Golden Age Oldies: The Public Enemy

publAnother short-time series that is more or less the utilitarian progeny of me needing to review more old films. Over the next couple of weeks, a review (or two half-reviews) for each year between 1920-1935. Because I’m me, don’t expect a chronological order. Things will be more impulsive. 

As with most James Cagney films – and perhaps more than any other American actor, a film invaded by Cagney is a James Cagney film first and foremost – the brutish boy of a man is the animal magnetism of The Public Enemy. Never an American leading man has been so willing to investigate and center his despicable, impossible, man-child tendencies as Cagney was. Never has an actor been so willing to just decimate his characters’ egos with a vile, vituperative perniciousness that, while commanding the camera, makes you palpably run in the other direction when his squat, thuggish 5 foot 5 inch frame wanders into your world. His role here as small-time-turned-big-time gangster Tom Powers was career-making, a fact that is both undeniable – it is a mesmeric performance – and shocking – it’s so abrasively pathetic that Cagney doesn’t even let us feel angry at the man so much as sorry for him. He’s a fiendish belligerent swirling around in a system with blithe ignorance as to his complicity with that which he rebels against.

Of course, there is a film around Cagney, even if he feels like the cathartic, volcanic galvanizing principle of the filmmaking. Rather programmatically following Powers and his childhood best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) along their rise and, ultimately punishing fall, the semi-regurgitated nature of the narrative structure is saved not only by William A. Wellman’s punchy if not adventurous direction but the fiery slivers of black comedy pin-pricking the story all around. There’s a devilish moment where the two boys, hearing that a friend was killed after falling off his horse, decide to make the horse sleep with the fishes by setting it on a date with a lead bullet; it’s censuring, near-absurdist quasi-surrealism feels like a satire of then then-nascent gangster genre (which didn’t really exist at the time, admittedly, so it probably wasn’t intentional). As a suggestion of how foolishly retaliatory and unthinkingly reactionary the men are, it bruises them most foul.

Other evidence suggests a near mockery of Powers, with the film pointedly nullifying any potential character arc for a guy who wouldn’t know the meaning of the word grow if it hit him in the face. As an astringent slug to the face of outsider masculinity butting heads with a system it ultimately fails to escape from, The Public Enemy sabotages the very idea that this individualist, against-the-system macho-posturing is anything more than a slight bending of the very system to begin with. If The Public Enemy is slightly compromised in pursuing this theme, it is only because it admires relentless efficiency above all.

An efficiency filtered through Wellman’s semi-minimalist direction that notably refuses to glamorize or orchestrate the lives of these two men, making The Public Enemy one of the few gangster flicks in any era that rescinds the obvious offer to implicitly lionize the gangsters for their braggadocio even when those very films try not to absolve the gangsters of their sins. The lack of baroque imagery successfully thaws the film out until we’re left with nothing but the pitiful day-to-day business of a life these men take to be a gift or a right, but is in reality just another way to pass the time. That the film isn’t really exciting, rather than a decrement, is actually something of a boon to its realization of gangster life not as tragedy or hysteria – both would be too grand for its vision – but as petty, small-scale, workaday nothingness.

Not that the film doesn’t accentuate its rhythms a little, especially in the wonderfully undisciplined breakdown of the conclusion, where an assaultive, volatile Cagney walks into the camera, violating it – and us – with a carnal, animalistic singular focus that was bracing in its day and no less disarming now. The Public Enemy isn’t as good as Howard Hawks’ Scarface from next year, lacking that director’s carpenter-like zen for utilitarian, rather than grandiose, craft, nor does it master the torrid cracks of Cagney’s simultaneously withered and youthful skin with the vigor of Angels with Dirty Faces or White Heat (to say nothing of the much different Yankee Doodle Dandy). But it’s got spunk and a plucky directness that is inimitably appealing, conscripting the compact, mean form of Cagney’s body for its structural form as a narrative; even the famous grapefruit in the face scene is scorching for how sudden, swift, and malevolently unaccentuated it is. Like most of the film, it isn’t there, then it happens, and then before it fully registers, it’s gone.

Score: 9/10

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