Raoul Walsh, after a quarter century directing, started his great Warners run with this big, confident gangster saga. Often cited as the acme in the Warners Gangster Cycle, it’s certainly the plushest, with a strong cast working behind James Cagney’s fast-rising/fast-sinking (Prohibition/Stock Market Crash) WWI vet turned mob-chief. Priscilla Lane never connects as the sweet gal he improbably pines for, but everyone else (from Frank McHugh’s cabbie pal & Humphrey Bogart’s sadistic weak-cored thug, to Paul Kelly’s spaghetti twirling mob rival & Gladys George’s over-the-hill club hostess) give unforgettable turns. George all but steals the pic (she gets the famous last line), while Bogie’s weaselly rub-out is so vanity-free, it’s almost embarrassing to watch. Cagney, still lean, almost gaunt-looking, does one amazing thing after another, mostly in quiet moments or with his eyes. An unbelievably resourceful actor. Yet, as a whole, the film misses the raw & memorably näif dramatics of the early ‘30s classics. Like a lot of late-‘30s Hollywood product, it’s too polished for its own good, nothing sticks. Technically it may dwarf the primitive Talkies, but something precious is lost in smoothing out the rough edges. Freshness? Style? Verisimilitude? Attitude? Perhaps just too knowing. Still pretty great.
DOUBLE-BILL: Cagney’s mob beginnings are on display in THE PUBLIC ENEMY/’31, or watch him & helmer Michael Curtiz keep things edgy the year before in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES/’38.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Parental Units! There’s a veritable Between-the-Wars high school history lesson embedded in the dramatic structure.