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Cagney the Classic Bad Guy

January 19, 2012

by John Farr

In his day James Cagney became the quintessential movie bad guy. Here are three of his best baddies.

The Public Enemy (1931)

This landmark film concerns Tom Powers (James Cagney), a wayward Irish youth from Chicago’s gritty South Side who becomes a big-time mobster during Prohibition, while his stable older brother Mike (Donald Cook) works a low-paying but honest job. As Tom’s dark star soars ever higher in the gangland hierarchy, he and childhood buddy Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) leave a trail of blood in their wake, but ultimately this life of crime exacts its toll on Tom.

Wellman’s “The Public Enemy” launched the film career of a pugnacious Irish-American from Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen who started out as a dancer, only to become the toughest tough guy of them all: Jimmy Cagney, never cockier than he is here. Since organized crime was a fairly new and frightening epidemic at the time, Wellman gives “Enemy” the stark feel of a purely cautionary tale. Both the famous grapefruit scene and Tom’s final homecoming still pack a wallop, and a stunning Jean Harlow injects plenty of sex appeal as Tom’s gal Gwen.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly, two young hooligans on the make, are caught stealing, and only Jerry gets away. As the years go by, the reform school-hardened Rocky (James Cagney) enters a life of crime, becoming a famous and feared gangster, while Jerry (Pat O’Brien) ultimately sees the light and enters the priesthood. While maintaining affection for each other, criminal and priest must compete for the souls of a new generation of hoodlums in the neighborhood, played by the Dead End Kids.

“Angels” represents the peak of the gangster picture genre which Warners developed and refined in the thirties, when the age of Capone was still fresh in people’s minds. Cagney, whose screen career had been launched seven years before in “The Public Enemy”, perfects his rendition of the crook with a heart of gold, and his close real-life friend Pat O’Brien counters him perfectly as the mellow, morally upright Father Connolly. Meanwhile Humphrey Bogart, in full villain mode, is deliciously slimy as Rocky’s “business partner”. Whatever you do, don’t miss that ending!

White Heat (1949)

Film follows twisted path of one Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) a hardened career criminal whose profound mental illness manifests itself in blinding headaches and an intense mother fixation. His psychosis doesn’t hold him back from an aggressive spree of robbing and killing, however. When Cody winds up in jail on a relatively minor charge, the authorities place undercover cop Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) in his cell. Later, when the two are sprung, Hank joins the Jarrett gang, and from the inside, starts to accelerate Cody’s undoing.

Raoul Walsh’s dynamite gangster picture is so much more than a re-tread of the early thirties gangster classics that made Cagney a star. Here we are less concerned with the cat-and-mouse aspects of the story (though they are plenty diverting) and more focused on the progressive mental disintegration of the central character. Cagney is outstanding as Jarrett, a man whose own demons may consume him before the police finish the job. Electrifying stuff, and a Cagney peak.

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