- This movie starts with a bizarre intro that was added in 1948 – it consists of a man standing in front of a room of FBI trainees (on the brink of the Bureau’s 25th anniversary of existence), telling them that this movie does not display modern fashions, but it does feature hoodlums, who, the man states, “are still the same as they were then” – they are still “public enemies.”
- Now…the actual movie.
- To start out, a guy comes into Brick Davis (James Cagney)’s law office & is like, ‘Bro – I have the perfect case for you – you can really help my buddy out. Last night he got plastered and accidentally beat up his mother with the butt of his revolver. She might die, in which case he’d be up for murder. Lame, right?’
Cagney’s like, ‘Uh, wrong. Get the fuck out of my office, I am not a scum lawyer.’ Then he literally pushes the guy out of his office & for good measure, punches him in the face. God, I love Cagney.
- Meanwhile, Brick’s old buddy Buchanan (Regis Toomey), an FBI agent who wants Brick to come work with him, gets killed in the line of duty. This – plus the fact that Brick never has any decent cases because the only people who want to hire him are crooked gangsters – convinces Brick it’s time he joined up.
- So…turns out the reason all these slimy criminals keep trying to come to Brick for legal assistance is because as a boy, he was taken under the wing of one of the head gangsters and was raised with all of the delinquents. Luckily though, Brick’s benefactor (‘Mac’ McKay, played by William Harrigan) has always been all for Brick “doing things on the level” and being an honest man – so when Brick’s like, ‘Dude – I’m gonna join the FBI,’ Mac’s like, ‘Sweet. Arrest all the criminals you can – even me, if you’ve got to!’
- Brick helps identify a gangster in the ongoing “Who killed our agent-friend Buchanan?” case, and wants to go to NY to work the case on the ground. FBI bosses are like, ‘No way, man – you’re too young & inexperienced.’ Brick is disappointed, but he distracts himself from this disappointment by romantically pursuing his direct supervisor (Jeff McCord, played by Robert Armstrong)’s sister Kay (Margaret Lindsay).
- Both the Leggett (Edward Pawley) arrest scene (which is set somewhere in the midwest) & the gangsters-free-Leggett-in-a-shootout-at-the-train-station scene are excellently done. The sound (& use of silence) is great, and the camera angles – as well as the cuts between them – are done in a very visually interesting way. Both scenes are brief, but handled extremely well.
- FBI agents in – whenever this film is set – weren’t allowed to carry firearms?! That’s crazy!
- So…this guy/gangster Leggett. I understand that he has this good luck custom of wearing a fresh gardenia pinned to his lapel every day…but when you’re a wanted man, and you’ve already been identified twice based on the damn gardenia, don’t you think it’d be a smart move to discontinue wearing the flower for awhile? It makes you really fucking recognizable, brother! What a (well-dressed) dolt!
- McCord promises Kay that he won’t do anything dangerous, he swears! Nothing will happen to him, honest! Don’t you worry your pretty little head, Kay – he only makes safe decisions!
Less than a minute later, he’s like, ‘Oh, some gangsters are threatening my department? I’ll take Leggett to the penitentiary ALL BY MYSELF and y’all gangsters can just have at me!’
Kay is not enthused.
- McCord is kind of a stud, in a frowny, ultra-serious curmudgeon sort of way.
- Speaking of studs…the FBI guys find Jean (Ann Dvorak), who’s an old flame of Brick’s, to question her about the whereabouts of her now-husband Collins (Barton MacLane).
Brick: Why’d you marry him?
Jean: Because Barton MacLane’s a hunk, you dumbass!
(Okay, so the exchange didn’t happen exactly like that. Ha.)
- (But for real – you know that’s what she was thinking. Why else would she marry a gangster named Brad Collins? The Skipper’s attractive as hell!)
(…SMART BLONDE (1937), anyone?)
- Anyhow – Jean accidentally lets it slip that Brad is hiding at the (allegedly crime- and gangster-free) retirement residence of MacKay.
- Oh, I see. MacKay has not decided to harbor the fugitives – they’re force-harboring themselves at his lodge. Poor Mac is their tied-up prisoner!
- The big shootout scene at MacKay’s lodge, filmed mostly in darkness, is a pretty exquisite sequence – the sound of constant gunfire, coupled with the highly detailed visuals, results in a great few minutes of film.
- The escaping gangster car catching on fire & rolling down an embankment is some stellar footage.
- Sadly, the gangsters use MacKay as a human shield as they’re coming out of the house, & Brick accidentally shoots & kills him. Boo.
- The only gangster who escapes is (of course) Collins, and they (Brick & McCord) track him to his flee-location (aka: Jean’s apartment).
- There is a beautiful shot of Collins climbing out of the window onto the fire escape – it’s lit from below, & the light beams shine through the panels of the fire escape floor to create a fan-like image – like a whole row of small, angled search lights – and Collins strides right through the center of them.
- Unfortunately, before doing this, Collins shoots Brick – who knocks McCord out of the way so he can take the bullets himself.
- But – happy surprise! Brick didn’t die. Woop!
- Collins’ need for an immediate hideout is an excellent opportunity for everyone’s favorite omni-gangster to make an appearance as a crooked auto-mechanic.
What’s up Harold Huber?! Long time, no see, you criminal!
- WHAAAAT! Jean goes to Harold’s garage & sees the hostaged Kay, & runs to phone Brick. HOWEVER, Collins has become wise to her Brick loyalties and tracks her down & SHOOTS HER DOWN IN THE GODDAMN PHONE BOOTH.
(It’s a wild sequence of events, trust me!)
- Brick breaks himself from his hospital room & gets to Jean just in time for her to pass along Collins’ whereabouts (809 Allen Street). Their farewell scene is A+. Not too sappy, not too over-acted. Bravo, Ann Dvorak.
- Boy, Cagney made a career of playing straight-up, undeniable badasses, didn’t he?
- Here, hours after being shot twice, he again goes after Collins, this time alone (back up hasn’t arrived yet). Yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds.
- The look Brick gives Kay as he turns to leave the garage after rescuing her is electric. Oh, James Cagney. You are a champion.
- In the end, McCord & Brick are the best two friends that anyone could have, and it’s adorable (in the manliest way possible, of course).
- Really solid movie. Short, sweet, & I really enjoyed it. (Okay – “sweet” might not be the best word – “intense,” “exciting,” or “dynamic” might work better – but whatever. You get the idea.)
- Highly recommended.