It's a classic gangster film, one of the three (with Little Caesar and Scarface) that pretty much invented the genre as far as 1930s Hollywood was concerned. It's got a must-watch central performance from James Cagney. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Writing, Original Story.
However it's also kind of tame.
The problem was that gangster movies in the early days were controversial. The genre wasn't yet established and there were people who thought studios shouldn't be making such films. The debate was about whether they were glamorising their subjects, or else performing a public service by examining a social issue. Organised crime was massive, after all, with alcohol prohibition and the underworld it had spawned both still very much part of American life. Prohibition wasn't repealed until 1933. Al Capone wasn't yet in Alcatraz.
This film is thus bending over backwards to look worthy. The title isn't Beer and Blood (i.e. the book it's based on) but instead something more pulpit-thumping. Opening and closing intertitles say that this is an examination of the modern gangster phenomenon and why this is important for society. That's a mild curiosity, but it doesn't affect the film much. (Little Caesar and Scarface have similar disclaimers, for what it's worth.) More interesting though is the film's historical perspective. The first minute or so is just stock footage of American urban life in 1909, which is something I always find fascinating. We see pre-prohibition saloons, America's entry into World War One and then the impact in 1920 of the Volstead Act, i.e. the National Prohibition Act.
Admittedly this is just backdrop for the misadventures of Cagney's character, first as a small boy and then later played by Cagney himself, but it adds flavour.
However I called this film tame. Sometimes it'll surprise you, but it's not even as scary as a Humphrey Bogart gangster movie, let alone one from the 1970s. Thinking about it, I think the key factor here is that James Cagney's character gets a surprisingly easy ride. As a gangster he doesn't have to fight for his victories, but instead has a comfortable career progression of hanging around the wrong people, doing jobs and getting well paid for them. He doesn't have any enemies. He doesn't even meet anything you'd call resistance until something bad happens late in the movie to trigger a gang war... and even that mostly takes place offscreen and we never meet anyone from the other gangs.
There's thus relatively little of the juicy (i.e. bloody) stuff. Cagney never gets to go toe to toe with a Bogart or an Edward G. Robinson, although of course this film made him a star and he'd have plenty of chances to do so in later years. (He co-starred with Robinson a few months later, then a few times with Bogart during 1938-39.) On this occasion he slaps people around a bit and carries out one gangland execution, but it's not until the last-act gang war that the film could be said to find its balls.
What it has instead is an unusual thematic focus on family. Cagney's family is more important to the film than any gang boss, while it's disastrous that Donald Cook (the elder brother) is so wooden because it discourages the audience from giving his character full weight. Cagney can't stand up to him, you see. He never stops being mummy's little boy and and his big brother's little brother. Cook on the other hand is coldly virtuous and the father figure of the household, filling in for the stony-faced disciplinarian who died some years ago but who used to beat the living daylights out of Cagney when he was a kid.
Incidentally their mother (Beryl Mercer) knows nothing, forgives everything and loves unconditionally, which would appear to be the norm for mothers in this film. There would thus appear to be an implication that children need regular beatings, or else they'll grow up to be mobsters.
What's more, these patterns repeat themselves in Cagney's gangster life. He never shows any ambition. He just keeps attaching himself to a boss who'll look after him and tell him what to do. Meanwhile women keep calling him a "little boy", while Cagney has an ambivalent relationship with them and is liable to treat them brutally. Look out for the grapefruit, for instance.
This isn't a particularly exciting storyline, but it has points of interest. Look out for the way Cagney points out that Cook's hands aren't clean, for instance. He's been off killing Germans. There are also some excellent and surprising scenes, from Cagney's laugh-out-loud first job (epic screw-up) to the killing of a horse (eh?) and of course the finale. I'd been worrying slightly that the film was going to get corny and start preaching, but fortunately they save it with a nasty ending that finishes the whole thing off perfectly.
The machine-gun surprised me too. Much of this film's violence is either off-screen or vaguely unconvincing, but the machine-gun... bloody hell. What is this, Beirut?
What's superb though about the film is Cagney.
It's an astonishing performance, with electricity that puts him into the bracket of all-time greatest movie stars. It would have been impossible for this film not to have turbo-boosted his career. He's better than everything else in it put together. He's putting more into individual moments than his co-stars will put into whole scenes. He knew its world, after all. He'd grown up in poverty and done all kinds of jobs when he was younger, often simultaneously, giving all his earnings to his family. (He'd also been an amateur boxer and his coaches had wanted him to turn professional.) His performance here he based on Chicago gangster Dean O'Bannion and on two New York City hoodlums he'd known as a youth. He creates a grinning monster, unlikeable but full of paradoxical charm, and turns this third-rate hood into someone you can't look away from. Objectively the guy's pathetic. He's a loser with little ambition and possible Oedipal issues, but Cagney takes all that on board and transforms it while at the same time embracing it too.
One anecdote. In the scene where Cook punches Cagney, the director Wellman asked Cook to hit him for real and didn't tell Cagney. The result was a broken tooth, yet Cagney stayed in character and played out the rest of the scene. Now that's someone who's in the zone.
The other actors aren't at his level, obviously, but some are actually bad. Jean Harlow makes a mess of her big speech and Donald Cook can't deliver dialogue, although I sometimes liked him when he doesn't have any. There's also a terrible child actress, although she's only in it briefly.
It's also a pre-Code movie, so there's an effeminate tailor and some implied sex that had to be edited out of later re-releases.
In summary, a slightly unusual film with a star-making central performance. It's often called a classic and it's certainly true that it was a huge milestone in its genre. Much of it was taken straight from life, from the characters based on real gangsters to the "this really happened" plot developments. This is interesting and gives it energy and unpredictability, but I also think it was a factor in producing a jigsaw narrative built around bits and pieces. Surprisingly some of the strongest material here isn't gangster-related, but instead to do with our anti-hero's personal life and relationships. This is an interesting one.
"That sucker, he's too busy going to school. He's learning how to be poor."