William Wellman's "Public Enemy" is a tour-de-force performance by James Cagney, wrapped within some elegant direction and supported by a simple but effective screenplay.
First, Mr. Cagney is clearly lightyears ahead of everyone else on the screen in terms of acting style, technique and ability. The quote I use in the title of my review comes from Mr. Scorsese, who screened this film prior to beginning "The Aviator" for several members of the cast and crew. One young actor noted that it appeared that modern screen acting began with Cagney's performance, and that actor could not have been more correct. It's almost obvious in retrospect.
Second, Wellman's direction I didn't notice at first, until viewing the documentary after the film. Then I realized how artful and creative it was, especially considering it was made in 1931. His in-frame composition is eye-catching. The manner in which he consistently shows the most violent events just out of frame, or just out of sight of the viewer, adds tremendously to the gravity and drama of each event. Things like the music...here's an extraordinarily clever use of source music...the soundtrack comes from things ON the screen. A piano player, a radio, a 78 RPM disc...again, I didn't pick up on this until I saw the documentary.
Let me get to that documentary right now. Warner's makes awesome discs, and the care they've put into these Gangster Classics is to be lauded. The "Night At The Movies" is no gimmick. Putting trailers, shorts, cartoons and newsreels before the film doesn't merely re-create the environment of a movie theater back then. The elements are selected to provide context for the film you are about to see. They make the movie better.
Then, the short documentary included here is a model of how these should be done. This is a perfect 20 minute class on "Public Enemy." Concise and thorough, with everything you need to know, along with things you never even considered. For more insight and depth, an audio commentary is provided, but all you need to know to fully appreciate this film is in that amazing 20 minutes.
I agree with Mr. Scorsese that this film appeals to younger viewers (high school/college) as well as cineastes. Cagney is alive in the way few actors EVER are on screen.
This film (heck, the whole BOX of 'em) belongs in every single DVD collection.
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