1931: The Public Enemy

The Public Enemy: If the silent era of American cinema was dominated by escapism in the form of romantic melodrama, comedy and swashbuckling adventure, it seems that by the time sound had become established the studios were discovering an appetite for something darker and grittier.
Mervyn LeRoy’s “Little Caesar”, released in January of 1931, was the first great gangster picture, and it defined the form:  Young man gets in with the wrong crowd, quickly makes the transition from juvenile delinquent to murderous gangster, then suddenly it all goes wrong, leaving him precious little time to reflect on the error of his ways. But like “Dracula” (see below), “Little Caesar” is technically undistinguished and looks for the most part like a filmed play. William Wellman’s “The Public Enemy”, released just a few months later, raises the bar considerably. This is one of the first true sound films – not merely a silent film with added dialogue or a stage production with added camera, but one that used sound creatively. Much of the most brutal action happens offscreen, but is none the less shocking for it. When the two young gangsters, Tom Powers (James Cagney, practically inventing the art of sound movie acting) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) spot their double-crossing old boss “Putty Nose” in a nightclub they tail him back to his flat to settle the score. Putty Nose pleads for his life, and tries to remind them of their old camaraderie by singing at the piano, but is abruptly cut off as Tom shoots him. We don’t see this happen because the camera discreetly pans over to Matt’s horrified face, then we only hear the gunshots and the discordant notes as Putty Nose slumps over the keyboard,
Equally shocking in a different way is the breakfast table scene in which Tom, irritated by his girlfriend’s needy attitude, loses his temper and pushes his grapefruit in her face. No-one gets killed or injured but the sheer unabashed contempt of the action hits you like, well, like a grapefruit in the face. (William Wellman reportedly included the scene because he often felt like doing it to his own wife.)
The film’s most powerful moment, though, is purely visual – Tom’s ‘homecoming’ in the final scene of the film, and its effect on his brother. It features one the most disciplined moments of acting – by Cagney – you’ll ever see.


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