Yeah, I know this is a classic, and how I've lived this long without seeing it is both a wonder and a shame. But that offense to popular culture has now been remedied.
I can't call The Public Enemy a great film, but it was actually pretty darn good for 1931, and Jimmy Cagney delivered an outstanding performance. It's easy to see why this movie made him a star.
Cagney with Edward Woods
I read somewhere that Warner Brothers had originally cast Edward Woods in the lead role, with Cagney as his pal. Thankfully somebody wised up and reversed their roles before filming began. If the name Edward Woods is unfamiliar it's because he never again appeared in a movie approaching this caliber, and retired from the biz in 1938.
What prevents this from being a great film is the spotty story. It gives us scenes at various stages in the criminal life of Tom Powers (Cagney), but never lights long enough in one place. It does, of course, deliver the famous grapefruit-in-the-face scene, but even that failed to reach its potential because it had no set-up. Cagney is mildly henpecked by girlfriend Mae Clark and pastes her with the fruit. Big deal. It just made him look mean.
Jean Harlow, as you'll see from the posters, got second billing, but didn't deserve it. Her role is small and all-but-meaningless, and she had zero chemistry with Cagney. In fact, I found her mildly repellent. It's hard to imagine her having romantic chemistry with anyone.
And for a gangster film, it's surprising how much of the shooting is done off camera. This includes Cagney's murder of a doublecrossing rat, the execution of a racehorse, the climactic battle between Cagney and a rival mob, and the demise of Cagney himself. It all worked, I must admit, but I'm just sayin'.
More Overlooked (and probably less famous) Films at SWEET FREEDOM.