In the three seminal pre-code Hollywood gangster films--Mervyn LeRoy's Little Caesar (1931), William A. Wellman's The Public Enemy (1931) and Howard Hawks's Scarface (1932)--the titular characters, as portrayed by Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Paul Muni are emblematic of the anti-prohibitionist, anti-government attitude that most of the American public embraced in the years of their respective releases. Though the characters are different from one another in many areas (the most different being Cagney's Tom Powers in The Public Enemy) they do share certain similarities, the most obvious of which is their common disregard for the law, police and public order so long as those things stand as barriers between them and success. These characters may be cruel, harsh and unsympathetic--often plagued by neuroses or personal problems stemming from some kind of sexual proclivity or peculiar desire--but they conveyed a grassroots antipathy toward the government's disastrous crackdown on the selling of alcohol. Ultimately, what unites the three gangster characters the most is that they were vicarious beings, certainly autochthonous-to-America, through whom audiences could project their own anger at the establishment that had legally banned alcohol, only facilitating an entire market of economic business for the gangsters in the process.
The three characters played by Robinson, Cagney and Muni are of varying within the general gangster mold (and would each set different templates for future takes on the underworld archetypes) yet they share a transparently clear trajectory in at least one sense. All three are Horatio Algers gone bad, men who had to scratch and claw their way up the economic food chain of America, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and doing whatever was necessary to escape their existence as "suckers," enchanted by the concept of finding the paradise of a vastly superior standard of living. Materialistic greed was their credo; capitalism run amok may have been the only way for them to eventually prosper. That their methods involved murder, extortion, racketeering and assorted other sins, was in their eyes--and in the eyes of many a moviegoer--incidental to the overall scheme at large. This is why legions of Americans could almost instantly identify with those instant archetype-molding characterizations whatever their faults, these men were rugged entrepreneurs who did not wait for a miracle from the heavens to occur or beg for handouts. The Robinson, Cagney and Muni characters are ruthlessly effective businessmen who saw an untapped market and responded.
Prohibition's final outcome was that the illegal status of alcohol made the price increase dramatically. Bootlegging was an attractive way to climb the economic strata; the illegality of alcohol made the selling of it far more lucrative. Fourteen years of alcoholic illegality after the Volstead Act of 1919 fostered an era of disquieting criminality. In the latter years of this stretch, pre-code Hollywood films depicted the realities (with exaggerations, dramatic license and lots of inaccuracies and frequent censor-demanded moralizing) of the gangsters who stepped in to fill the massive vacuum that existed due to governmental interference. People may have "known better," but they instinctively sided with the hoodlums largely because they had grown weary of the government's prohibition.
Yet another aspect helped to arguably romanticize the gangster. The charismatic acting of these figures, like the snarling Robinson, sneering Cagney and growling Muni reinforced the savagely seductive nature of the modern outlaw. Many audience members saw the gangsters are irresistibly glamorous individuals, the ultimate antiheroes, as we know the term today, frequently outwitting the hopelessly inept cops who tried to stop them. Yes, the gangsters got theirs in the end, but their gloriously wild rides to hell seemed to make it all worthwhile. In The Public Enemy, for instance, Cagney plays Irish hood Tom Powers with all of the charm and sociopathic etiquette of a sleek, prowling panther. He has a joyfully swell time dashing about in his tailored suits, shooting up uncooperative speakeasies and pitching woo to Jean Harlow. He brooks no complaints whatsoever against his wanton, vicious behavior. The better part of America's citizenry packed the cinemas to spend an evening in the dark identifying and empathizing with Powers' vibrant heedlessness.
Powers' demise in the film--winding up wrapped in mummy bandages and tossed like an unwanted parcel onto his dear mother's doorstep--concluded The Public Enemy with a dour and shocking dose of judiciousness. Members of official society were complaining that these swaggering mobsters, like Cagney's Powers, were setting an egregious example. Hollywood elected to avoid a considerable problem down the road and beat the milling forces of censorship to the punch by setting up its own Production Code, the infamous Hays Office, officially adopted in 1930 (to become effectively enforced beginning in 1934), which stipulated--along with myriad other items--that films would never depict criminals conclusively benefiting from their illegal stunts. This prompted Warner Brothers to run the following civic-minded announcement just after the opening credits of The Public Enemy: "It is the ambition of the authors of 'The Public Enemy' to honestly [sic] depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life, rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal." Finally, after Cagney's gangster corpse bounces headlong onto his mother's threadbare hallway carpet, the audience is subjected to yet another announcement of virtuous intent: "The END of Tom Powers is the end of every hoodlum. 'The Public Enemy' is not a man, nor is it a character--it is a problem that sooner or later WE, the public, must solve."
One must truly ponder the troubling question, that being, did the good people at Warner Studios truthfully believe they were struggling for the benefit of the masses to solve the Tom Powers problem? As Leonard Maltin has written on the subject of gangster films of the era, the written cautionary notes placed at the beginnings and endings of various gangster dramas were a formality, a kind of public service announcement that was intended to ensure that Hollywood could continue to make profitable gangster films unabated.
Meanwhile, Little Caesar demonstrates a man played by Robinson, Rico, who climbs the gangland ladder the way a wily, tenacious and highly successful CEO might have rapidly flown up the building in which he works. Robinson's Rico brushes off the cops, badmouths his gangster rivals and talks big about his plans for dominating the mob scene in his city. Backing up his bravado and machismo, he makes alliances with those who can ensure his power only waxes; as one after another fellow mob boss goes down, Rico's share of the city exponentially expands. Eventually, Rico must confront his best friend--a relationship that may be a homosexual one--when he takes up with a woman and demands to be allowed to pursue his own career in dancing rather than continue the gangster life with Rico. When Rico finally confronts his friend and points a gun at him, he simply cannot kill him. Robinson's ever expressive face shifts from anger to grief to forlornness to horror within seconds as he threatens the man's life. In the end, he "goes soft," and spares his friend's life despite what he believes to be numerous, rational reasons to eliminate him. Rico's lieutenant barks at him, "Now you're going soft!" A reference to Rico's cavalier rantings in several earlier scenes in which he wailed that the biggest mobsters who were once above him slowly but surely went soft and left opportunities open for Rico. The tie-in with capitalism--that those who fail in business have "gone soft" and that the only way to ensure one's position is through merciless shrewdness--is beyond evident.
In the case of Cagney's Powers, he is depicted early on in life as being a no-good. The signs of a callous sociopath are present in the way he finagles things for himself and his criminal friend, both of whom steadily climb their neighborhood's criminal underworld as adolescents. Unlike Little Caesar and Scarface--which boasted two gangsters whose actions are depicted solely in the time-frame of the federal government's prohibition and the Great Depression--The Public Enemy first unveils its gangster as a youthful tough, in 1909, demonstrating his cold and conniving ways at a very young age. That The Public Enemy's gangster is markedly less sympathetic in many areas than his film-conjured contemporaries does not mean that he is an unworthy character, however. Nor does it seem to be an invalid approach to depict a fully-developed sociopath as possessing narcissistic and fiendish qualities as a youth. Though disparaged as "unrealistic" by some fellow students in class after viewing the film--due primarily to the caricatures that represent polar extremes of his father and mother (his father mechanically beating after wrongdoing on his part, and his mother, all the way through the film to the very end, hopelessly denying the obvious realities of her son) and Powers' lack of reasoning as an entrepreneurial criminal chieftain--it does not seem an entirely inaccurate approach to focus upon a loose cannon who does not turn to the criminal life because of some anti-heroic, Horatio Alger-like inspiration but because he would probably be lousy at anything else. After all, in more recent gangster films such as Goodfellas and Casino, Joe Pesci's embodying of raging, screaming and psychopathic characters has been hailed as both devilishly entertaining and in many ways frighteningly realistic. Though Cagney's most violent and insane character of his career would be eighteen years away in the searing Raoul Walsh classic White Heat (1949), his turn in The Public Enemy foreshadowed the standard depiction of the lowbrow lowlife in mob films since.
More "actorly," in a sensational, more method fashion, Paul Muni's performance as Antonio "Tony" Camonte, loosely based on and modeled after Al Capone and Capone's exploits in Chicago, is a dynamo of screen acting. Muni simply overtakes his film and commands all attention in Howard Hawks's classic. Scarface is truly the most violent, chaotic, overpowering and sexually charged of these films. Muni's Camonte is an insatiable carnivore, plying his trade by nonchalantly murdering people who get in his way. Scarface exhibits a kind of gleefulness in its violence that had to be truly shocking at the time of its release. If Martin Scorsese in a past life ghost-directed a pre-code Hollywood picture, it was the 1932 Scarface (Scorsese would borrow the X's seen in the film as warning signs of imminent death for his The Departed). An example of the senselessly wanton depiction of gangland violence is the very first murder, shortly after a nonsensical intro card (which only heightens the morbid hilarity moments later), wherein the finding of the corpse is played into a kind of joke. Way ahead of its day, Scarface's scenes involving Camonte's obsession with his sister would be echoed in films that dealt with sordid characters whose personal lives impacted their criminal businesslike lives. Usually, the gangsters' lust for power is equaled only by their lust for the good life--for gorgeous women, priceless estates and vast, accessible wealth. The very flamboyance and glamour of their lifestyles once attaining their crime lord position is what can--and usually does--destroy them. Whether in Brian DePalma's remake of the Hawks film--in which a fanatical murderer from Cuba played by Al Pacino sets up shop in America and lacerates his way to the top of the criminal world--or several other more recent gangster movies, it is the very good life and incredible success to which these characters strive that almost always takes them down. Henry Hill's easy access to drugs in Goodfellas cripples him through addiction; Rico's loss of his vast illicit wealth and power, ending up in a pathetic homeless shelter, eats away at him as his ego is prodded by the police in an effort to make him come out of his hideout in Little Caesar. Hawks's Scarface illustrates that it is the character's peculiarly sick possessiveness of his sister--culminating in his murdering of Guino Rinaldo (George Raft) at a crucial point in the film after Camonte's sister and Rinaldo have been married--that brings the charismatic crime lord down. When the sister's image of her dementedly overprotective and courageous brother wilts when his fear of being caught or killed by the police is palpable in the closing moments of Scarface, Camonte becomes wholly unhinged. Francois Truffaut noted that Muni's performance is positively apeish in Scarface, and by the time the climax occurs, he is indeed more uncontrollable beast than rational man. He's a wild animal and the cops are charged with gunning him down in the street.
If Cagney's Powers leaves audiences cold, Robinson's Rico and perhaps especially Muni's Camonte provoke more complex responses. The most interesting today is probably Camonte, the unmitigated self-destructive type whose stubbornness and confused ethics (he guns down Raft's character after separating his sister from he and other fellow hoods because he wants to protect her from that kind of life, like a gangbanger today who checks up on his sibling and tells them to go to church every Sunday) invite psychological probing and deeper narrative- and character-based analysis.
Whether one considers it surprising or not that audiences during prohibition would actually side with the cinematic gangsters--perhaps seen by many as a necessary evil of sorts, some others wishing they could emulate the criminals--it becomes clearer why this is so when examining the characters who populated the fledgling genre. Played by great, charismatic actors and aided by rough one-liners and violent outbursts, tempered only by their own whims, it is not so surprising that they would come to be seen as sinful heroes.