21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
James Cagney at his ultimate,
This review is from: Public Enemy [VHS] (VHS Tape)
James Cagney reached the pinnacle of acting success in this 1931 pre-Code gangster thriller.
As Tom Powers, Cagney comes off as pugnacious, cocky, sexy and must be billed as one of the most misogynistic characters ever. (I'm female, and I still find his squashing of the grapefruit in Mae Clarke's surprised maw a riot.) With a certain comedic flair, as a bad guy who thinks he is good, Cagney is endearing as one one of the first and best of Hollywood's bad boys.
Reviewers, however, focus too much on what is now classically referred to as "the grapefruit episode." Instead, "Public Enemy" has to be watched for what I call "The Death of Putty Nose" episode where Tom murders Putty, a bad guy who had done him wrong. Putty begs for reprieve, then tries to endear Tom to him by serenading him at the piano with a song from Tom's childhood. Putty Nose nervously looks back at Cagney standing behind him, who smiles beatifically upon him in response. When Putty turns back to his playing, Cag shoots him in the back, in mid verse. The Cagney character then strides out, never looking back, and reminds his gangster pal that "I guess I'll call Gwen," his gal. He has no sense of remorse or conscience. It is hilarious because Cag is so baaad, and it is chilling because of his ferocity. Importantly, you never see the shooting take place. It happens off camera, which is even for evocative. I am one who believes that far too much gratuitous violence, swearing and nudity takes place on screen. Cagney didn't need it; he was more than effective without it -- even if it had been allowed in 1931.
The filming is curious and innovative, with Cagney being in the background in several chilling scenes, allowing the secondary characters to develop, which is a sure sign of a great flick.
Public Enemy is one of the first pre-Code gangster films, where crime did pay, but Warner Brothers shows 3 disclaimers trying to dissuade anyone from thinking this film is anything but a public service contribution against the evils of crime. Pshaw -- you can't help but watch this film and root for Cagney as the beloved villain. I saw this movie when I was 12 and developed an immediate fixation on this actor and his character. I laughed and cheered and thought Cagney was totally cool, and I cried at the end. Warner Brothers knew exactly what it was doing, and it had nothing to do with public service. In fact Public Enemy was among the first films to usher in the gangster movie craze.
See this film over and over. It'll become an immediate favorite.