Saturday, June 11, 2016

Before I Die #567: The Public Enemy (1931)

This is the 567th film I've watched from the "Before You Die" list which I'm gradually working through. I actually overlooked doing a separate post for the 566th film, High Sierra, but the link leads to the combination review I did, along with a couple of other gangster movies. On to The Public Enemy...

Director: William A. Wellman

A decent enough movie that stands out dramatically from contemporary movies of the same ilk, but one whose power has faded over the 85 years since its release.

At the beginning and end of The Public Enemy, there are disclaimers stating that the movie would not glamorize the criminal lifestyle (an indirect criticism of exploitation films of the day). For the most part, the filmmakers stuck to this promise. The movie follows fictional criminal Tom Powers, a young street tough who, from a young age, is constantly looking for angles and hustles to make money. And possible arrest is no deterrent. When Powers reaches adulthood, Prohibition is in full swing, and he fully embraces the chance to grasp the wealth and power available to those willing to engage in the illegal alcohol trade.

That little synopsis should paint the picture of a very familiar story: the rise of an arch criminal. It's been told in film countless times over the last century or so, in myriad ways. From The Roaring Twenties on up through more recent movies like Brian DePalma's Scarface and Ridley Scott's American Gangster, the tale is a staple of U.S. popular culture. The Public Enemy was one of the very first movies to effectively portray the mob lifestyle as despicable and tragic. Other films of the time were more exploitative and shallow, using the strong gangster character for cartoonish entertainment. James Cagney's Tom Powers, though, is hardly admirable. Sure, he has some amusing one-liners and more than a little courage, but his overwhelmingly dominant characteristics are self-interested greed and violence. It would take an immature or disturbed mind to watch this entire movie and come away wanting to emulate any of Powers's behaviors. In this way, the movie mostly makes good on its promise to not romanticize criminality.

This is not to say that the movie is not entertaining at times. James Cagney was always a pleasure to watch, even when he was playing detestable characters. The tension in his line reads and his physical movements really shone through in this early role, one of his very first starring parts. His presence in this movie is as magnetic as his other iconic roles in The Roaring Twenties and White Heat.

In this still shot, even the postures indicate the difference
in style and attitude. Donald Cook (left) gives a pain-
fully stiff performance, unlike the brilliant Cagney's
more naturalistic acting.
Outside of Cagney, though, the rest of the cast doesn't really stand out. Even the legendary Gene Harlow falls rather flat with her lines at times, and Donald Cook as Tom's brother, Mike, is downright groan-worthy in a few scenes. These two were just a few of the many pieces of evidence that The Public Enemy has, through no fault of its own, aged poorly in some aspects. I hardly count this against the filmmakers, as one will not find a movie from 1931 which has more than one or two actors whose performances hold up over 80 years later. Still, it doesn't make the clunkier, more outdated elements of the movie any easier to watch.

If I compare it to a near-contemporary, I actually preferred The Roaring Twenties, which had stronger all-around production value. That said, The Public Enemy is well worth watching for fans of older gangster movies. At a brisk 82 minutes, it's not much of a commitment, and it's a solid early example of the "rise and fall of a gangster" story which so many of us love.

That's 567 movies down. Only 605 more to see before I can die.