Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931)

  (Officially done with finals and school for the summer so I'm officially back! (not that it matters since I didn't even give an official going away notice #howrudeofme)

    In my absence, I've watched a lot of movies which I plan to review in the next coming days. First up is The Public Enemy, my very first James Cagney movie. And I wasn't Cagney that is. The movie as a whole falls rather flat. Any time that Cagney is not onscreen, it becomes painfully obvious that the only form of life and vitality in the film emanates from Cagney's star presence.
   The Public Enemy is about a young boy named Tom (James Cagney) and his best friend Matt (Edward Woods), both of whom constantly get into mischief in 1909 in-what-I-presume-to-be New York. The two kids make small deals with local gangster Putty Nose, such as selling him stolen items. Tom's older brother Mike (Donald Cook) disapproves of Tom's shenanigans. As they get older in 1917, Tom and Matt are assigned a bigger job, a heist, by ol' Putty Nose. Things go awry, Putty Nose bails on their asses, and Tom and Matt find themselves penniless and seething. News get back to Mike about his brother's latest exploits, but he is unable to intervene as he has been enlisted in the army. Fast forward to 1920 when Prohibition is full in effect and alcohol is officially banned. Tom and Matt are hired by bootlegger Paddy Ryan. The two men get filthy rich and begin to flaunt their wealth, keeping women and dropping them just as fast. Mike returns from the war and confronts his brother yet again, dividing their mother's loyalty. Tom, seduced by the rewarding gangster life, refuses to listen to his brother and continues on with his illegal practices. However, when one of Tom's fellow gang members dies in a horse accident, this provokes rival gangs to challenge Paddy Ryan's gang, resulting in bloodbath, revenge and more bloodbath.
    I struggle on how to rank this film. It's not a bad film, far from it. I just find the editing weird and the acting styles are likewise quite dated, except for Cagney's. A drinking game for this film would be to drink every time there was a fade-to-black into another scene. Boy, I'd be more wasted than Cagney at a latter point in the film. The film contains far too many cuts. The scenes are so short and do not make for a smooth plot or character development. It makes the film feel disjointed, like riding on a bumpy road. No time to really adjust one's self and get accustomed with the new scene. Furthermore, the acting styles are not bad, but like I said earlier most certainly dated. There are awkward pauses and most of the actors suffer from poor timing. Donald Cook is the worst of the bunch, using a very intense acting style better suited for the stage than film. Thankfully, the film features a brilliant scene where people buy alcohol in large quantity when the Prohibition is about to be put into place. Think a happy couple walking down the street, their hands and baby's carriage full of alcohol bottles. The scene is hilarious and deserving of iconic status.
    Incidentally, this was also my first Jean Harlow film. At the end of the film I completely forgot to wonder what happened to her character. She appeared halfway through the film and then disappeared 2/3 in. Her acting style is thankfully not stage-y and far more natural than her co-stars. Still, her acting is so laid back that it comes across as lazy. I'm very much surprised by her high billing given that she really does jack shit in the film. She contributes nothing to the main plot whatsoever. But I will say that onscreen Harlow is breathtaking. I was never that impressed by her in photographs and questioned her sex symbol status. Seeing her onscreen makes me understand. She does have a certain magnetism. Unluckily for her, James Cagney overshadows her and everybody else. I'm excited to watch another Cagney film due to his great performance in this film even if I find the film lacking. It's like he never stops moving even when he's just at rest looking at one of his co-stars. It keeps you anticipating what his next move will be.
    Overall, The Public Enemy rises short of mediocrity. This is Cagney's film through and through. Despite the below low ranking, I would actually watch this film again. James Cagney makes it worthwhile.

Ludovico Rating


  1. First Cagney and first Harlow!!!!! Are you kidding me?! I am shocked... shocked about this. Harlow, due to her unfortunate death, doesn't have a filmography that is very long, but each of her films (at least the ones I have seen), are fun, entertaining and sometimes, something really special.

    Cagney on the other hand made so many great films that I can't even remember them all. I absolutely love him and his movies, but the one thing that stands out the most for me is his versatility. He can go from the gangster films like this one or "White Heat" to singing and dancing in his Academy Award winning role in "Yankee Doodle Dandy", and then next thing you know he's solving war crimes in "13 Rue Morgue" or working a banana plantation in "Torrid Zone". There is no end to the possibilities when you're watching Cagney.

    I am however sorry to hear that you didn't love "The Public Enemy". I do understand what you mean about the rest of the film not holding a candle to Cagney, but I still enjoy this film quite a bit. It is not however my favorite Cagney gangster film as "The Roaring Twenties" has always stood out the most for me.

    Glad to have you back, and I was thrilled to read such a great post on a film I love. (It comes out on blu-ray in seven days, and I can't wait!)

    1. I loved looking at Harlow (she's something to behold onscreen) and her acting style seems very natural, although I don't think she served much of a point in this film. I rented Dinner At Eight so hopefully she delivers in that one.

      Yesterday, I watched White Heat. Without spoiling my future review on it, I can safely say that you've more than proven your point about Cagney. He was amazing in it. As was the film. I've now also rented One, Two, Three. Billy Wilder is my second fave director after David Lynch and his teaming up with Cagney seems promising. Let's hope!

      Yeah, I feel The Public Enemy was just a fair fare. That being said I would watch it again because it's not boring or a bad film. It's just lacking a certain spark, though Cagney makes it worthwhile. And I love the scenery, giving you such an in-depth look into the past.

      Thank you for your kind and very helpful reply. Lol, I already know who's going to purchase the blu-ray in a few days.