Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has seen the enemy. He'll smash grapefruit in your face if you don't wise up, quick.
Our reviews of TCM Greatest Gangster Films Collection: Prohibition Era (published September 22nd, 2010) and Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics (Blu-ray) (published May 27th, 2013) are also available.
"I ain't so tough."—Tom Powers
What a difference seven years can make! My first foray into The Warner Bros. Gangsters Collection was Angels With Dirty Faces, a 1938 gangster flick/morality tale that featured James Cagney in full stride. That film is taut and moving, with impressive camerawork and gritty performances that reach a 2005 audience. The disc contains a quaint, wacky Looney Tunes cartoon that made me laugh; a brief but impressive musical; a great commentary…in short, the entire package impressed me immensely. Warner Bros. has done an equal, if not superior, job in presenting The Public Enemy. It has similar extras and even brings in the big gun, a testimonial by Martin Scorsese. Despite the impressive effort, however, I was less enthralled with The Public Enemy; this 1931 film is less accessible to modern audiences than its contemporaries in the Gangsters Collection.
Facts of the Case
Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) are two young toughs. Matt is probably a decent kid, stirring up a bit of trouble on his way to a solid blue-collar job. Tom is a bad apple, a poison seed, rotten to the core, or whatever spoiled-fruit metaphor you deem appropriate. Tom keeps Matt in his orbit as they sneak beers, rob stores, and pick on Matt's sister.
The pair is introduced to bigger jobs by Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), a two-bit fence. When the job goes south he turns tail, leaving them in the lurch. Tom and Matt join up with Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O'Connor) and eventually "Nails" Nathan (Leslie Fenton), a notorious gangster. When Prohibition hits, Tom is there to keep America's parched throats satisfied. Tom becomes powerful, and is feared by all.
Tom's lifestyle offends his upstanding brother, Mike (Donald Cook), who chastises Tom at every opportunity. Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer) is either oblivious or avoidant, proclaiming that Tom is a politician. Tom goes from one gal (Mae Clarke as Kitty) to another (Jean Harlow as Gwen), but his only constant companion is Matt.
Tom is fine with being a criminal, but Mike is not happy about it at all. The situation escalates to the point that something has to give. Will Tom find that crime doesn't pay, or will Mike find out what the bottom of the river looks like?
Lest I be viewed as a heretic by my film critic brethren, let the record show that I like The Public Enemy, find it technically and artistically impressive for its time, and consider it an important forefather to subsequent gangster films. Its realism is refreshing, and a handful of the scenes could be considered eternal classics of film.
Those things are all true, but The Public Enemy is still hard to immerse yourself within. A corny opening placard tells us that this movie is about the societal ills of crime, a problem we must solve. The opening 25 minutes didn't engage me: Two kids get in trouble, one shoots at a stuffed bear, the heat is on, yadda yadda yadda. It wasn't until Tom began to assert himself by pulling off a clever beer robbery that the film picked up. As it gathered steam, I was greatly impressed with several moments, but a corny line or an awkward coincidence was always around the bend. When the ballyhooed ending arrived (and I hadn't heard any of the ballyhooing, so I didn't realize I was supposed to be suitably impressed) I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it.
We'll get back to that, but first let's hit the highlights of this groundbreaking movie. The Public Enemy is a pseudo-documentary; its honesty is impressive for the time. Tom gets beaten by his father for stealing, Tom mistreats women, Nails Nathan is straightforward about his criminal schemes…the curtain of modesty that shrouded many films of the era is conspicuously absent. Perhaps the clearest symbol of The Public Enemy's intimacy with malignance is the infamous grapefruit scene. Tom is having breakfast with a petulant Kitty. She says one errant word while he's rubbing the hangover headache out of his forehead, and it sets him off. The next thing we know, James Cagney is smushing half of a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's pretty mug. This scene grabs our attention today, but in 1931 it was absolutely scandalous. It made Cagney the talk of the town, and set a new standard of (un)gentlemanly behavior.
That scene gets all the ink, but the scene I found most compelling was when Mike comes home from the war and has dinner with Tom and Ma. Tom has been busy in Mike's absence, building an empire of beer and blood, cultivating Ma's allegiance. Mike sits in stony silence while Ma, Tom, and Matt drink merrily from a beer keg in the middle of the table. The keg is the proverbial elephant in the corner. This is perhaps the defining scene of the film, showing how Tom's casual machinations weigh heavily on his family.
The beer keg on the dinner table scene is Donald Cook's one engaging scene amid a sea of melodramatic overacting. In general, Cook's Mike is a pushy, overly sensitive busybody of a brother. Ma is equally ridiculous, as weak a character as I've seen in any movie. The character actors (such as Edward Woods, Murray Kinnell, and Robert Emmett O'Connor) are solid, neither detracting from the movie nor making lasting impressions. In fact, I'd only label two of these performances noteworthy. The first is Jean Harlow as gangster moll Gwen. Harlow is lanky and lethargic, just in control of her awkwardly tall, imposing form. The best word to describe her performance (in fact, it may have been used by Martin Scorsese in the featurette) is "curious." Unbidden, Harlow gives the most peculiar monologue. It is the strongest hint of her upcoming star power. This tall, beguiling woman is spouting nonsense, and we can't help but hang on her every word. It doesn't excuse the random nature of the rest of her performance, but the scene is memorable.
The second notable performance is, of course, Cagney's. He displays many of the trademarks that would carry him through an admirable career: charisma, physical presence, grit, determination, and a sense of humor. Cagney gives The Public Enemy most of the traction it musters. Nonetheless, even Cagney stumbles from time to time, delivering flat, mistimed, or otherwise flawed lines. He is still quite watchable, raw and intense on his way from one brutish moment to another. This performance deservedly caught the world's attention, and though Cagney would go on to deliver more polished, cocksure, masterful characters, there is always a bit of Tom Powers in his characters.
In sum, though people may feel inclined to laud the film for its collection of past and future stars, I didn't find the acting nearly as compelling as the other entries in The Gangster Collection (or the previous film noir collection, for that matter). Cagney aside, there are few compelling moments of acting, and there are lots of extra characters. Do the math and you'll see the problem.
William Wellman was a veteran studio director accustomed to delivering films on a tight schedule. The Public Enemy moves at a workmanlike clip from one scene to the next, without much of a common tone to unify the work. But Wellman does find time to sneak bits of artistry into this grim, realistic story. The first raid by Matt and Tom has a dreamlike vibe, as though their fear and hypersensitivity were seeping into the celluloid. Dramatic glints of light and billowing shadows set a menacing tone. Later scenes of violence are given even greater impact by Wellman's camera direction. The camera moves off-screen in a discreet pan that masks the horrors taking place in the patch of screen we just left. The effect is unsettling while satisfying the censors at the same time.
One such "discreet" take occurs near the end of the film. (This paragraph spoils the ending of The Public Enemy.) Tom takes on an entire room of armed crooks to avenge Matt's death. The camera stays outside while Tom strides in and throws down a giant handful of gurgling death. This action rapidly brings us to the final scene, where Tom's warm corpse is delivered to the front door. I know they had to wrap up the film somehow, but Tom would never walk into a room full of armed, wary mobsters with one gun and no backup. At least, the Tom I just spent 80 minutes watching wouldn't. He is too savvy to go out in such a stupid fashion. In fact, his actions are so baldly out of character that it was funny—and a little irritating at the same time. That bemusement only increased with the final scenes. By comparison, the ending of Angels With Dirty Faces is polished, meaningful, and most important, integrated with what came before it. Both endings serve essentially the same purpose, but one does it with style while The Public Enemy does it with a sight gag involving a pratfall by Cagney's smiling corpse.
Acting, direction, and plot are not the only areas where The Public Enemy suffers in comparison to Angels With Dirty Faces: The extras are inferior as well. The 1931 "Warner Night at the Movies" is much less entertaining than the 1938 Night at the Movies. 1938 gave us glamorous musical numbers, a wacky Looney Tunes clip, a news story about world war, and other involving introductory material. 1931 gives us a lame Mickey Mouse ripoff that is funny in only the grossest, most rudimentary fashion (and the miles of first-person-perspective train-track travel are less impressive now than they must have been then.) Instead of charming musicals, we get a dummy cracking jokes while his "ventriloquist" only moves his lips a little bit. I swear, if you use peripheral vision you can hardly see his lips moving! (Did I mention that dummies suck?) In place of the dictators, presidents, and such in the 1938 news reel, we get a fluff piece on ladies training for the Olympics. These gals can toss a javelin without cracking a nail, and still get home in time to cook dinner and make cocktails!
Robert Sklar's commentary has good information, but the delivery suffers a bit. Sklar frequently stops talking; I clocked a handful of 30- to 45-second gaps in the first few chapters alone. By the 45-minute mark, the commentary runs out of gas and the gaps get longer and more frequent. But when he is talking, it's usually to point out something interesting, so he gets full marks for insight.
The one extra that lives up to its Angels counterpart is the "Beer and Blood: Enemies of the Public" featurette. This discussion of the film is more enjoyable than the film itself, and it almost made me want to watch The Public Enemy again so I could see what the people in the featurette were seeing.
It hasn't come up until now, so let's talk about the technical quality. I'll take a natural-looking film grain any day over edge enhancement and other digital crappery. Warner Bros. gives us a relatively clear print, but the video quality is all over the map. Several of the reels are laced with fine vertical scratches; it looks as though the characters are standing behind a thin waterfall. Some scenes look clean and clear while some have heavy grain. Some scenes have strong contrast while some have weak contrast and softness. The image occasionally becomes unstable and jittery. In other words, they've given us a reasonably clean print but haven't gone to great lengths to excise flaws. I can appreciate this decision given the niche appeal of these titles, though, and an underworked print is better than an overworked print any day.
You may be unsurprised to hear that the soundtrack doesn't offer much bass or directionality. This film was on the cusp of new sound recording technology, so we at least get some live effects from on-site recordings. The mix doesn't have any show-stopping scratches and is mostly clear, although volume fluctuates to produce several muffled moments. Hey, it's a 1931 film; we aren't seeking a Dolby Digital 5.1 effects spectacle.
Cagney was able to accomplish something with his turn in the starring role. The realistic tone and "discreet" off-camera violence would empower gangster flicks for years to come. Hints of The Public Enemy creep up in The Godfather and Goodfellas. And yet, the movie is plodding, most of the acting is plodding, and the story is all over the map. The Public Enemy is more interesting to discuss than to watch.
It gave us Cagney, so it can't be all bad. Three months in the pen, but file it as time already served.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Film Hstorian Robert Sklar
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