Friday, May 24, 2013

Tonight's Movie: The Public Enemy (1931)

I watched the early James Cagney classic THE PUBLIC ENEMY for the first time thanks to reviewing the new Blu-ray set Ultimate Gangsters Collection: Classics, just released on May 21st.

THE PUBLIC ENEMY provided a star-making role for James Cagney, who plays Tom Powers. Tom comes from a poor background and achieves a certain level of "success" as a racketeer during Prohibition, but ultimately his story proves that crime just doesn't pay.

The plot of this 83-minute film is a bit draggy from time to time, yet it contains many arresting, iconic moments which make it must viewing. Cagney smashing grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face, picking up Jean Harlow while driving down the street, staggering through the rain on a mission of vengeance -- it's all here, as the viewer watches the creation of a career and a genre.

Director William A. Wellman and cinematographer Dev Jennings create some simply unforgettable shots; I think my favorite was Cagney walking straight toward the camera in the final action sequence. The picture as seen on this new Blu-ray is quite stunning at times, particularly during the opening credits and some of the outdoor scenes; the picture is so detailed that I was momentarily distracted noting Jean Harlow's false eyelashes.

The ladies in the cast include not only Harlow and Clarke but frequent Cagney costar Joan Blondell, here playing the girlfriend of his best friend (Edward Woods). For Harlow and Blondell it would be onward and upward from here; Clarke didn't achieve their level of success but remained a steadily working actress for decades.

According to the very interesting featurette on the disc, Cagney was originally slated for Woods' role, but when he stole THE MILLIONAIRE (1931) in a supporting role, the actors' parts were switched. It's very difficult to imagine the film having been made without Cagney's energy and dynamism in the central role.

The cast also includes Beryl Mercer, Donald Cook, Leslie Fenton, Robert Emmett O'Connor, Sam McDaniel, and Helen Parrish.

In addition to the new Blu-ray, THE PUBLIC ENEMY has previously had a standard DVD release as part of the Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. I and a TCM Greatest Gangsters Collection. It also had a couple different releases on VHS.

This key film of the pre-Code era is very much worth seeing. Thanks to Warner Bros. for making this Blu-ray set available for review; further details on the set are posted here.


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