Being bad never looked so good
On April 23, 1931, Warner Brothers released what would become one of their most influential films, “The Public Enemy,” starring the great James Cagney as Tom Powers.
For a film that’s too old to be seen on American Movie Classics or Turner Classic Movies, its legacy has lived on more than three-quarters of a century later.
Without “The Public Enemy,” we’d have no Martin Scorcese, no Michael Mann, no “Sopranos.”
Cagney’s performance is iconic in his menace and disregard for law and order. Similar to Brooklyn’s very own Robin Hood, he will steal from those who have enough and give it to those who don’t, always saving a pretty penny for himself.
In fact, it could be argued that Tom Powers was the first anti-hero of cinema or at the very least, the mold by which the gangster-hero archetype was cast.
Tony Soprano watches Cagney’s performance with a particular sense of fascination during one episode, creating a surreal moment as the present day mobster admires the man he would have been in Prohibition-Era America.
While many praise “Goodfellas” for glamorizing a life of crime, it just so happened to arrive at a time when society was ready to embrace the villain instead of ostracizing him. The working class is described as “schmucks,” while the man who cuts corners and breaks the rules is living the life we’re all supposed to. In essence, he is free, and we are not.
What’s appealing about these bad guy characters is that they dare to do what most people do not. They pursue the American dream by whatever means necessary, while the rest of us settle into trying to be upstanding citizens and contributing members of society. We must ultimately learn to give up the life we envisioned growing up. No white picket fence or two-car garage, but instead, a small apartment shared with a lover or friend until we find careers and pay off our insurmountable debt.
So, what is the purpose of flaunting the glitz and glam of those who make their dough unlike the rest of us trying to make an honest living?
Dillinger, Powers, Hill, McCauley and Soprano — they all wind up alone, walking the streets with their heads on a swivel and battle sleepless nights, always facing the disappointment of the friends and family they’ve hurt.
That’s the moral dilemma we face as people. Do we want to leave the world better than we left it? Or do we want to go after what’s owed to us? You can apply for that Bridge card, or you can get a job like the rest of us.
Then again, as far back as you can remember, what did you want to be?
Yeah, I wanted to be a gangster, too.