Sunday 4 January 2009

What was his Business?

The Roaring Twenties. Saw it years ago as a teenager and was my first proper look at the gangster film as defined by Cagney and Bogart. I was surprised at the time to see Bogart in what was essentially a supporting role but even more surprised to see him playing a snivelling weasel who turns yellow when Cagney has him at the end. I found him surprisingly good in this different type of role.

Watching it again, while I still enjoy Bogie's part, it's Cagney who rules, and rightly so, in this tragedy of a decent man who finds himself forced into the wrong side of the law by a combination of elements beyond him. Not welcomed back as the war hero he is, chided by those who stayed at home and jobless, this still doesn't overtly criticise the lack of support to returning troops by home and government but at least began to address the issue before the extreme jingoism of the Second World War took a hold of the US, which would have made this an unconfrontable issue at the time. I haven't seen Best Years of Their Lives, but this has put me in a mind to watch it.

The Roaring Twenties also gives Cagney another superb ending, after falling in to his mother's house all dead and wrapped up in The Public Enemy and after his ambiguous final act of redemption in Angels with Dirty Faces. It's a far swifter end, as Cagney's Eddie Bartlett staggers on to the wide church steps to breathe his last. But the final glorious line bypasses him and goes to the equally tragic but far more aware character of Panama, played by Gladys George. When asked by the officer on the scene what Bartlett's business was, she sums him and his end up as honestly as she can.

"He used to be a big shot."

An undignified end for the big man, framed small against the vast steps. Almost like he is laid open before his god, ready to be judged.

A clue to Bartlett's possible knowledge of his situation with regards to his position and love life can be seen in his holding hands with Panama, even as he admires his girlfriend Priscilla Lane singing in the speakeasy. As though, yeah this life is great right now, but deep down he knows that Lane doesn't love him and he knows he's kidding himself.

Lovely stuff. I'm finding out more and more of the tragic nature if Cagney's gangster roles. White Heat next and I may give The Public Enemy another go.

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