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Warner Home Video presents
"I ain't so tough."
DVD ReviewIn some respects it's not surprising that one of the great genres in the early days of talking pictures was gangster moviesŃthe best ones share an operatic quality that was endemic to silent pictures, and stories of young toughs and street hoods were exactly right for a new entertainment medium that was considered almost shamefully downscale at its inception, an industry driven to a great extent not by the movies themselves, but by air conditioning and popcorn. Still, though, it's kind of shocking at how well The Public Enemy retains its crude and relentless energy. It was directed by William Wellman, who helmed Wings, winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture; his work here isn't nearly as lyrical, but is even more effective, in its staccato, pulpy style. And Wellman is blessed with a miracle of casting, for in many respects this movie was the coming-out party for the best movie gangster ever.
That would of course be James Cagney, who plays Tom Powers, the civic scourge of the movie's title. The story follows Tom from his boyhood on the mean streets of Chicago, through his boyhood on the wrong side of the streets, to the years of the Great War and then to those of Prohibition, an unintentional bounty to the forces of organized crime. (Among other things, the movie is a useful gloss through the history of the first two or three decades of the last century.) There's no real central tension to the story, no one big heist, no rival gang that needs to be done in; rather, the movie is more of a series of blackout sketches, all of which contribute to the portrait of him as a character to be avoided, but one to whom we're irresistibly drawn. It's the lure of all gangster movies, really, the power of watching others transgress—we get to sit and watch them do the bad things that we can barely even imagine doing.
Made a scant four years after The Jazz Singer, The Public Enemy sometimes feels almost nineteenth century in its storytelling style: it opens with a dramatis personae and a scroll (in which I spotted two grammatical errors), warning us about the societal ills made manifest by those on the wrong side of the law. Once that's been taken care of, we can have some fun with Tom and his exploits. Much of the violence of the movie is off screen, which in some ways makes it even worse; it's a variation on Roger Corman's old line about the scariest shot in movies being a dolly in on a closed door. But what we do see is almost balletic in its choreography; what the movie lacks in an overall unifying story it more than makes up for with startling visual and aural style. Some of the images are just tremendous: in a heist that would make Henry Hill proud, Tom and his henchmen pirate a gasoline tanker, break into a distillery, and siphon off barrels of liquor into the truck's cavity. Story points are made visually as well: Tom's brother Michael, on the straight and narrow, serves in World War I, and comes home shell shocked; his delicate constitution aside, he's appalled by his brother's new line of work as a bootlegger. Wellman makes the point by having Tom hoist a huge barrel of beer onto the dining table during Michael's welcome home dinner; everybody has to talk and crane their necks around the keg, the contraband that Tom has forced into their home.
The Public Enemy is also notable for including the most famous piece of citrus in film history—in many ways Tom's most upsetting act of violence is when he gets ticked off at his girlfriend, Kitty (Mae Clarke), and smashes half a serrated breakfast grapefruit into her face. It also gets at Tom's problems with women, made abundantly clear in his relationship with Gwen; played by Jean Harlow, she's the archetypical gun moll. Wellman uses sound as well as he uses pictures, too; when Tom settles an old score with a sometime piano player, for instance, the camera isn't on the victim: rather, we hear the shots, and then the cacophony of the corpse flopping onto the keyboard. The use of music is keenly done throughout the picture, as well; what's especially notable is that there's no scoring, and that everything here is source music—gramophones, speakeasy bands, saloon piano players. The movie opens with a fierce and violent rendition of the otherwise innocuous I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles, and throughout there's great use of the music of the period (you'll recognize Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag and Toot Toot Tootsie, among others).
And it all comes together in a ferocious final image, Tom's ignominious homecoming, with his mother's gramophone reprising the opening song. It's as brutal an image as you'll ever see in movies, and one that's sure to stay with you; it's haunted and inspired generations of filmmakers, including David Chase, who even incorporated it into an episode of The Sopranos. In the ensuing 75 years, other gangster pictures have polished up the formula and illustrated the violent life with greater explicitness; but no movie in the genre has ever been as fierce and ferocious as The Public Enemy.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: B+
Image Transfer Review: There's been scratching and decay with the years; it's clear that the Warner brothers never expected their early talkies to play after a year or two, so they weren't made to last three quarters of a century. But the transfer displays solid work with compromised source material.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: A film of this vintage should sound a little tinny; it wouldn't seem right otherwise. One of the revelations about Cagney is that he throws aural caution to the winds, leaving the plummy tones to others, relying on the slangy energy of the streets, and it all plays just perfectly.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Robert Sklar
NYU film professor Robert Sklar provides a commentary track, which is a little leisurely, but very informative; Cagney was originally to have played Tom's sidekick, but his notices for his supporting role in The Millionaire secured him the lead here. Sklar is especially good on pointing out scenes that were excised for censorship reasons and later restored; they've all got more to do with sex than with violence. And Leonard Maltin is back for another edition of Warner Night at the Movies, an effort to re-create what an audience might have seen if they went to the original theatrical release. After Maltin's introduction (03m:13s), there's a full package (20m:57s) of goodies: a trailer for Cagney and Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy; newsreel footage of female athletes showing off their gams and preparing for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles; a short, The Eyes Have It, starring Edgar Bergen as an ophthalmologist, and his faithful wooden sidekick, Charlie McCarthy, as a difficult patient; and a Merrie Melodies cartoon, designed, as Maltin points out, to plug sheet music. The formula here hasn't quite been perfected yet, and Porky Pig still isn't on the scene, so the closing line gets the spirit right, but it's not exactly what we've come to expect: "So long, folks!"
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsThis is no safe, ancient, quaint little movie from the early days of talkies; it's one of the most fierce achievements of Hollywood in the 1930s, and established the tone and style for decades' worth of gangster movies to follow. Cagney delivers a career-making performance, and William Wellman's style soars over period trappings to speak to the audiences of a new millennium. If you like gangster movies, you've got to love The Public Enemy. (If you don't, Tom may take you for a dirty, no-good, yellowbellied stoolie, and it's probably best to stay on his good side.)
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