Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Public Enemy

The Public Enemy (Warner Brothers, 1931) Directed by William A. Wellman

Starring James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke.

The movie is based on a story called Beer and Blood, by John Bright and Kubec Glasmon, two native Chicagoans, who knew the city of gangsters as well as anyone, and many of the scenes in the movie are based on actual gangland killings.

James Cagney plays Tom Powers, who, along with his childhood pal, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), is a young petty thief, who grows up to be a rum-running hoodlum during Prohibition. Woods, a rather genteel actor, was originally cast as the lead, but director William Wellman quickly realised he was outshone by Cagney, and went to Warners Bros. studio boss Darryl Zanuck to ask for the actors' roles to be reversed. (This was doubly tricky, as Woods was engaged to the daughter of powerful and famously bitchy Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons). But Wellman got his way and, after supporting roles in four earlier and mostly undistinguished feature films, The Public Enemy made Cagney a star.

Cagney's portrayal of Tom Powers was revolutionary in modern cinema; he's amoral, callous and only shows real affection to his rather clinging and cloying mother (played by Beryl Mercer). Film critic Dwight Macdonald, writing in Esquire, said: "Tom Powers is a human wolf, with the heartlessness and grace and innocence of an animal, as incapable of hypocrisy as of feeling; the smiling unreflective delight with which he commits mayhem makes Humphrey Bogart look like a conscience-stricken Hamlet." Macdonald also notes how director William Wellman "uses Cagney with subtlety, keeping him in the background much of the time while secondary characters occupy the foreground...So it is all the more powerful when Cagney moves up into the foreground at the big moments; our taste for this extraordinary actor has not been blunted by seeing too much of him."

In an interview, Cagney revealed that his characterisation of Tom Powers was partly based on an old pal of his father's, called Jack "Dirty Neck" Lafferty (great name!), a criminal who ended up in Sing Sing. But Cagney added: "I played Tom as a kind of tribute to Jack, but without his sense of humour. (My italics) No time to do that." Playwright Robert Sherwood said that part of Cagney's achievement in The Public Enemy was to play Tom Powers as "a complete rat," but still manage to somehow elicit sympathy from the audience.

The Public Enemy is still mostly remembered for a brief scene, when Cagney pushes a grapefruit into the face of actress Mae Clarke. This was based on a real life episode, when Chicago gangster Hymie Weiss rubbed an omelette in his moll's face. Since an omelette would have proved too runny, director Wellman chose half a grapefuit, creating a scene which was both very funny and highly shocking for cinemagoers of the time.

Look out for little physical touches by Cagney (or what he called "goodies"); the way he pushes his cap forward on his head, to denote assertiveness; the shortarm jab or soft punch he uses throughout the movie (which even his mother copies); or the almost balletic dance he executes on the sidewalk after flirting with Jean Harlow during a short car ride. An accomplished dancer, Cagney uses his whole body throughout the movie, making his co-stars look rather wooden in contrast. (Harlow, in particular, is very stagey. Look out for her very stilted vocal performance as she reclines on a sofa, while Cagney comes on like a tortured NY street punk).

Commenting on Cagney's performance, director Martin Scorsese said: "He lets it go. He doesn't care - he gives himself to the camera. He's almost like a psychopath." Scorsese also believes that Cagney's performance marks the moment where "modern screen acting begins." But Scorsese also notes how most of the violence happens offscreen, somehow making it more shocking. This includes the execution of Putty Face, Tom Powers' old criminal mentor, or the scene where a mad-eyed Cagney shoots the gangsters who have murdered his friend Matt Doyle (and we hear the groans of the dying as the wounded Cagney staggers into the street, like a cowboy, his two guns still smoking).


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