The Essentials- #16
The Public Enemy (1931)
A funny thing happened on the way home from work today.
I have about a 40 minute commute everyday to work, so there is plenty of time everyday in the car. While on the way home today, Kelly calls me and says I have a package waiting for me at our lease office. I knew exactly what it was going to be. My copy of Ultimate Gangster Collection: Classics on blu-ray, a great gangster collection which features "Little Ceasar," "White Heat," "The Petrified Forest" and "The Public Enemy." These were some of the very first examples of gangsters on film, and sure enough when I got home I could hardly wait to get started.
When I think of gangsters, I normally don't of men with backwards hats, tattoos wearing pants down to their butts. I think of calm individuals who wore big suits and hats. There have been several times in my life where I have been fascinated by the culture of the American gangster. As Europeans immigrated to this country in droves during the early 1900's, many of them were criminal schemers running away from political turmoil. They are fascinating individuals and what they got away with is almost incredible.
When you sit down to watch "The Public Enemy," its pretty clear movies like "Scarface" and "Goodfellas" borrowed from it, as well as other movies from "The Public Enemy"'s era. Martin Scorsese once said that the best gangster films play out similar to "the rise and fall of a King." and "The Public Enemy" definitely lives up to that. It tells the story of Tom Powers (James Cagney) and his lifelong best friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) rise to crime. From adolescents to adulthood, Powers and Doyle move up the underworld ladder, from selling loot from theft, to bootlegging for "Putty Nose" (Murray Kinnell). They quickly rise to money and power. It seems like a familiar story after all the crime films that have been made of the years but this is a rare example of how the gangster genre kicked off. What holds the movie together well is the relationship with Tom and his older brother Mike Powers (Tom Cook). Mike is a military guy who becomes very critical of Tom's decent into crime. So much so that they have bad fist fights with each other. How the relationship changes over the course of the film is the icing on the cake.
What makes this movie run with a pulse is James Cagney as Tom Powers. Cagney was one of the most incredible actors of his time and he really proves it here. You will see many parallels to Cagney and Joe Pesci's character in "Goodfellas," as Tom Powers is a crazy lunatic gangster. Cagney makes everything feel very real and he truly is the prime reason to check this movie out. The rest of cast does well, but nobody comes close to touching Cagney.
This movie will also make movie buffs nostalgic as the 1930s were an interesting time for film. Some of the dialogue is a little on the corny side, and deaths don't look nearly as realistic as they do now. But for the time these movies were created, its a lot of fun to watch. One thing that really struck me was the title card telling us that they aren't glorifying the characters we see, just telling a true story. It is crazy to think that when "The Public Enemy" was released, it was common that a famous gangster was sitting in the audience with everyone else. That gangsters and bank robbers were in their golden age when this movie came out. Historical significance is splashed on this picture, and it makes the experience just as cool.
I hope you'll find fun in watching these classics of yesteryear. If you love gangsters, check out this collection right away!