Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Another Wellman Analysis: The Public Enemy (1931)

Directed by William A. Wellman, The Public Enemy (1931) stars James Cagney as Tom Powers, a mobster in this classic pre-Code gangster flick. The film follows Tom and his buddy Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) as they rise up in the world of crime doing heists, hits, and hold-ups.

The film begins with a type of disclaimer, basically saying that the movie is not to glorify the violence in the motion picture but to depict the realism of the somewhat true story. From this point on the audience knows they are in for a loud movie with gunplay and explosive action. 

The movie contains a lot of camera movement with a pan here and a track there, but the longer takes are nothing close to the perfection of a movie like Citizen Kane (granted Citizen Kane was made ten years later in 1941, but the long takes in the club surely inspired Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese)

I noticed that many shots seemed fuzzy and out of focus, which isn’t something to necessarily complain about since the movie is rather old, but it did sometimes call to attention the fact that this is a movie.

The most impressive formal features that I found in the film were three separate scenes creatively depicting violence. The first was the fur factory robbery.

After the heist goes wrong, a trigger-happy policeman pursues Tom and Matt. Tom and Matt turn the corner down an alleyway, the policeman following. The next thing we see are muzzle flairs jumping out of the shadows. Tom and Matt come forth out of the alley alive. In the next shot we are given a close up of the dead policeman’s gun. Nothing more.

The second scene was when Tom shoots his old boss while he sits playing the piano. Matt stands by the door while Tom stands behind the boss. The camera watches as the man begs for his life, playing a song from when the boys were young. We see Tom pull out his gun. The camera pans away from Tom over to Matt. At the end of the verse Tom pops off two shots. Their old boss is dead. We the audience know this by the sound, and only by the sound, of his lifeless body falling onto the piano keys.

The third is toward the end when Tom rushes into the enemy headquarters. We follow Tom with a medium to long shot to the door. We don’t go in with him. Watching from the street, gunshots go off like a bundle of Black Cats. Tom emerges, noticeably injured. We know what happened by not actually seeing anything.

Thanks to this new invention of sound in movies, there are new ways to represent events on screen.

Being a gangster film, The Public Enemy has the always-present genre theme of the criminal’s rise-and-fall. Tom is a mighty man with money and power, but by the end he gets what has to happen, his death.

Gangster movies end with the inevitable loss of life (or sometimes loss of power). A life of crime has consequences.

The gangster film will also always have guns and cars, a drive for respect, money, and power, and the use of women as an outlet for passion and rage. Tom is the definition of ‘jerk’ when it comes to women. Women like him at first; they see his confidence, they like his power, they want his money, and they get turned on by his danger. Lets face it; every girl sort of wants a bad boy.

But picking a man like Tom is a huge mistake. Firstly, work always comes ahead of women, a common theme in more than just gangster films. To paraphrase a line from one of the females in the movie, “boyfriends over girlfriends” when it comes to mobsters.

The gangster film is an exciting genre in motion pictures with its action, violence, and criminality. We all secretly want to be fearless and tough like gangsters, living with power and money. But films like this do show the true ending to a lifestyle of crime… death.
By Kyle Schwab

No comments:

Post a Comment