Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1995.9.G3 M34 2004
McCarthy attributes a large amount of the success of The Public Enemy to Cagney’s performance. He writes that Cagney played the protagonist Tom Powers in a real, utterly honest way, adding a ring of legitimacy to the gangster film. McCarthy notes that Cagney’s presentation of Powers was so powerful that it evoked a reaction from the pro-censorship contingency. Influential civic and religious groups rallied around Hollywood with renewed vigor, objecting to how actors such as Cagney glorified crime with their roles. Specifically, Will H. Hays, the “morals czar” (156) heading the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), took preventative steps to ensure that Hollywood crime films would not be based on the lives of real, existing criminals. Hays and others worried that Cagney’s life-like portrayal of gangsters would immortalize existing criminals and inspire young Americans to travel down a similar illicit path.
According to McCarthy, while Cagney may have unintentionally or indirectly inspired a censorship rampage, he also left an indelible impression on contemporary cinema. Cagney’s “distinctive tough-guy gangster” (165) truly shaped the role of the mobster criminal. McCarthy points out several examples of actors who followed in Cagney’s footsteps, including actor Richard Widmark’s performance in Kiss of Death, which was largely modeled on Cagney’s interpretation of Tom Powers.
McCarthy’s analysis of Cagney in The Public Enemy in addition to other roles of his in the gangster genre demonstrates the level of influence an actor can maintain in a film. This point is central to my argument. McCarthy notes how Cagney’s lifelike portrayal of Tom Powers brought a true sense of sincerity to the movie. Consequently, the relatable nature of The Public Enemy can be somewhat attributed to Cagney’s performance.
Cagney, by giving what was determined to be an honest presentation of the life of a gangster, gives the audience the opportunity to identify with the character of Tom Powers. American viewers are able to see the gangster as a dynamic, real man, rather than as a flat character on the screen. Cagney’s humanization of Powers is significant in garnering viewer empathy for a criminal.