The Public Enemy (1931)

William A. Wellman directs James Cagney, Jean Harlow and Edward Woods in this pre-code gangster film charting the rise and fall of a bootlegger from street tough to gang war.

An early gangster film. The pace and purpose of the genre hasn’t been established yet. There are times when this rushes through plot and other times when it idles over hand wringing that slows the action down. The violence is spectacular though… there’s a sequence when a marksman shoots a Gatling gun towards the wall our stars are dangerously near to… for actual reals FFS!… Cagney is so unpredictable here as Tom Powers. A force of nature and a loon. Captivating. Some of the other acting carries the hangovers of silent era. Lots of face twitching, wide eyed reactions and gloopy movements. Cagney’s masculine, simmering, star making turn is something else. A message in a bottle from a shifting era in Hollywood. New stars were being formed, new acting styles became bold and purposeful, internal yet defined by action, unadorned by unsubtle emotional gurning. Cagney was the forerunner of this next generation of star. Though the material isn’t complex, he imbued a hyper humanity into his greedy maniacs that carried over into The Method of Brando, Pacino and Caan.


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