Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Capsule Review: The Public Enemy (1931)

The ambitions of the character of Tom Powers in The Public Enemy are not so far off from that of any determined young man, he just happens to have the viciousness (and occasional rage) to pull it all off. His rise through the crime world happens naturally, though starts with a (literal) bang with the murder of a police officer. James Cagney imbues the role with a wiry, searing energy that so dwarfs his co-stars - Edward Woods in particular - that he nearly overwhelms the picture. You can't take your eyes off of him. He's the whole show here, though the pre-code material still feels quite risque if you're only used to the more sedate crime pictures of the 40s. The plot holds few surprises, particularly if you've seen the thematically similar Little Caesar from the same year, but created a frame which almost all future films featuring a character rising through the criminal underworld would follow. Some amazingly memorable moments - Cagney pushing a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face, Cagney walking towards his possible doom in the pouring rain - are muted by the general predictability. Still, it remains supremely entertaining.

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