*. James Cagney. The style and the voice so quickly became a caricature. But watching him leads to a higher estimation. Perhaps not to the level of Orson Welles’s remark that he was “maybe the greatest actor to ever appear in front of a camera,” but still high.
*. Cagney is usually cited for his energy and dynamism, and that’s hard to miss. He is always in motion. I think he was perfectly cast in Max Reinhardt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream where he plays the theatre’s greatest scene-stealer, Bottom. Look at him here in his first scene paired with George Raft, the way he keeps moving his eyes. Throughout the movie he does this, whether alone, in a two shot, or in a group: fidgeting, blinking, twisting his head, rubbing his face, rubbing his hands. And even when he’s in the background, he’s the one in focus. It’s like the camera is naturally seeking him out.
*. George Raft isn’t in the same league, and yet he complements Cagney perfectly here, down to the juxtaposition of Raft’s needle nose with Cagney’s slightly flattened, almost puggish noz. Even their hairstyles seem to be dueling: both marked by dramatic central parts with swirling, antelope or demon-like horns decorating their brows.
*. This film was a big moneymaker for Warner Bros., and you can tell why. As Haden Guest points out in his commentary, it all seems to move at a relaxed pace, and yet the action is quite drastically telescoped. The various plots and schemes (and there are a lot) are executed remarkably swiftly, usually with little or no explanation.
*. Pauline Kael: “toward the end of the 30s, the Warners underworld pictures began to get hazy and high-minded, and in this one the pre-Second World War spiritual irradiation blurs the conventions of the prison genre.” Next stop: Shawshank!
*. I was surprised at just how sympathetic the portrayal of the inmates and the criminal element in general was. Yes, this was standard for a lot of prison pictures, but note the sharp contrast between the criminals and the corrupt, bought, or brutish authorities (politicians, courts, prison officials, parole board). The only way justice can be achieved is through black market means. The army even ruthlessly guns down the inmate who comes out waving a white flag!
*. There were limits, however, to what the production code — in 1939 the Breen Office, after (the far stricter) Joseph Breen took over from Will Hays — would allow. In the original story Raft had killed “Limpy” Julien and the script here had to be tweaked so that he could (rather improbably, in my opinion) deny culpability. But that’s a small concession. I’m absolutely amazed they got away with showing the cruel guard getting bale-hooked to death.
*. I love the scene where Cagney tries to justify his (phoney) ratting on Raft, offering up his honestly-held moral qualms, and the warden cuts him off with a simple “get outta here.” This suggests that the warden (a) doesn’t respect him for being a rat or, even more damning, (b) simply doesn’t care about the decency of Cagney’s motives.
*. Raft’s brilliant plan for the jailbreak is to sneak out the back while the cops are breaking down the front door? How did that not work?
*. Stacey leaves an inscribed photo to Ross that Guest describes as “a love note of sorts.” That’s so . . . romantic. It seems as though Stacey finally found himself a straight man.