Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Movie Reviews

Movies Reviewed: The Public Enemy, Angles with Dirty Faces, and White Heat.

Now I had seen Cagney do drama (Man of a Thousand Faces), comedy (One,Two, Three), and musical (Yankee Doodle Dandy) and all quite well, but until recently had never seen him in the genre for which he is most famous, namely the 'gangster picture'. So to rectify this situation I netflixed the three gangster titles listed above. The first is the most arch-typical of the genre, the second a gangster picture with heart, and the last a valedictory gangster film that has a little of just about everything in it. All are fine examples of the kind of role that really established James Cagneys in the industry and for which he will always be best remembered despite the great versatility of his long career.

The Public Enemy was the film that put him on the map. Originally cast in the role of Tom Powers buddy Matt Doyle, he was switched to the lead a few weeks before shooting began do to his great success opposite George Arliss in The millionaire (which for some reason is listed after The Public Enemy on imdb). This 1931 feature still holds up remarkable well with memorable and innovative direction by William A. Wellman. Watching this pre-production code film you might be surprised with how contemporary it feels, while it shows little in the way of acutel 'sex and violence' there presence is heavily implied and felt. There is also a bit character in this movie who comes across as very gay, something I just didn't expect to see in a Cagney gangster picture.

Like many of the gangster pictures of its time The Public Enemy both glorified its subjects while attempting to use them as morality lessons. Following the rise and eventually fall of street hood Tom Powers, the Cagney characters larceny and wickedness is counterpointed by the behavior and utter virtue of his brother, World War One vet Mike Powers (Donald Cook), with their torn mother Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer) brought in to further play-up the pain that a life of crime can bring to ones family. Of course even in these pre-production code times the crooked Tom can not be allowed to get away with his evil doing, and he is humbled, brought-down and punished in a real 'hit home' manner (pardon the pun for those who have seen it). It is interesting that our leads demise is brought on indirectly by the randomness of life, for it is the death of gangster 'Nails' Nathan (Leslie Fenton), in of all things a horse-back riding accident, that triggers the films climatic gang war. Jean Harlow is here, a sex-symbol whose then popular statues I don't fully understand, as well as frequent frequent Cagny co-star Joan Blondell, and the infamous 'grapfruit scene'. While similar story wise to the Edward G. Robinson starrier of the previous year Little Caesar, this film is more fluid and technically superior to the later as well as containing the better performances.

Angles with Dirty Faces is the best and most memorable of the three films I saw. James Cagney and Pat O'Brien are child hood friends who do to pure chance grow up to be on opposite sides of the law. Cagney is William 'Rocky' Sullivan a notorius hood who has just gotten out of jail, while Pat is Father Jerome 'Jerry' Connelly pastor of their boyhood church. Ann Sheridan plays Laury Ferguson, the widow of a small time crook turned social worker who is a love interest for Cagney. A pre-Maltese Falcon Humphrey Bogart plays Rockys crocked lawyer James 'Jim' Frazier, while George Bancroft is Mac Keefer the kingpin who control's the cites underworld. Also notable in this film is the presence of 'The Dead End Kids' a group of young actors who had brought in by Warner Brothers to reprise their stage roles from the hit Broadway play 'Dead End'. The 'Kids' sustainability would be assured by their casting in Angels, and they would continue to appear in vehicles of continualy decreasing quality, as a group and apart, at several studios over the ensuing years. Leo Gorcey being the most memorable of the group.

Angels story of friends divided by cirumstance is an iconic one that still resonates, and in this telling has earned a endearing place in our popular culture. In a sense I had seen this movie before because its template was used, right down to the child hood train sequence, in an episode of the Warner produced Batman cartoon of the 1990's. Angels with Dirty Faces was also the favorite movie of the Robbie Coltrain character in the British crime investigation series Cracker.
The most talked about aspect of the movie of course is its semi-ambiguous ending which features a powerful performance by Cagney on his way to the electric chair. To this day its meaning is debated.

Cagney didn't like to be type-cast and for a long period refused to make more gangster pictures, but he returned to the genre triumphantly for an inspired performance in one of its later entries. White Heat really does have a little bit of everything, in addition to being a gangster picture its also a police procedural, caper feature, prison picture, revenge saga, film noir, psycho-drama and epic tragedy. Cagney's Arthur 'Cody' Jarrett is unlike his previous gangster characters, no matter how mean, because he's simply crazy. Emotionally unstable and mother-obsessed Cody as an animal, capable of being your friend one minute and bitterest enemy the next. Giving us a character it might well have been impossible to top it is no wonder that Cagney retired from this kind of picture, save for some lose plays on his earlier persona in a few later pictures.

I really did get into these movies and intend to see more of their like in the future. The gangster fim is a part of our film heritage that any serious movie fan should take some time and invest in, as they really don't make them like this any more.


Post a Comment

<< Home