Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell
Director: William A Wellman
Tom Powers (Cagney) learns at a young age that to get ahead you have to be a criminal. He starts out in petty crime, and eventually works his way up to the top of organised crime. When things start to fall apart though, his brother and mother beg him to go straight, but is it too late?
Gangster films got their start in the 30’s and Public Enemy is one of the finest. The 30’s was an era of the Great Depression and also criminals like Bonnie and Clyde, who struck out at the rich and a society which didn’t reward the honest and hard working average Joe. People wanted stories about these criminals and studios were happy to supply them. This desire for and popularity of crime films, or gangster films, worried some moralists, because films could show anything, ratings did not exist. This lead to the creation of the Production Code in 1930, which set out what could and could not be shown on film. The Production Code would state that films could not show that it paid to be a criminal. The bad guy could not win. But that didn’t mean that you couldn’t tell a damn good story and have a delightfully bad, morally ambiguous criminal at the heart of your story.
It’s a little dated now and the ending feels a little moralistic, but James Cagney blazes as Tom Powers. He’s not always sympathetic, (shoving a grapefruit in your girlfriend’s face is never a classy thing to do), but when he’s on screen you don’t want to look away. He can’t be held down by anything, and yet there is some humanity left there, as seen in his relationship with his family. And that weakness is always what brings down gangsters in these films, one day they go too far.
Films like The Godfather (1972) and Scarface (1983) would be made in an era when the Production Code had only recently been scrapped, look back to this film, and take it to new places, but there always remains the sense that crime pays, but it also exacts a terrible price, and every crime kingpin has a weakness that will be his downfall. But James Cagney as Powers went there first, and lit up the screen.
See It If: you love gangster films, because you’ll see where a lot of the cornerstones of the genre began. Also for Cagney’s performance and supporting cast like Jean Harlow. Crime classic.