Time: 89 mins.
Rating: Not Rated
SYNOPSIS: Federal agent Jeff Crane gets thrown in prison to befriend mob boss Sonny Black and help him escape in an effort to discover where his gang is hiding out. Along the way to bringing Sonny to justice, Jeff meets and falls in love with Sonny's upstanding sister Terry, which complicates his job when he has to break both their hearts in the name of justice.
BOTTOM LINE: This is an intense, gritty gangster drama that probably would be more well-known if a bigger name star played the lead role, like Cagney or Bogart. Not to take anything away from Chester Morris, who's great as the undercover federal agent trying to separate his heart from his head while attempting to bring a crime boss to justice. He was pretty popular in the 30s, but his star faded in the ensuing decade, leaving this exciting tale fairly undiscovered. I'm generally not a fan of the mobster genre, yet there's something about this film that kept me on the edge of my seat. Sure, I knew how it was going to end, the crime boss rarely walks away, yet the plot was solid, the performances intriguing and occasionally unexpected and the romance more than merely a time waster. Morris does not have an easy role. He has to be believable both as a hard core lawman/criminal and a charming love interest. Lucky for us, he is.
By casting Jean Arthur as Terry, the sweet sister of the Purple Gang's crime boss Sonny, we don't get the usual cheap dame looking for a bad boy. She's smart, funny and no push over. You know she's going to crack our hero's tough exterior, it's just a question of how long he can resist. Her performance adds wit, humor and charm to the film. Her goodness also gives Jeff another reason to bring Sonny down and the audience a happy ending to root for. Joseph Calleia brings great depth to the role of Sonny, a part that could have been one note but is filled here with rage, intelligence and true menace. That he and Arthur could be related is physically quite a joke, however, they have a connection that works quite well. Barrymore was clearly thrown into the mix to add caché to the film, but his part as the constantly drunk doctor on the Purple Gang's payroll is amusing yet not exactly new territory for the actor.
Most films of this period are staged quite simply with few locations and mostly talking heads. What makes this movie stand out is the diversity of the action and art direction. From the daring prison break – including a fairly convinginc high speed car chase – to a romantic first meeting in the rain to a guns plazing shootout and a daring plan to bring down the gang for good, PUBLIC HERO goes out of the box and into the real world. When Jeff's love for Terry compromises the capture of Sonny, he does what any action hero would, he tricks the drunk doctor into taking him to the hideout so he can avenge his honor despite the consequences with the girl. It's what happens after the raid (which is superbly choreographed for maximum excitement), that's a bit hard to swallow. Sure your new boyfriend lied to you and then tries to use you in an attempt to capture your deadbeat brother, but seriously true love is nothing to sneeze at and at least he has noble reasons for his behavior. The plot flouders a bit after the shootout, however, it doesn't take too long to come to its' inevitable conclusion – Sonny dead and our lovers in a clinch. All in all a well-executed film on every level that delivers more than its' fair share of surprises.