(1931) dir. William A. Wellman
After watching Little Caesar (1931) and White Heat (1949), I knew it was time for me to watch The Public Enemy. Being the other Warner Brothers gangster film from 1931 that pretty much ignited a genre and set archetypes that are still implemented by the likes of Martin Scorsese today, these pre-code flicks showed the American dream and underbelly as interconnected and perversely twisted. The Public Enemy is also the film that made James Cagney a star, and he is excellent as the tough-talking Irish-American hoodlum, raised in the city (Chicago) and primed for crime.
It’s also interesting as a pairing with the later Cagney film, White Heat, as that film in some ways extends the character into middle age, or a similar, further-hardened gangster. Because in The Public Enemy, we see Cagney’s Tom Powers from his early mischief as a boy and his growth and mentoring into the world of gangsters, perfectly primed for the onset of Prohibition, as the gangs glommed onto a prime underworld market that allowed them to develop, grow powerful and become more dangerous, with more to lose.
The film is directed by William A. Wellman, a solid Hollywood director, whos Beggars of Life (1928) I saw last year at the Silent Film Festival. And Wellman moves well into the sound era, a strong director of action and movement. It’s taut and solid, with some highly iconic moments, most notably when Cagney shoves a grapefruit into Mae Clarke’s face, a simple but palpable action of disgust and cruelty.
It’s good stuff. I am queueing up more pre-code films, as well as more silent era films. My latest deep delve into cinema. Oh yeah, and some more James Cagney!