result, many of the films released at the start of the 1930’s possess an awkward, stilted, quality due to a combination of minimalist plots, stagey dialogue, and most noticeably, overacted performances. The Public Enemy, however, contains a charge that is nothing short of electric as audiences witness Cagney’s neighborhood tough evolve into a truly ruthless criminal. This is due in large part to Cagney’s previous experience working on the New York stage before beginning his film career, which provided him with a foundation in improvising and realistic acting. Cagney also brought his real life experiences into play as he utilized his knowledge of city life and the colorful characters who inhabit it to imbue his performance with a strangely endearing combination of street smarts, personal insecurity, ambition, and gritty charm. The depth and energy of his performance makes Tom stand out as far more than just another tough guy and instead makes him an accurate portrait of the dark side of the American Dream during the Great Depression. His performance is truly multidimensional as he effortlessly shifts between Tom’s hardened persona in front of his friends, to his insecurity at home, to his relentless need to prove his worth on the streets. Cagney’s turn in The Public Enemy remains one of the most fascinating and entertaining portrayals of a criminal in cinema, and an example of the modern acting that would soon overtake Hollywood as it entered its Golden Age.

Through its striking realism, The Public Enemy was one of the first films to show 1930’s audiences the true potential of sound film. The film provides an excellent portrayal of the temptation and inevitable failings of criminal life that remain as alluring and chilling today as they were upon the film’s original release. The film brought James Cagney to viewers’ attention, launching what would become a legendary career that spanned over five decades. Join Cagney and the rest of the cast for a truly explosive good time that you won't soon forget.

You still look pretty tough to me, Tommy


  1. Excellent Review! This one's up with your "Life Lessons from Vito Coreleone" review. Btw, that picture at the Bottom is terrifying; it's like he's staring right through the pit of my soul @_@

  2. On that note, my little night is officially made! Love that pic, the scene that comes right after that shot alone is well worth the price of admission