It’s been an awful long time since I’ve seen an old gangster flick with James Cagney. I still find it hard to look at him without thinking of his role in Yankee Doodle Dandy which might just speak for the impact of that role rather than his role in this film. Or maybe I mean we have some classic gangster Cagney in this film, but maybe that’s just me.
The Public Enemy is one of those big influential films in the crime/gangster genre. It tells the story of career criminal Tom Powers (Cagney) from his delinquent childhood to his eventual death as an adult (not too much of a spoiler considering all these films end in the death of the gangster). As with 1932 version of Scarface, The Public Enemy tries to disguise this story of murder and bootlegging as a cautionary tale – the end card alone is ridiculous – but I guess you just did what you had to do back then to make your movies.
As films go it’s a pretty standard early 1930s gangster flick. Compared to a lot of films nowadays the overall acting is pretty average. James Cagney is the ultimate standout and Jean Harlow is the ultimate disappointment (for someone so iconic in 1930s cinema she really isn’t the best actress). The rest of the cast range from passable to good with a few just dipping into amateur. On the whole, this was actually quite a distraction and stifled some of the enjoyment that I got from this film.
Now, there are two scenes that I want to highlight because they show quite an interesting comparison into what was deemed acceptable and not acceptable at the time. The first is the famous scene where Cagney’s Tom shoves a grapefruit half into the face of his girlfriend. I was geared up to see something more violent, but the connotation that this could be one of many acts of abuse is enough to make you feel uncomfortable. Especially when you consider how much it would hurt to have grapefruit juice squeezed into your eyes.
The other scene is one towards the end of the film. Due to gangland incidents, Tom and the rest of the gang are hauled up in a safehouse until the heat dies down. The woman who runs the place (a fairly poorly acted character called Jane) essentially takes advantage of Tom who, even in his drunken state, says no to her advances. It’s clear by the next morning that she was able to get her way and, thanks to his inebriation, he has no memory of what transpired. Nothing in that scene was seen as controversial when it aired and probably isn’t seen that way now… but I think I stood on that soapbox when I saw The Wedding Banquet so I’ll step off now.
On the whole it’s an interesting film to see just where gangster films started to evolve. If you are able to come in realising that this is a film from 1931, with all the baggage that entails, then it’s a good way to spend 83 minutes.