In his article, Christopher Shannon focuses on the transformation of the Irish-American gangster in Hollywood cinema. He uses James Cagney as a model, comparing his performances in Irish-American roles to those of his contemporaries.
Shannon observes that Cagney’s role of Tommy Powers differs significantly from other Irish-American gangsters. He compares Powers to Rico Bandello in Little Caesar and Tony Camonte in Scarface, and recognizes that while Powers’ character shares a similar temperament with his cinematic peers, he is far less stereotypical in terms of substance. Instead of focusing on materialistic individualism, Powers traverses the hierarchy of the underworld due to “loyalties forged in childhood” (52).
In fact, Shannon notes the emphasis that Wellman places on Powers’ childhood, commenting that it is fairly unusual. Wellman dedicates several opening scenes to portraying Powers’ neighborhood, offering the audience a comprehensive glimpse into Powers’ background. Wellman’s “extended photo essay on a city neighborhood” (52) paints a largely negative picture of the childhood. Significantly, the shots center on beer, saloons, and Salvation Army trucks.
These initial scenes bear much significance for the argument of my paper. They are brief looks into an environment that seems to be anything but nurturing for a child. The audience is able to understand the social and psychological reasons for Powers’ gravitation towards crime. He is a product of an unwholesome environment. Essentially, to the audience, Powers is perceived as a victim of circumstance. And, because viewers are able to explain Powers, understanding him on a psychological level, they empathize with him, and feel sorrow for his ultimate downfall.