Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Public Enemy (1931)

Despite what you’ve heard from four or five four generations of nightclub comics and impressionists, James Cagney always insisted that he never really said “You dirty rat!” in any of his movies. Not even in William Wellman’s The Public Enemy, where such verbal belligerence typified his portrayal of Tom Powers, a cocky and crafty bootlegger whose unbound id, hair-trigger temper and insatiable appetites have enduringly defined the character as a prototype for cinema’s most memorably monstrous gangsters.

On the other hand, Cagney most certainly did shove a grapefruit into the face of co-star Mae Clark during a key moment of Wellman’s 1931 classic. Decades after the movie’s first release, this celebrated scene remains shocking in the sheer casualness of its brutality. Cagney’s bantamweight thug tires of nonstop nagging by his increasingly annoying girlfriend during breakfast, so he simply grabs the first object at hand to silence her yapping. It’s not merely a spontaneous gesture, it’s a wielding of absolute power -- he does it because, dammit, he’s entitled to do it. You won’t find a scarier example of nonchalant sociopathy this side of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), wherein Joe Pesci’s demented Mafioso matter-of-factly shoots a troublesome waiter, then kills the poor guy for complaining.

Cagney didn’t merely become a star, he established himself as an icon in The Public Enemy. With showboating displays of mannerisms that would forever define his on-screen persona -- the frightfully ambiguous smile, the insolent curl of his lip, the staccato delivery of dialogue, the chronic hitching of his pants with clenched fists – he gives a performance at once theatrically stylized and persuasively naturalistic. And if that sounds contradictory, well, that’s also part of his magic. As actor Malcolm McDowell, a Cagney admirer, perceptively noted, “The point is that you believed him – and he was real, but not realistic. They’re different worlds altogether.”

Cagney was the right man in the right role at the right time. During Wellman’s must-see movie, his Tom Powers traverses an arc that begins with increasingly violent juvenile delinquency – he’s betrayed by a Fagin-like crime boss, Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell), who later pays dearly for his treachery -- and reaches an apogee with his spectacular success as a mid-level mobster. Along with Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), a childhood friend and long-time partner in crime, Tom makes his mark as sales representative for a bootlegger with unforgiving rules regarding product placement. Tom enjoys fast women (including a sexy young Jean Harlow) and big money, much to the mounting concern of his saintly mother (Beryl Mercer) and Mike (Donald Cook), his honest brother.

Much of the violence in The Public Enemy – including the shooting of the traitorous Putty Nose, and the vengeance killing of a horse that may have inspired similar animal cruelty in The Godfather (1972) – occurs off-camera. (Steven Soderbergh makes a specific visual allusion to the film’s violent climax – Tom goes into a rival gangster’s den and, while the camera remains discreetly outside, wreaks bloody havoc – in his own 1999 drama, The Limey.) But there’s never any attempt to soft-pedal the unadulterated joy Tom takes in dishing out rough stuff. When Mike dares to complain about Tom’s murderous business methods, Tom sneers at his sibling, a decorated WWI vet, and sarcastically snaps: “You didn’t get those medals for holding hands with the Germans!”

In the end, of course, crime can’t pay and the criminal must die: The final scene has Tom deposited as a bandage-wrapped corpse on his poor mother’s doorstep. But that grisly quietus does relatively little to dim the attractive glow of earlier scenes that tend to glamorize strutting outlawry and conspicuous consumption. Those elements were potently symbolic, and politically charged, in an era before the Production Code curtailed violence and other antisocial behavior in movies. Many Depression Era audiences, enduring unemployment and deprivation in the wake of the stock market crash, dreamed of revenge against a system that had failed them. As a result, gangsters of the sort essayed by Cagney, Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar, 1930), Paul Muni (Scarface, 1932) and Humphrey Bogart (The Petrified Forest, 1936) frequently were greeted as fantasy fulfillments.

Even now, Tom Powers’ nose-thumbing disregard for convention (to say nothing of his lack of impulse control) is echoed in the protagonists of contemporary crime stories – Casino, The Sopranos, etc. – and gangsta-rapper music videos. Robert Warshaw insightfully illuminated the phenomenon in The Gangster as Tragic Hero, his seminal 1949 essay, when he noted that a character such as Cagney’s natural-born killer “appeals to that side of all of us which refuses to believe in the ‘normal’ possibilities of happiness and achievement; the gangster is the ‘no’ to the great American ‘yes’ which is stamped so big over our official culture and yet has so little to do with the way we really feel about our lives… And the story of his career is a nightmare inversion of the values of ambition and opportunity.”

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