I am forewarning the reader here by saying that I am talking about a gangster film from 1931 not the gangster film from 2009. There will be no “what the f was Johnny Depp trying to do in this film” discussions. Sorry, may be at another time.
Although made 18 months after the stock market crash that brought one of the brightest decades in America come rushing down, The Public Enemy typifies how modern audiences sees this crazy decade. Many people believe that it was all about gangsters, flappers, and Prohibition. Although there is much more to this dynamic decade, this film does a wonderful job depicting the corruption and good times of the decade. Starring incredibly iconic actors, James Cagney and Jean Harlow, the film is about a man who decides to get wrapped in illegal activities involving beer and blood. (Haha. That is what the book was originally called. Man I am so amazingly clever.) James Cagney is seen as a fast talking, revenge seeking, mother loving tough man. Jean Harlow is this vamp who says smokey things like “kid” and wears slinky dresses. She is drop dead gorgeous in this film. Both of these actors will play variations on this character for the rest of their acting careers.
This is where the infamous grapefruit scene comes from. Before seeing this film and hearing about the grapefruit scene, I thought it was this drawn out fight scene that gave motivation as to why Cagney would shove a grapefruit in his lover’s face. But there isn’t really. She nags on him for a few things and then BLAM he shoves a grapefruit right in the side of her face. At least he didn’t hit her, I suppose. These scenes are meant to show how cold Cagney is even to a woman he is supposedly with. I think it works well.
Another scene that is iconic and I love is when Cagney decides to take revenge on the men who killed his best friend. He steals guns from a shop and then in a heavy down pour he stalks into this storefront. The camera doesn’t go in with him, but instead you just hear gun shots and a man screaming. Then Cagney comes stumbling out of the store and he is obviously wounded. The set emotions on Cagney’s face and the downpour that is pounding on this set makes the scene worth watching again and again.
The dialogue in this film alone is what makes this film worth watching. All of your favorite gangster sayings are on full display here delivered at such a break neck speed by Cagney it is amazing. What makes it even more amazing is that the other people who have speaking roles talk so slowly and try to pronounce just right because this was the beginning of sound and there was only one mike on the set. Cagney ignores the conventions and therefore makes his delivery as an essential part of the character.
If you are interested in the history of filmmaking, I would suggest this film as an example of amazing genre work. If you want to see one of the great performers originating his iconic persona, I would suggest this film. If you want to a good shoot-em-up film and are not scared by black and white than watch this film. Just go and watch this film. It will do you good.