It seems a bit unusual to have a depression era gangster flick like "Public Enemies" making its debut during a season usually dominated by Optimus Prime and Captain Kirk, but I'll take a huge helping of Michael Mann cops and robbers any time it's offered to me and gladly ask for seconds. As "Enemies" hits screens to mostly positive buzz, I thought I'd look back at some of Hollywood's "original gangstas" and their exploits that have influenced filmmakers for several generations of celluloid crime.
The term "Public Enemy" was coined back in 1930 by the chairman of the Chicago crime commision to publicly denounce guys like Al Capone and other infamous gangsters of the era. Later, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI used it when they named various fugitives they were tracking down. Guys like Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Bonnie & Clyde were all outlaws that made this famous list during what became known as "The Public Enemy Era." There is no doubt about it....these were THE bad guys that the law had to bring down for being a blight on society. For some strange reason, people love the stories about bad boys and eventually, Tinseltown would be all too eager to oblige.
The Public Enemy (1931)
Back in the day, this guy defined cinema bad-assery. James Cagney was his name and he was not the man with whom to fuck. Just ask his nagging girlfriend how she likes her grapefruit. Named after the era it represents "The Public Enemy" is the story of Tom Powers, as he makes his way to the top......and eventually the bottom of the bootlegging underworld. This was one of the first pictures to attempt to portray the mob world in a realistic fashion. They didn't glorify it, and they wanted audiences to know that "crime does not pay!" The main character meets his fate in what can still be considered by today's standards somewhat grisly fashion. Just thinking about the last scene gives me chills.
Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)
Don't let the silly name fool you. This film is as endearing as it is tragic. Cagney takes center stage again this time as the former gangster Rocky Sullivan. Rocky has been in prison for several years and after being released, decides to finally walk the straight path. He gets a little help from his best friend and former thug turned priest Father Connolly.( played by real life pal
Pat O' Brien) Unfortunately, an old nemesis (none other than Humphrey Bogart) who owes Rocky some money turns up and makes it difficult for him to adjust to life outside of prison. Throw in the comedy stylings of the Dead End Kids, and you have yourself a stick of pure movie dynamite!
White Heat (1949)
Yes, Cagney makes the list for the third time in a row. His wallet is the one that actually says "Bad Mother Fucker" not Sam Jackson's!!!! Cagney took a break from the tough guy roles to prove he could do other things. He won an Oscar as the singing dancing playwright George M. Cohan in the 1942 musical "Yankee Doodle Dandy," but everybody really just wanted to see him come back and kick some ass again.........did he ever.
Cody Jarret is not a nice man. He steals, has no problem murdering his own crew or anybody else that pisses him off, and the only woman he loves is his mother. After Jarret goes to prison, the police send in an undercover agent posing as his cellmate to find out who on the outside launders his cash because if they get that guy....it will go a long way into shutting down the whole ring. We get jailbreaks, double crosses, and a truly explosive ending that will have you screaming....."made it ma.....top of the world!!!!!!!"
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
What can you say.......but.....Faye.....Faye....Dunaway! She was a knockout in this picture, and combined with the talents of Warren Beatty and a young Gene Hackman......you have yourself one of the very best the genre has to offer. It's a tale of young lovers who blaze a path of robbery and murder across the midwest and into the history books as they inevitably meet their bullet riddled destiny. At the time, the violence in this film was quite jarring. "The Public Enemy" tried to show mob life in a realistic way...."Bonnie & Clyde" showed what those bullets actually do when they hit their mark and critics were not initially impressed. Time has been kind to "Bonnie" and it's still a hell of a film. It marked a change in filmmaking style. No longer would a guy just get shot and fall down.......we'd get to see those exploding squibs in all their gooey glory! Contemporary Hollywood gunfights owe a huge debt to "Bonnie & Clyde." Clyde Barrow just wanted to be remembered.....well.....believe me Clyde........we remember.