Nobody fit the Pre-Code era like James Cagney. With his handsome yet smushed face (like a dapper Cro-Magnon), Cagney captured the glamor and grime of the five-year period of big, bloody pictures like no one else. I'm mesmerized by Cagney, that compact face he always shrinks and contorts further into pure rage. Or the way he speaks lines with force and volume but always brings his victim up close for a lashing, a shotgun blast of verbal rage instead of a precise rifle shot. Some people, even admirers, say he was an overactor. I disagree; his acting is huge,but he knows exactly where to channel it at all times. I've yet to see Cagney get away from himself.
I've only seen a few Cagney pictures, but The Public Enemy shows off so much of his skill I feel as if I've tracked down every film in his corpus. One of the finest of all gangster pictures, The Public Enemy looks forward to Hays Code impositions of moral reckoning even as it subverts them. It offers up an utterly repulsive figure who is also strangely, inexplicably attractive and charming, as well as study of how crime is sometimes the only way for some to ever carve out a comfortable living. And even when the film suggests that, yes, crime doesn't pay, it does so in such a way that eschews any morally superior sermonizing.
William Wellman follows Tom Powers (Cagney) from a childhood of petty crime through a bootlegging adulthood. As a kid, Tom is already disrespectful and criminal, hardened by his poor upbringing and the financial hardships that come with it. The physical ones, too; when his father grabs the belt to beat his son, Tom defiantly asks, "How do ya want 'em this time, up or down?" referring to his pants. As a teenager, Tom's larceny has upgraded to bank robbery for local crime boss Paddy Ryan, a job he bungles, leading to the death of a friend and the murder of a police officer. When Paddy refuses to take the boys in for incurring the wrath of the cops, we see Cagney's rage for the first time, powerful but unfocused by youth.
Cagney perfectly paces his performance: that fleck of rage in his teen years gives a glimpse of his fury, but Tom checks it because he has enough composure to understand the repercussions of unchecked anger. But as he grows up to work the lucrative bootlegging game, that sense dissipates. Cagney blows through speakeasies like a whirlwind, seducing women who are more than willing even when he's already got a moll or two on the side. When he finds out bar owners aren't selling Paddy's beer, he threatens violence even though he knows these poor guys clearly already got threats from rival gangs.
Eventually, that rage follows him home in his dealings with both friends and lovers. The infamous grapefruit scene between Tom and his main squeeze, played by Mae Clarke. Put upon by Tom's anger issues and infidelity, Clarke finally snaps at him, and the look that passes Cagney's rat face in an instant is terrifying. The idea of someone getting a grapefruit shoved in her face is, on paper, so ludicrous it's funny, yet the uncontrollable wrath that momentarily warps Cagney into a German Expressionist silent villain saps all any humor from the scene, which is so draining in a flash it's tempting to cry with the poor woman.
Elsewhere, Tom comes into conflict with his brother, Mike (Donald Cook), who grew up a decent man following the straight-and-narrow path and has nothing to show for it, even before the Depression hits. The roar of the Roaring Twenties obscures the time period in our minds, making it seem a time of prosperity and parties, yet class disparity was massive. Mike, the shellshocked WWI veteran who works hard, gets only scraps for his work, while Tom stops in pompously to give blood money to his mother, the only person he respects. The commentary is clear: the only way the average Joe got ahead during the time was through seedy elements, while good, hardworking people got screwed.
Aesthetically stiff—it has all the hallmarks of early sound cinema and the inhibited soundproof camera—The Public Enemy makes up for its basic visual construction with a madcap world of overripe characters. Cagney is playing for the rafters, but he does not eclipse everyone; Mia Marvin, in the first of only three performances (all uncredited) plays an "older" woman (she wasn't even 30) who seduces, possibly even rapes, a drunken, incoherent Tom. Jean Harlow appears as a leggy blonde who captures Cagney's attention when he grows bored of Clarke, and neither her youth (she was only 19 at the time) nor the underwritten role she plays stop Harlow from announcing herself as a true presence. This is the film that catapulted Cagney, but Harlow makes a case for her own breakout; she'd be dead in six years, but she still managed to leave behind a sizable filmography.
Yet the aspect of the film I love most is the ending, which perverts the crime doesn't pay retribution to come. Instead of the police cracking down on the crime, a gang war springs up for dominion of the area. Later scenes crackle at the edges with paranoia, with sound used cleverly to make Tom and his lifelong friend Matt (Edward Woods) duck for cover, believing any rapid, mechanical noise to be gunfire. But at last that paranoia is proved justifiable, and an enraged Tom goes to get his revenge. His inevitable death is ingeniously shot, mostly elided yet occasionally graphic. Tom is denied an action-packed, Romantic death, instead silently kidnapped off-screen after killing a rival and dumped at the feet of the brother who was finally ready to forgive him. This isn't a matter of delayed justice finally acting on Tom; it's merely a visualization of the unstoppable cycle of violence in the criminal world, everyone always avenging someone else. It's like war in that respect, which is perhaps why Mike ultimately comes to understand his brother, only far, far too late.