Does Public Enemy (1932) Glorify The Gangster? [Dreaming Nations essay]

download Does Public Enemy (1932) Glorify The Gangster? [Dreaming Nations essay]

If you can't read please download the document

Embed Size (px)


Public Enemy sets out to ‘depict honestly an environment that exists in certain strata of American life rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal’. Do you think the film is successful in achieving this stated aim?

Transcript of Does Public Enemy (1932) Glorify The Gangster? [Dreaming Nations essay]

Dreaming NationsCandidate Module Title Module Tutor Question 316773 Dreaming Nations Charles Owen Public Enemy sets out to depict honestly an environment that exists in certain strata of American life rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal. Do you think the film is successful in achieving this stated aim?

MHRA Citation ???? Words

Candidate 316773 Dreaming Nations Assessed Essay: The Public Enemy

December/January 2001

A creator's intention, especially when stated, is not necessarily communicated in the resultant work. Munby sees the Foreword of The Public Enemy as "a disclaimer couched in the rhetoric of the officiating culture" (1999, 51). This essay contends that the movie fulfils its stated aims only as far as was necessary to appease the civic pressure groups of its time. Two standpoints on the gangster phenomenon are embedded inside one another, two conflicting audiences are simultaneously addressed. The first are the pressure groups, the moral custodians of the thirties, who saw gangsters as a threat to public balance and felt that film should educate its audience. The Foreword appears at their behest1 as, generally, does the use of closure2. The second, more important, audience were the new mass market of cinema-goers who related to Tom Powers' dynamic nature and the film's persistent anti-authority motifs. This essay will examine Public Enemy's use of documentary realism, the ways in which it glorifies the gangster and the ways in which the gangster is condemned. As both Munby and Shadoian point out, Public Enemys intention to depict honestly an environment that exists in certain strata of American life manifests itself in a sense of documentary realism. Characters exist across three rigidly enforced time periods (Munby, 1999, 51), stressed by frame-filling captions. In the fixed camera dissolves presenting 1909 people are designated as one element in a bustling urban mileu; background noise is foregrounded. The disolve to a slightly higher perspective, from which we can see two lines of people chaotically intersecting, enforces an impression that this is the complete panoply of urban existence. We are then transported to "a certain strata of American life, the world of ethnic immigrants. The energy of the preceding images is replaced by an isometric shot of desolate stockyards. Only the sparse lowing of cattle pervades the silence. Working class misery is stressed by the ethereal quality of sustained strings, as children on bycles replace traffic. Yet this sequence lasts only forty seconds, preceding a stark shift from location to the studio sequences that dominate the rest of the film. Documentary elements are essentially orientation for the melodramatic nature of plot events themselves3. Moreover, Public Enemys documentary portrait of American society is an overwhelmingly subversive one, as it systematically attacks forms of conventional authority. An ethnic character4 climbs to the top by inverting Americanology. As


Candidate 316773 Dreaming Nations Assessed Essay: The Public Enemy

Munby claims "the gangster, in bucking Prohibition, embodied not only a desire for material imporovement but a desire for freedom from many established forms of legislative and moral constraint" (1999, 25). The law is particularly negative. Matt and Molly are the product of a home broken by its overbearing severity. Their father is in prison merely for swiping pigeons. The film implies that this is crucial to Matt finding an alternative father in Putty Nose, as he misguidedly tells him at the end of the film: If it hadnt been for you, we mighta been on the level. Conventional authority is normally at the root of gangster violence. The cop chasing our young heroes on their first job is a threat, a shadow against a brick wall. He is merciless, shooting down Lippy though he has dropped his gun in fright, and drawls thought youd get away did ya? to his body. He fires indiscriminately at Tom and Matt, who are are softened as agents of violence as their return fire takes place in darkness. The resulting shot is a vigniette of the connection between conventional authority and violence. A close-up of a policemans hat (already established as a metonymic for authority on Tom's father's head) and a hand grasping a smoking gun fades to black. The image is didactic: violence breeds violence. Tom Powers is entirely a product of his environment, a victim of violence long before he becomes a perpetrator. His father is fearsome; we zoom towards him from a low angle, from young Tom's point of view. Marching the boy to his beating, both walk with an identical swagger, as though Tom is being moulded into a younger version of him. The audience only sympathises with Tom once he is beaten. This tough upbringing pursuades him that he must look after himself. When Matt tries to help his sister Tom reflects this attitude: leave her alone thats the only way shell learn. Tom's brother Mike, embodying "an increasingly anachronistic national idealism" (Munby 1999, 2), continues the cycle of abuse. When Mike punches him during an early argument about his life of crime, Powers violent temperament is palpably increased. A schizophrenic look crosses his face and he kicks the door in a burst of uncontrolled rage. He does not, however, hit his brother back. Public Enemy's internal morality does not vindicate Mike's adherance to convention. His interest in education is useless. Hes learning how to be poor, Tom tells Putty Nose. Trying to work his way up on the Streetcars, he feebily steals nickels, in contrast to Tom's dynamic crimes. Nor is his departure for the army heroic, but a betrayal to his family, the most positive unit of the film. The army destroys Mike, requiring assistance to move to the kitchen in his3

Candidate 316773 Dreaming Nations Assessed Essay: The Public Enemy

family home, while Tom relishes his gangster spoils. Mike condemns these Theres not just beer in this keg. Theres blood and beer. Blood of men, but Powers pulls apart this flawed humanitarianism with typical panache. He argues, implying that society is uncaring, that state violence is no more moral than his violence for personal gain: You killed and liked it. You didnt get medals by holding hands with Germans. This affronts the values of civic pressure groups. To have killed and liked it admits the visceral appeal of violence, a key ingredient of Public Enemy5, but one that had to be obscured to ensure commerical release. As Munby puts it, "it is not that Tom is bad, but that he is rightly cynical about the ruling definitions of good behaviour and good citizenry" (1999, 52). Despite its Foreword claims, Public Enemy undoubtedly glorifies the gangster. Shadoian attributes much to James Cagneys runaway (???, 24) performance, as though it were at odds with the script and direction of the movie as a whole. Yet Tom Powers is enthralling before Cagney even steps inside the role. The young Matt and Tom live at odds with their mundane and impoverished surroundings. Comic touches endear the audience to their spirited, though criminal actions; sliding down bannisters, knocking off a gentlemans hat, or laughing at the policeman stuck behind fat women and unable to catch them. That their business was stealing watches is not revealed until the following scene, when focus is not on their wrongdoing but Putty Noses in manipulating them. Cagney brings a peculiar energy to the role. Munby regards his ability to capture a mainstream audience as a result of his stage experience (????. 55); his joyous dance after seducing Gwen is pure vaudeville. The gangster world is one of material excess in the face of depression, of dynamic personalities in a sub-culture set aside for nobodies1. As Tom and Matts crimes escalate, so does the cost of their clothes (Shadoian, ???, 54), culminating in matching trench coats. Stepping out of their new car, a club doorman calls them Mr Tom and Mr Matt, demonstrating their social ascent. Nails Nathan is even more dynamic, an idol to Tom and Matt (as emphasised when they first meet him, standing either side as he beams at the centre of the frame). His reputation precedes him. When Nails Nathans called to do a job its already done, Paddy tells them. Nails stylishly dissects the mendacity of conventional business. He realises that Lehman, the employer, is only interested in money, and mock-allays his fears about gangster violence with an image that comically juxtaposes it against legitimate society: we1 GET A MUNBY QUOTE!!!!!!


Candidate 316773 Dreaming Nations Assessed Essay: The Public Enemy

wont use it in the advertising. Munby sees the use of authentic dialect as the crucial element that makes the talking gangster film subversive6, placing heroism in the hands of the ethnic working class at the expense of legitimate middle class American society. Yet it is the combination of realistic dialect with unrealistically stylised language - the wise crack - that fully places the gangster in the position of admirable anti-hero. These are also an integral part of Powers nature from childhood. Half a buck off! he sneers at Putty Nose when he tries to buy the stolen watches from them for a rip off price. This continues throughout the film. Alone? a waiter asks him. I am, he replies, Matts got me with him. Nails Nathan uses wise cracks to stlylise crime: Matt has finally decided to take something lawful a wife. He talks about violence in a sadistic but desirable fashion, of pretty gloves with the hands curled up. Although Public Enemy does glorify the gangster, it also insists that he will inevitably fall. Shadoian describes the process of this "rude awakening": "The world closes in; we see it close in. We can back away, break the identification pattern" (19??, 2), The gangster is defined as ultimately villainous7. Tom becomes more remote from our sympathies as his violence grows uglier. Violent imagery emerges in their dialogue. Tom warns Matt that he may cut off his nose if he performs his characteristic mouth swipe wearing a suit with two buttons. The tailors' incomprehension demonstrates that, despite their success, Tom and Matt remain ephemeral visitants from another social sphere. Nails Nathan seems a key ingredient in turning Tom ugly. Cash or his heart? . . . Ill bring you both, Tom assures Nails. When Nails is killed by his horse Tom and Matt absurdly execute the creature wearing dinner jackets, bowler hats and white gloves. This short scene, in which they throw the stable worker $1000 for the animal demonstrates that violence has come to dominate everything. This is emphasised further by Putty Nose's murder, identified by Shadoian as the point at which we stop identifying with Tom entirely. The whistle punchline of the childhood song is replaced by gunshots. These negative elements of the gangster address both audiences - not just the moral custodians - as they directly oppose the family, the chief virtue of Public Enemy's internal morality. Ma is entirely pure; one of Tom's most appealing traits is that he always provides for her. But Tom is a failure with women (Shadoian 19??, 51), the ticket to the family and conventional happiness, from the beginning of the film8. When young Matt is hit in the face by a door he retorts "That's what ya get for foolin'5

Candidate 316773 Dreaming Nations Assessed Essay: The Public Enemy

wi' women". His abuse increases alongside his crimes. By slamming a grapefruit into Kitty's face he demonstrates domestic incompatibility in an infantile manner, sticking out his tongue. June subsequently receives not a grapefruit but a slap. "He's not the marrying kind", Matt decides. Tom also destroys his sidekick's relationship, leading him away from Maimee eventual death. The mis en scene of one nightclub shot defines Matt's conflict between conventional happiness and Tom's violence. "You're not gonna leave me tonight?" Maimee pleads, but between their profiled bodies, in the background, Tom's head is psychotically grave. Tom is not a fully-fledged human being but an embodiment of our most primal instincts. As Ma says, youre just a baby. Public Enemy primarily addresses the interests of civic pressure groups in its dual closure scenes. Contrasting his glamorous lifestyle, Powers (seemingly) perishes in the gutter. A preceding close-up of his face reveals a man destroyed by the gangster lifestyle. His hat slants, his psychotic expression shifts into a sadistic smile. Violence is all he has left. After marching to certain death he performs a final act of pointless vandalism, putting a brick through the shop window. The rival gangsters are never shown, enforcing the sense that Powers has brought death upon himself. His last words are the antithesis of his previous violent dynamism: "I ain't so tough". But Cagney's delivery cannot help but maintain heroic qualities. The gangster appraises his situation in one stylish remark, as Shadoian says, "If the film insists that one can't win, it's how you lose that counts" (????. 16). Consequently he is made to die a second time. The second closure whitewashes Mike into a delighted family man, enhancing the positivity of the family, as though his conventionality had never resulted in violent behaviour or misguided rhetoric. Tom fulfils the moral custodians desire for repentance, but by giving his mother his trademark quirky punch the film seems to say that a gangster can never be truly rehabilitated. The mummified corpse that collapses soon at Mike's feet cannot entirely erase our earlier sympathies with Tom, but leaving the ultimate horror, Ma's reaction, to the audience's imagination is successfully shocking. Even so these scenes do not quite fulfil their intention, to promote a preffered reading of the film that "crime does not pay" and inhibit the potential for broader or more ambiguous readings found in the film as a whole. Ultimately, then, Public Enemy's stated aim is rather sanctimonious. It did however achieve its purpose, allowing the film a commercial release (although it was6

Candidate 316773 Dreaming Nations Assessed Essay: The Public Enemy

eventually banned in 1935). It does "depict honestly" the increasingly extreme fantasies that existed in certain strata of American life, but in doing so glorifies the gangster, albeit as a fleeting triumph rather than a solution to the problems of urban ethnic America, and as a hero who must inevitibly fall.


Sources CitedHallan, Julia & Marshment, Margaret 2000, Realism & Popular Cinema Manchester University Press: Manchester Munby, Jonathan 1999 Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening The Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil [GET PUBLISHERS] Pearson, Roberta E. & Simpson, Phillip, ed. 2001 Critical Dictionary Of Film & Television Theory Routledge: London Shadoian, Jack Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster Crime Film [GET PUBLISHERS]

1 It was one way of avoiding the protective legislation proposed by progressive reform movements, that eventually developed into the Hays Code. 2 As defined in Pearson, Roberta E. Critical Dictionary of Film & Television Theory 3 Hallan and Marshment describe gangster films as "melodramatic rather than realist in structure" (2000, 87) 4 "This post-Crash gangster was distinguished first and foremost by his ethnicity" (Munby, 1999, 20) 5 "The [gangster] genre speaks to not merely our fascination/repulsion with aspects of our socioeconomic mileu that we prefer to shut our eyes to but also to our fascination/repulsion with the most haunting depths of ourselves" (Shadoian, 19??, 2) 6 "The talking gangster, as it were, took advantage of one of the few places granted in the culture for the representation of lower-class ethnic American life. A space of cultural containment and ideological legitimation was turned into something more rebellious. What had once been away to manage the crisis features of America's entry into modernity was transformed into a way to produce crisis (Munby, 1999, 5) 7 Putty Nose is the best example of the thoroughly evil gangster, even though he does not deserve his eventual execution. Putty Nose, with his slanting hat and slanting cigarrette, exploits the young because "they won't expect much of a cut". His Boys' Club scene verges on the grotesque a fat boy slouched in the corner, another sat on a piano. Putty Nose has enormous influence, an authority as negative as those left behind in the legitimate world. When he gets up to leave the piano they mob him, and as he leaves his tune is imitated one handed, out of shot. Even Tom, the young vagabond, listens to Putty Nose with wide eyed innocence. He is corrupted before he has a chance in legitimate society, before his feet even touch the ground. Putty Nose seems to provide an alternative family for Matt and Tom, but quickly betrays them. Tom cannot separate the mistrust necessary to survive in the gangster world from family relations. By echoing Putty Nose's words in an argument with Mike, "you're too smart", we realise that his incompatibility with domestic life can only lead to destruction. 8 "[Tom's] antagonistic status as a social misfit gives him an attractive agency to do what he likes. Yet it damns him, too. Cut off (or liberated?) from the security of home . . . , Tommy gets caught in a sociopsychological limbo. He is unwilling to start a family of his own" (Munby 1999, 53)