The Public Enemy (film, 1931)

The Public Enemy is sometimes considered a crime movie rather than film noir, but that judgement needs re-evaluation. In either case it is key in the development of film noir. Directed by William Wellman and starring then little-known James Cagney, this Warner Brothers’ follow-up to Little Caesar already employs many of the new techniques and technology, as well as the themes, that will characterize film noir. It opens with a high-angle shot of downtown Chicago in “1909”, showing crowds, stockyards, and beer rolling out of breweries in wagons and in the pails of working men – the implication is that all three are equally crude. Then in a “1917” montage viewers meet “good” brother Mike Powers and his fiancée at eye-level in a dolly shot. Finally in a “1920” segment, a crowd mills outside a theatre as Prohibition takes effect; in a series of establishing, medium and close-up shots, the loutish behavior induced by the new law appears. The sum of this resume of history is that the old temperance melodrama (beer is bad) was silly, because Prohibition was clearly worse. But viewers seldom notice that as history progresses in this resume, the techniques and technology get better too: they clarify history for viewers.

public enemyThe Public Enemy depends on a good brother/bad brother plot (Edward Woods, James Cagney, and Beryl Mercer, playing their mother, at left) and the latter’s romantic interest in Jean Harlow, for whom he must overthrow his whining girlfriend. Like many noir protagonists, “bad brother” Tom Powers (Cagney) is a type of prodigal son who personifies greed, lust, and insecurity. He wants Jean Harlow, the femme fatale, and he gets her, but he can’t go home again.

Studio back-lots were used to shoot this movie’s “Prohibition era” bombings of rival gangs, and the sniper-style execution of Matt Doyle. In the latter Wellman used the camera point-of-view, the framing device of the window, and deep focus (devices typical of film noir) to put his audience in the position of the assassins. The Public Enemy reaches its climax when Cagney, in a studio rainstorm notable for its torrential volume, the water’s failure to puddle, and the equidistant raindrops, arrives at his rival’s hideout to kill them. By mixing the rain noise, the gunplay, and Cagney” voice, by employing dramatic lighting, and by using doors, windows, and the camera aperture as framing devices, Wellman created a soundscape and sense of spatial depth far superior to reality. This sequence is a technical tour de force that was not surpassed for years, and it stands in striking cinematic contrast to the movie’s opening. Though only exceptional in some scenes, The Public Enemy showed what might be done.

In the same year, the eccentric millionaire cagney-clark-grapefruitHoward Hughes produced Scarface (1931), directed by Howard Hawks. Also set in Chicago, this movie followed the life of Al Capone more closely. Along with Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, Scarface spawned almost fifty imitations over the next decade: some of them were good (The Finger Points, 1931; Beast of the City, 1931, scripted by W.R. Burnett; Hell’s Highway, 1932 ), but most were not, and few are available for viewing today.

Reactions Against Crime Movies

A public reaction to real crime welled up just as the Depression was changing not only the economics of movie-going but also of movie-making. Warner Brothers swore off crime movies in May 1931 (only to return a few years later favoring the law side of the conflict). In the early 1930s the “Hays Commission” also became more active. Formed after the rape/murder trial of silent movie star Fatty Arbuckle in the early 1920s and directed by former Postmaster General Will Hays, the commission became a synonym for censorship. When the Catholic bishops of North America threatened to boycott Hollywood movies in 1933, producers put specific Production Codes in place.

Emphasis shifted to the law’s side for a while. The G-Men (Warner, 1935) showed the new F.B.I. hunting down desperado John Dillinger. James Cagney (as agent Brick Davis) was now a Phi Beta Kappa from the slums, who had cut his ties to bootlegging. M.G.M. countered with the Crime Does Not Pay series, glorifying the F.B.I. and J. Edgar Hoover. During the Depression, however, many more viewers probably saw Busby Berkeley’s musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933 and Gold Diggers of 1935)or Frank Capra’s humane dramas and comedies (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1936; and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939). From hard times they sought relief; the movies offered a gamut of stories, most of which posed fewer censorship problems than crime movies.

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