For this month, I’ve decided to review movies about mobsters.
There’s no specific reason for that, beyond the fact that I just happen to love mobster movies. Of course, a good gangster film is rarely just about crime. Anyone who has ever seen The Godfather can tell you that. At their best, American gangster films are about the American dream and the lengths that some will go to achieve it.
Plus, they’re just a lot of fun to watch. Some of the greatest actors of all time made their mark in gangster films.
Take 1931’s The Public Enemy, for instance.
Produced during the final days of prohibition and the early years of the Great Depression, The Public Enemy tells the story of three boys who grew up poor. Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his friend, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) pursued a life of crime, rising through the ranks of organized crime before eventually meeting a tragic end. The third, Mike Powers (Donald Cook), stayed on the straight-and-narrow path. He went into the Marines and he rebuked his brother, Tom, when he discovered that Tom’s money was due to “blood and beer.”
The film opens and closes with a title card that basically tells us that Mike Powers has the right idea but, when you watch the film, you can’t help but wonder if maybe Tom had a point about his brother being kind of a sap. Mike might be a decent citizen and he might have a chestful of medals as the result of his wartime heroics but what else does he have? Tom Powers, meanwhile, has no education and, it would appear, no conscience, no real friends, and no one that he really loves and yet he becomes a rich man who is acquainted with powerful figures. While Mike stays at home with their mother, Tom lives in an ornate penthouse. When his first girlfriend (Mae Clarke) gets on his nerves, Tom shoves a grapefruit in her face and then gets an even more glamorous girlfriend, Gwen (Jean Harlow). (Meanwhile, even dumb old Matt is doing okay for himself, marrying a woman played by Joan Blondell.) It’s hard not to imagine that the film’s original audience — who were still reeling from the Stock Market Crash of 1929 — looked at Mike and Tom Powers and quickly decided that they’d much rather be a part of Tom’s life than Mike’s. Even if Tom is destined for an early grave or a lifetime behind bars, at least he appears to be having fun. Speaking for myself, I’d much rather go out with the guy who has nice clothe and his own luxury apartment than with the self-righteous dud who is still living at home with his mother.
Of course, another reason why we gravitate towards Tom Powers is because he’s played by James Cagney, who was one of the most charismatic of the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age and whose performance still holds up today. Cagney gives a ferocious performance, snarling out his lines and always moving like a caged animal, even when he’s just preparing to have breakfast. He’s full of an energy that’s both dangerous and exciting to watch. Cagney also brings a very powerful anger to the role of Tom Powers. As played Cagney, Tom Power is not just a criminal because he’s greedy. He’s also a criminal because he has no use for a society that he feels has rejected him since birth and which has never given him a fair chance. He becomes wealthy not just because he wants money but because he wants to taunt everyone who ever said that he wouldn’t amount to anything. He’s every crime is more than act of greed. It’s also an act of rebellion, a joyful to a society that wants to tell people what they’re allowed to believe and do. He’s the ultimate 1930s rebel, giving the the finger to not only the two Hoovers (Herbert and J. Edgar) but also to the good government leftists would be soon be swept into power with FDR. Despite the fact that The Public Enemy was made nearly 90 years ago, there’s nothing creaky about Cagney’s performance. It still feels vital and powerful today and it elevates the entire film.
The Public Enemy holds up surprisingly well. The film may be close to 90 but Cagney’s ferocious performance still feels fresh and powerfully alive.