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’.
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.