Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Blind Spot Series 2015: The Public Enemy


It's February, which means it was time to scratch off another Blind Spot, and this time I went way back to a classic film that inspired many other, better, classic films (but more on that in a minute).  It also starred one of the greatest actors of all time, is heralded as one of the greatest films of all time, and is pretty recognizable on name alone.

Lord help me for not loving this one.



Some films seem right up ones alley.  You look at them and you assume that they are going to be everything you could have asked for and more.  A few years ago, I would have never made that statement about a film like ‘The Public Enemy’, but after years of ingesting 30’s cinema and adoring the contained chaos of the gangster noir and falling head over heels for the undeniable range of James Cagney (I nearly convinced my wife to name our son Cagney, that’s how much I adore the actor), I was super excited to see ‘The Public Enemy’ because I was convinced that this film was ‘right up my alley’.

Unfortunately…

There is just a lot wrong here.  While the setup and storyline itself isn’t truly the problem, it’s all been done so much better in other films.  To say that the film isn’t fresh is an unfair criticism, since this is the film that kind of started them all, and all the films that ‘did it better’ came afterwards, but the fact still remains that they all did it better, and because of that, ‘The Public Enemy’ just doesn’t age well.  Wellman’s direction is stagnant in many parts, with serious pacing issues (for a film that is a brisk 83 minutes, it lags in more than one place), and the ensemble is so awkward in their delivery that they make the film feel stiff and unlived in.  I mean, I have seen enough noirs to know and understand and appreciate the way that these performances are supposed to be crafted, that mannered appeal, but this is just plain bad.  Like, Jean Harlow is cringe worthy awful, and Donald Cook looks so uncomfortable in his verbal sparring with Cagney.

But maybe it was just that Cagney was so comfortable and so loose and so good here that it just emphasized the poorness of the rest of the cast.

Yup, Cagney is the film’s primary saving grace; a spitfire of real intensity that sinks into every fiber of the character and creates a well-rounded and complete portrait of a kid lost on the wrong side of the tracks.  I love the way that he almost adopts a flamboyancy as the film progresses, easing into the natural comfort of his character’s new life and strengthened confidence.

I wanted to love this one.  I feel like I should have loved this one.  Still, I can’t help but feel like it misses the mark.  It served as a great stepping stone, but so many films that followed (a lot of which starred Cagney himself) took this formula and made it something richer, stronger and more memorable.

26 comments:

  1. Too bad you didn't love this one, it's one of my faves. Cagney is absolutely electrifying. I thought Harlowe was good, too, but I understand your point. I think part of the problem with her and everyone else is not just that Cagney's great, but he's great doing practically a different style of acting than everyone else in the film. Still, I love the overall product, especially the pre-Code ending. There's no denying that movies that followed did it better, great point, but I do give it extra points for doing it first.

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    1. Yeah, Cagney is on another level and because he's so good at what he's doing, and as you pointed out, is doing something different, everything else pales.

      It was a trailblazer, it's just sad that it doesn't hold up against everything it inspired.

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  2. I'm sorry it didn't hold up! I've never seen it, but I ran into a few of my Blind Spots last year that I didn't think aged well either.

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    1. Yup, the fact remains that some classics just don't age well, and this is one that, for me, didn't. I love how brutally honest you were last year with your Blind Spots...even when we didn't agree!

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  3. I caught up with this film last year on TCM, and while I loved Cagney in it, it was sort of forgettable for me. I agree about the pacing, which is odd for such a short movie. Even so, it is a big one in the early years of the gangster genre.

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  4. I'm with you that it feels dated but being that big a fan of Cagney it really is a key film for you to have caught in his filmography. Wellman might not be on his A game here but he was sharp enough to realize after production started to switch the lead roles, Cagney was initially cast as Matt Doyle and the dull Edward Woods as Tom Powers, so that Cagney's star turn came to be. Also in those pre-union days it's amazing that the machine gun battle was staged with actual bullets for realism. No wonder Cagney became such a firebrand for unionization!

    I'm a big fan of Jean Harlow, she was such a unique and individual talent, but her early career was definitely a learning curve. You're right she dreadful in this. She was still under contract to Howard Hughes at this point and he was farming her out to whoever wanted her, exploiting her Hell's Angels splash with no care taken to her image or any kind of attention to what she was putting up on the screen. Within the year MGM took over her contract, Paul Bern took a personal interest in her and discovered her great knack for comedy. Watching her here and in Red Dust only a year later the change in her onscreen is extraordinary.

    One thing that I noticed when I watched was the fact that despite the fact that she is part of the most famous scene in the film and one of the most famous in cinema Mae Clarke isn't listed in the film's credits. In this day and age when the credits can be almost as long as the movie it seems amazing at the brevity of the early studio films-main cast, heads of departments and The End.

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    1. That's incredible about Cagney's role switch. This is really what made him a star, and an unforgettable one at that.

      It's crazy to me that this is Wellman, because I'm such a champion of some of his other works, especially Beau Geste, which I think is a masterful example of a director at his prime.

      I need to dig more into Harlow's work. I'm shamefully underversed.

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    2. Harlow's best to catch, out of an astonishing 22 films she made during her 7 year starring period, are Red Dust, Dinner at Eight, Bombshell, a roman a clef of her actual backstage life, China Seas, Wife vs. Secretary, this one in particular is interesting because it shows the direction she and Metro were refining her image towards to keep her contemporary, and Libeled Lady.

      There's also her last, Saratoga, which isn't one of her best but is a curious enterprise. She died in the middle of production and MGM decided since she had filmed both the beginning and the ending and several scenes in between they had enough to finish the picture with a stand-in and voice double. So it becomes a macabre game of spotting which is her and which is the double, usually pretty easy. The studio at the time insisted that her fans demanded the picture be released but since it turned out to be Metro's top earner of the year and the second most successful overall, after Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, you have to question how altruistic their motives really were.

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    3. Wow, thanks for the recommendations! I'll be sure to check them out.

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    4. While I'm recommending I might as well warn you away from the two bio pix purportedly about Harlow. Both are called Harlow, both came out in 1965, both star an actress named Carol, Baker & Lynley respectively, both are crap and both are an insult to Jean's memory-fictionalizing her life beyond recognition (and not in a good way). There is however an interesting book about the race to get them into the theatres ahead of each other called Dueling Harlows.

      You can watch any film from her MGM period and be better served.

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  5. Nice work. It's a shame you didn't love this one. I haven't seen it myself.

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    1. It's a landmark film, so it should be regarded as such...but, yeah. LOL...

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  6. I really need to delve into James Cagney's body of work further. Although this one disappointed you, what are the other Cagney titles that you would recommend?

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    1. SO MANY!!!!

      Angels with Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties and White Heat are such iconic representations of what Cagney was best known for, and KILLER performances to boot. I'd also strongly recommend his Oscar winning perf in Yankee Doodle Dandy! Such a great film, and shows so much range from him. His passion project, Man of a Thousand Faces is also really wonderful, Cagney playing Lon Chaney just perfectly. He's also really great in Ragtime, which was his final film role.

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  7. This is a great piece of 30's gangster cinema. Cagney gives a great performance here.

    Being a fan of The Sopranos, I always associate the ending with the episode Proshai Livushka.

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    1. Cagney is very good here, and I love The Sopranos too, so now I want to go watch that episode to draw the comparison!

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  8. I haven't seen any Cagney film yet. But it's funny that I just saw this tweet about him that says: James Cagney, a non-smoker, got help from his wife, who smoked, to appear to smoke in films without actually doing so a non-smoker, got help from his wife, who smoked, to appear to smoke in films without actually doing so. Sounds like he's a good actor but I might watch another one of his films instead.

    P.S. I'm glad to say I LOVE the Blindspot I have for this month ;-)

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    1. I'm so glad you love your Blindspot, because I just saw what it is...and I love it too!!!!

      Yes, seek out Cagney...just not this one. See Yankee Doodle Dandy...I have a feeling you'll really like that one!

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  9. Sorry this one was a letdown for you. I think it was my first Cagney gangster film, so maybe that endeared me to it more. It's definitely not the best of the genre, but I love it still. So glad you liked Cagney's performance at least. He was born for these kinds of roles.

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    1. Despite my dislike for the film overall, Cagney is probably a lock for an eventual Fisti nom ;-)

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  10. Oh this is one film I am fond of. It is an early sound film so the stagnant looks and walks of most of the characters does show the age yet their is a vibrancy to it which is all Cagney. I also think the writing helped and some scenes are powerful-when Cagney goes to the bar(Bar?? or a store as I haven't seen it in a long time) and bullies the owner. The grapefruit scene which Mae Clarke had no idea was coming. The last scene shocked the hell out of me when i first saw it. It is brutal even by today's standards. Harlow was T & A for this film and not much else but she was learning. I also liked how the mother was so blind to her son which happens today as well

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    1. Cagney owns here, and that grapefruit scene is a great example as to why. He was just IN every minute of it.

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  11. I didn't like the modern Public Enemy and I don't know whether I will like this one or not. Since you seem not to like it, I hesitate now. Thanks for your point of view...

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    1. I didn't even know there was a modern one!

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