The Public Enemy. 1931. USA. Directed by William A. Wellman. Screenplay by Harvey Thew, based on the novel by John Bright, Kubec Glasmon. With James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell. 35mm. 83 min.
“Cagney,” explained Lincoln Kirstein, “has an inspired sense of timing, an arrogant style, a pride in the control of his body, and a conviction and lack of self-consciousness that are unique in the deserts of the American screen.” Such talents are on full display in The Public Enemy, Wellman’s influential gangster picture about a pair of juvenile delinquents who graduate to professional thuggery during the era of Prohibition; it was the movie that launched Cagney’s career. Warner Brothers bracketed the story with moralizing title cards about how the film should be understood as a cautionary tale, but Kirstein saw it as a blueprint for a new identity: “Cagney, for me, provided a post-graduate course in heroic lyricism in opposition to Harvard good taste.... I aimed to delete the conditioning of my schools and class, costumed myself from cut-rate Army-Navy stores, and was not wildly successful as a male impersonator.”