Here's "a little air!"
September 3, 1949 review of the film in The New York Times,
Bosley Crowther noted with unusual perception and fine writing that
"Mr. Cagney achieves the fascination of a brilliant bull-fighter at
work, deftly engaged in the business of violence with economy and
grace," adding that "His movements are supple and electric, his
words are swift and sharp as swords and his whole manner carries the
conviction of confidence, courage and power."
think Mr. Cagney looked brutal when he punched Mae Clark in the face
with a ripe grapefruit in 'Public Enemy' ," Mr. Crowther
continued, "you should see the sweet and loving things he does to
handsome Virginia Mayo, who plays his low-grade wife in this
film. Or you should scan the exquisite indifference with which he
'lets a little air' into the trunk compartment of an auto in which is
locked a treacherous 'friend.'"
film's script is brilliant and succinct as when Cagney kicks someone he
has just shot down the stairs and tells his associates at the bottom of
the stairs, "Catch."
character, Cody Jarrett, his not perfect. His achilles heel is
epileptic attacks and after one bout in front of his gang at a hide-out
he curls up in his mother's lap and when he calms down has some tea
before going back to show his gang he's ok.
with all film noirs, the film's plot has its twists and turns although
the wide-open spaces of the scenery, the story's ruthlessness and
shock, and the dialogue cannot be contained by the traditional confines
of film noir.
movie begins with a train robbery in California where Cagney jumps onto
the train's coal car as it emerges from a Southern Pacific Tunnel and
tells the two engineers to stop the train. When one of this gang
mentions his name before being badly scalded the engine's steam, Cagney
has no hestitation in shooting both of the engineers when one repeats
his name: You've got a good memory for names. Too good!"
gang gets away and retreats to its mountain hide-out, but Cagney's
character, Cody Jarrett, orders a gang member to put the scalded man
out of his misery. The gang member disobeys and fires a shot into
the air and later the scalded man is found frozen and dead in the
mountains by Federal agents.
The gang, however, soon thereafter kill two people in a bank robbery.
Soon, Cody has a severe attack and needs
to be soothed by the loving hands of his mother.
mother, played with more evil relish than the Wicked Witch of the North
in The Wizard of Oz ever dreamt of by the appropriately name Margaret
Wycherly, finds Virginia Mayo in bed and declares "Well, if it aint'
the Sleeping Beauty!" Mayo responds "What else does a girl get to
do in this bear trap?
"There's plenty you can do without
wearing out the mattress," Cody's mother responds.
Mayo's character, Verna, longs for a
mink coat and Cody remarks that she would "look good in a shower
She gets her mink coat, but when a
federal agent recognizes's Cody's mother buying strawberries, it's time
for the gang to move on. With the Feds closing in, Cody decides
to give himself for another robbery in a different state to get a
shorter sentence with no death penalty.
In prison, he is befriended by a federal
agent planted to learn where the money is and who was Cagney's fence.
In the prison's large mess hall, he
learns that his beloved mother is dead and he goes berserk, very
memorably, scattering across the top of the tables and punching out
several guards before being subdued.
to the Wikipedia article, "Jack Warner wanted the prison mess hall
scene replaced for budgetary reasons, stating the 'cost of a single
scene with 600 extras and only one line of dialogue would be
For this reason, Warner wanted the scene shot in a chapel, but relented
when 'the writers pointed out that, apart from the fact that Jarrett
would [never be willingly caught in a] chapel, the whole point of the
scene was to 'have a lot of noise. with rattling knives and forks and
chatters, that suddenly goes completely silent when Jarrett first
screams.' The scream was improvised by Cagney, and the shock on
everyone's face was real, for neither Cagney nor Walsh informed any of
the extras of what was going to happen. Warner agreed to the
scene on the condition that it be shot in three houses, so 'that the
extras were through by lunchtime.'"
Smoozing with Verna, his moll
Mayo never looked more luscious and alluring than in this movie.
Only Peggy Cummings in "Gun Crazy" and Margaret Wycherly in this film
are more frighteningly evil. It is not hard to understand how
Cody could overlook Verna's greed when she turns on her "heat."
She is a truly irresistible temptress so much so that she is able to
convince Cody that Steve Cochran killed his mother when, we eventually
find out, she did.
Behind his back
Cochran's take-over of the gang was
understandable given Verna's hope that his plot to have Cody killed in
prison would succeed.
Edmond O'Brien listens
is a bit far-fetched is that Fallon, the Federal agent character played
by Edmond O'Brien, would spend an indeterminant time in prison trying
to befriend Cody. It is interesting that Cody is suspicious at
first and only accepts him when he saves him from Cochran's ordered
killing and subsequently begs
to be taken along on Cody's prison escape by saying he really misses
escape and plan to rob a payroll at an oil plant by hiding in the
"belly" of a large tanker truck that will serve as a "Trojan
Horse." O'Brien alerts the Feds and they follow the gang to the
plant where a lot of the gang is shot.
Cody hustles up the spiral staircase around one of the plant's huge
O'Brien takes a sniper rifle and shoots him a couple of times.
Cody staggers and then in maniacal frenzy fires his pistol downward
into the tank setting off a tremendous explosion that quite literally
sends him to the "Top of the World."
It is a fitting, and proper, and glorious, final finish and there can
be no doubt that Cody's mother would be proud.
This film ranks 69th in Carter B. Horsley's Top
500 Sound Films.