Time: 83 Minutes
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Film Noir / Crime
AWARDS: Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.
SYNOPSIS: A young hoodlum rises up through the ranks of the Chicago underworld, even as a gangster's accidental death threatens to spark a bloody mob war.
Cagney takes on the world in his first starring role on the big screen and after you see this performance, you'll see why he became such a big star. His brash charm barely hides his character's deep-seated animosity towards the world at large. His character is not a nice guy and his choices make it very hard to like him. In Prohibition-Era America it was hard to come by a decent job, if one could be found at all. The film follows his character's rise from a petty street thief to a powerful criminal feared by all. He's clearly the hero of the piece, though his actions are far from admirable. The film walks a fine line between glorifying his lifestyle and making him out to be an evil crook. The opening and closing post-scripts clearly want the audience to identify him as the latter, but Cagney's performance is so powerful you'll find yourself forgiving him his transgressions, much like his mother does over and over again in the film. How else is he supposed to provide for his family?
Though something of a morality tale, the film is quickly paced and light enough on the rhetoric that it never gets too preachy. Cagney is clearly having too much fun to let something like morals stand in his way. The B&W cinematography adds to the grittiness of the story, playing with light and shadow as Cagney flirts with and then succumbs to the dark side of life. Of course, there was no other option in 1931, but this film delivers better production values than most for the time. Harlow doesn't have much to do except look good, but she makes the most of her small role as one of Cagney's girlfriends. One of the first and best of the early gangster flicks. It has everything one expects of the genre greed, guns and pretty gals.