March 25, 1931 [The Public Enemy]

Four years ago, William A. Wellman took to the skies in Wings--but hauls me down to the gutter with The Public Enemy--and while the contrast is facile, it's also difficult to resist, especially with James Cagney sneering, his Tom Powers a perfect egoist, fending off the truth with wads of cash, tossed at his mother's blind devotion, his brother's shell-shocked glare--and with bullets, thrown like punches at every impediment. It's a Horatio Alger story twisted topsy-turvy but still recognizable, a secret joy that kills. And Cagney takes great pains to force our unwell admiration, his patter and step like a Tommygun's report, impossible to ignore.

True to form, though, we are punished for enjoying ourselves--by watching Tom ground like a dead cigarette beneath the plot's shoe, ruthless in its tortures. Wellman asked his pilots to be brave in Wings--but here it's the audience. We have to steel ourselves for the brutal truth, the dull sword that needs repeated strokes to finish the job.


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