In this article, Ronald W. Wilson offers a critique of Jonathan Munby’s piece “Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil.” He discusses Munby’s portrayal of the gangster as an American icon, reviewing the idea that the gangster emerged as a symbol representing America at a time when the nation was experiencing rapid urbanization.
According to Wilson, Munby argues that city dwellers were unaccustomed to the hasty changes taking place in their neighborhoods. A majority of urban citizens were familiar with a largely homogenous, Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, and were unsure about how to react to an influx of immigrants that differed from them vastly. The gangster came to represent a fusion of the various cultures that were pooling into America’s cities. Essentially, the cinematic gangster was a manifestation of all types of ‘otherness’ that Americans were not able to psychologically penetrate.
Wilson agrees with this claim to a large extent, but adds that the perception of the gangster changed with the advent of sound technology. He writes that the institution of sound made the gangster seem even more foreign, as audiences were able to hear characters such as Powers or Scarface speak with a pronouncedly different accent.
This article makes an interesting point, and would add another dimension to my analysis. Wilson makes a valid claim when he states that Anglo-Saxon, Protestant audiences viewed Italian or Irish gangsters as fairly foreign, and were unable to connect with those characters. However, as the article mentions, these homogenous audiences filled theaters in the early 1920s, when urbanization was in its initial stages.
In my paper, I will emphasize the timeline of urbanization, noting that when The Public Enemy was released in 1931, the cultural composition of audiences had changed. A significant portion of movie-goers were the products of immigration and urbanization, and many of them were from either Italy or Ireland. As a result, the gangster – who spoke with an accent and ate ‘ethnic’ dishes – was an accurate representation the backgrounds of audience members. Consequently, the processes of immigration and urbanization changed cultural make-up of audiences, allowing viewers to see themselves reflected on screen and identify more fully with the characters.
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.
Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1995.9.G3 M37 2002
Mason’s piece explains the visual style of The Public Enemy, in addition to the film’s representation of the Hollywood gangster. She analyzes the editing, production, and acting components of the movie, contrasting The Public Enemy to other well known films, particularly Little Caesar.
Mason emphasizes the striking and shocking nature of a number of scenes in the film. She specifically mentions the grapefruit scene, in which Cagney shoves a grapefruit into his girlfriend’s face after they begin to argue over drinking in the morning. The scene incited social and public controversy at the time of its release, but also remains “one of the best remembered scenes in gangster cinema” (17). Mason remarks that the film brims with other memorable scenes, including the final one, in which Powers’ body – bandaged tightly to a stiff board – topples over in his family’s entrance way.
Mason discusses the production of The Public Enemy, noting that its style is fairly “naturalistic” (16). This is largely due to the crisp editing that generates a strong connection between each scene. A significant portion of the film is also shot outdoors, allowing natural light to dominate each scene. The characters, bathed in this natural light, seem more approachable and normal than gangsters in other crime films, such as Little Caesar.
This piece is particularly central to my argument, because it enumerates the reasons why Americans related to the gangster protagonist in The Public Enemy more so than other films. As Mason notes, The Public Enemy is filled with striking, memorable scenes. The unforgettable nature of the scenes allows the moments to resonate with the audience. Viewers are emotionally and mentally impacted by the movie, and are consequently more able to connect and empathize with the characters. Additionally, Mason’s mention of the naturalistic production of the film – evident in the use of natural light and sense of continuity between scenes – further contributes to the audience’s ability to connect with characters and identify with those living in a world of crime.