Daily Archives: December 7, 2015

The Public Enemy (1931)


*. A lot of genres can be traced back to a great original, or ur-film, that might not have been the first but set a standard that would go on to be endlessly imitated (and eventually satirized). For Westerns you might think of Stagecoach. For gangster films there were three such originals, all coming out in 1931 and 1932: Scarface, Little Caesar, and The Public Enemy.
*. As an aside, during these same years the great originals of Hollywood horror films were also coming out: Dracula, Frankenstein, and King Kong. Was it the revolution brought on by sound that so opened things up? Or something else?
*. There’s so much material here that would turn up again (and again). The young hoods who grow into the big time, eventually taking over the operation. The scene where the bad guy uses a gun at the gun store against the owner. The man running away who is shot in the back and clutches on to a lamppost before falling to the ground. And looking at Mike scowling at the dinner table with his slicked back hair and uniform, how can you not think of Pacino’s Michael Corleone coming home from a later war?


*. Yes, originally Edward Woods was cast as Tom Powers and Cagney as Matt Doyle. When they switched parts it didn’t filter down to the casting of Tom and Mike as boys. The young Mike looks much more like a young Cagney, and the young Tom like a young Woods. So much so that I was confused. Robert Sklar helpfully explains on his DVD commentary that when they switched the leads they didn’t switch the parts the kids played.
*. Did they have escalators in 1909? Apparently yes. They were first developed commercially in the 1890s. You see: you can learn things from movies. I’m told they were first seen on film in Charlie Chaplin’s The Floorwalker (1916), and the little tramp returned to them in Modern Times (1936). However, on the commentary track for that film’s Criterion release by David Robinson we are informed that escalators didn’t come into commercial use until after 1911, when the Otis Company bought the patent. So the one we see here may be a slight anachronism.
*. Why are Tom and Matt so pissed off at Putty Nose? They’re the ones who screw up the fur store robbery by shooting at a stuffed bear. So Putty Nose decides to lay low for a while, and advises them to do the same. For that the two hoods think he’s a “dirty, no-good, yellow-bellied stool” and hold a grudge that leads them to murder him years later? I mean Matt does suggest that he also blames Putty Nose for putting him on the wrong track in life, but Tommy immediately treats that as a joke so I think we have to dismiss it.
*. What’s really going on? I think John Anderson gets it right in his description of the “Faginesque, sexually suspect Putty Nose.” Such a nice man helping out all those poor neighbourhood boys in his clubhouse. Now look again at how much Tom despises the gay tailor.


*. There are a lot of nice physical touches, as you’d expect from Cagney even this early in his career. Like his dance step after taking Jean Harlow for a ride. But the one I like best is where Tom and Matt both go up on tiptoes to look into Larry’s coffin.
*. Cagney just can’t stay still. Notice how his leg keeps moving under the sheets in that final scene when he’s in the hospital bed. Always fidgeting, even when he’s laid up.
*. You could call it scene stealing, but he had a way of taking over the screen. Was he the first screen psychopath with real charisma? There’s another gangster convention born. We don’t warm to Muni’s Scarface (too ethnic) or Robinson’s Rico (too grotesque) as much as we’re charmed by Cagney’s Tom.
*. Leslie Fenton, however, playing the dapper Nails Nathan holds his own pretty well. The way he flashes his teeth while chewing something with an open mouth is frightening. In fact those teeth are frightening no matter what they’re doing.
*. I don’t think much of Harlow’s performance here, but she does give off a pretty thick carnal vibe.


*. The family dynamics are odd. Mike has a thing for uniforms that he may have got from their authoritarian father. And he even outdoes his old man: being a streetcar conductor isn’t too impressive, but joining the Marines is. Then when he comes home as a semi-invalid (shell shock?) he naturally adopts the role of head of the family. When he punches Tom (twice), Tom doesn’t punch back. But Mike’s also a wimp, who thinks it’s better to hide behind his mother’s skirts than behind a machine gun.


*. Meanwhile, Tom is the baby, being doted on by his mama (as well as several other women in the film). I guess, psychologically, it’s one of those things where neither son could live up to their father’s domineering presence. But for Cagney it’s a role that he would often fall into, and take to an extreme in White Heat.
*. That stage furniture really falls apart well in a fight, doesn’t it? The chair Cagney lands on immediately crumbles to pieces. How could anyone have ever sat in it?
*. I’m not sure about that awkward low-angle shot of Paddy driving the car out of the garage. You can see the edge of where the pit has been dug to put the camera in. Aside from that, it looks good but I don’t know what the point is. Just a flashy camera trick?
*. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what the point of Paddy taking all of his gang’s guns and money away with him is either.
*. We do love gangsters. The foreword and afterword claiming some sort of educative or public service function for portraying such dangerous characters is, and I think was, a joke. This movie isn’t a lesson in civic morality. Cagney is both a mug and a hero. Contemporary audiences laughed and thrilled to his violent antics.


*. The final shot of the record needle coming to the end of its groove is wonderful, and seems rather ahead of its time for its sophistication. That bit of wit actually helps lighten what is an otherwise very depressing conclusion.
*. The only problem I have with the emphatic image of Cagney trussed up like a mummy on the doorstep is that he doesn’t look dead. I mean, clearly he’s supposed to be dead (his brother treats him as dead anyway), but his eyes are open. And the way he falls he’s clearly trying to avoid doing a face plant. Are we meant to ask “Could this be the end . . . of Tom?”