The Public Enemy is perhaps the best of the early gangster films. James Cagney is an eerie combination of sexy, likeable, charismatic, & sociopathic. A jaunty soundtrack is curiously effective because of Cagney's physically antic postures & body language. He has an almost dandified streak & it is this which the soundtrack illuminates, instead of telegraphing the film's cruelty & violence as do most soundtracks.
The idea that someone could be this bad a human being, & yet this charming, struck me as entirely realistic. It makes the fate of the sociopath all the more powerful, since some part of a viewer cannot help but wish this gangster's human potential could somehow find better expression. And it's certainly understandable how family & friends could like him so much despite those aspect of his personality that are intensely heartless, vain, & cruel.That he remains determinately villainous to the bitter end is shocking & horrific even after all these decades when violence in cinema has become so much more graphic than in an old film.
The film seems a lot more violent than is ever shown. In a typical scene, when our antihero is about to assassinate an old nemisis, the camera pans away from the murder & we merely hear the gunshot. It's simply amazing how powerful this film remains without recourse to gore. By use of light & sound, every scene of violence is somehow heightened by inspiring the imagination.
There's a realism to Cagney's acting that some critics have suggested was not seen in the cinema until Brando. But if Cagney had been of a later generation of actors, he would not have had to have changed or ammended his acting style to be modern.
Cagney is so powerful a presence that many other great performances drop to the background by comparison. He simply dominates the screne. But it's a good film for women's roles too, Joan Blondell & Jean Harlow being especially good. Public Enemy was faulted in its day for glamorizing gangsters of the Prohibition era, but it struck me as much more of a morality tale of how crime only seems to pay, & there is ultimately only loss & sadness at the end of that trail. What censorious critics mistook as romanticism was a veneer or realism quite the opposite from the expected Hollywood simplifications.
Public Enemy is the film with the famed scene of the grapefruit mushed in his girlfriend's face. Time has made Cagney iconic as a film gangster, & it is this film that both instigated & defined cinema's nihilistic antiheros & Cagney's lasting reputation. Only in White Heat did he exceed Public Enemy in abject nihilism.
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