After I had re-watched the Howard Hawks Scarface and been blown away, I was reminded of my liking for James Cagney films and threw a few more to the top of my list. This one is good--although not nearly as good as White Heat as a wholly-conceived artwork--but is most important for how very influential it was, largely setting the template for the gangster film, and also breaking Cagney as a star and making his career.
We have the song "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" under the credits, which I'm not sure has the greatest thematic connection to the film that follows. There is no musical score to the movie, just period songs. We have shots introducing each of the actors and characters in turn, then a title saying that the intention of this film is not to glorify the criminal, but depict the problems they cause. It also says that names and places have been changed, but the story told is "essentially true."
We open with two delinquent boys, Tom Powers and Matt Doyle. Tom will grow up to the Cagney. He is interested in crime and pranks and cons, is contemptuous of girls and women and is already showing sadism and lack of respect. There is a scene in which he is boasting about how he wouldn't care about going to jail, while in the background his policeman father comes out and stands on the porch. Tom has to go in and is whipped with a belt. A few years later, we have a good shot panning around the street and showing us a saloon on every corner. It just sets up the environment. In one of the saloons is a sign that says "Don't spit on the floor--Remember the Jamestown flood." Tom and Matt are in their late teens now, and a saloon owner called Putty Nose brings them in on a job far more big and dangerous than any they've done, but secures their participation by giving them guns. The robbery is one of the best sequences of the movie, as the boys are scared by a stuffed bear and fire shots that arouse a local policeman, and suddenly they are in a chase where they are really being shot at. The film excellently uses shadows and bursts of gunfire from blackness, and soon the policeman is killed, and the boys have graduated to murder.
A few years later, the sign on to work with another gangster, Paddy Ryan. Prohibition hits--the movie has an excellent sequence showing people stocking up on liquor before it is outlawed--and Tom and Matt become heavies forcing bar owners to buy their beer. In here is an extremely clever robbery in which Tom pulls a gasoline truck up outside a building where, on the top floor, are several casks of booze. His associates have fed a hose within a pipe running down the side of the building, so Tom is seemingly parked quite a ways away, but is siphoning all the booze into his truck. At home, his brother Mike is enlisting, and Tom automatically feels guilt and judgement that he is not.
Now, when this film was originally cast, the roles of Matt and Tom were reversed, with Cagney playing the second-place role. But then an earlier film came out, in which Cagney stole the show in just a minor role, so the casting was quickly switched to give Cagney the major role, and a star was born, essentially. We can see that he excels in giving someone a steely eye while barraging them with bluster and attitude, and is generally just explosive and riveting to watch. Tom and Matt are introduced to Nails Nathan, gangster dandy, and a further step up in ruthlessness. Also in here we get a glimpse of a fey gay tailor, who marvels at the size of Tom's arms.
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So Tom is at the top, and now we have one of the most famous scenes from this movie, in which his girlfriend is mildly complaining at breakfast, and Tom smashes a grapefruit into her face. There are numerous stories, but the leading one is that Cagney and the actress conceived of it as an unexpected joke to surprise the crew, but the director loved it so much he left it in. This became one of the most talked-about scenes of the film, because, for whatever reason, abuse of women in this way touched a nerve. One also wonders how responsible it was with linking the image of the gangster with disrespect of women. Soon Tom meets Jean Harlow as Gwen Allen, and dumps this girlfriend for her.
Now Mike comes home from the war and is distressed to learn of Tom's business. They have a dinner with a huge cask of beer in the middle of the table, and Mike just staring at it darkly. He rises and makes a speech about how there's "beer and blood" in the cask, which was the title of the book a lot of this was adapted from. Soon Tom and Matt have to go kill Putty Nose, the guy who gave them their first break, where the film goes for a lot of pathos. Now is as good a time as any to note that although the film seems quite violent, almost all of the actual killing is offscreen. Harlow has a notable scene in which she lays out her love for Tom, but he receives word that Nails Nathan has been killed, and he leaves. That's the last we see of Harlow.
Now, the inevitable downfall. Tom and Matt have to hide out at the home of some woman, and she gets Tom drunk and seduces him, which he is none too happy about in the morning. The feeling is that moral rot is starting to creep in. Matt is about to marry his sweetheart--sure sign of his impending death--and sure enough, he is shot in the street. You might be shocked, as I was, to learn that at the time, blanks were too expensive and this real bullets were shot at our stars, so when you see Cagney duck around a corner and then a circle of bullet holes open on the wall where his head had been... those were real bullets.
Tom makes a revenge attack on the gang that shot Matt, and stumbles out in the heavy rain with another famous line from this film: "I ain't so tough." He is taken to the hospital. Meanwhile, at home, Mike hears word that Tom will be returning from the hospital, and their mother, who is quite devoted while also being the queen of denial, runs upstairs and is fluffing pillows and changing sheets to welcome him home. Mike opens the door to find Tom standing there, tied up in a sheet, dead. His corpse falls forward to the floor. It is a great, shocking image, but the film cuts away and ends before it can have its full impact. And that's it!
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So it's quite good, but you have to read a little bit about it (or watch the documentary on the DVD) to understand the impact it had and why it was so influential. You also have to keep in mind that all of this was quite new at the time, and many of the touches here that became cliches actually originated with this film. This sets the familiar rise-and-fall structure which is still a feature of the gangster film, and is quite good, but perhaps not quite as great, just as a film, than Hawk's Scarface of 1932. It also isn't as fully-realized as a story with psychological depth as Cagney's later White Heat or Angels With Dirty Faces, but you get the sense that Cagney was just displaying his power for the first time, which was refined and expanded upon for those films. You also get a decent story with good characters, a very smart visual sense and a fair amount of innovative shots. If it doesn't fully come together, part of that is because movies as a whole were still coming together.
Yes, it's very good and influential, although some of Cagney's later films are more fully realized.